(Alice Thomas Ellis photographed by Derrick Santani, in the National Portrait Gallery)
The eyes of the watchers were cold and flat and incurious and the watchers were still. Whenever they moved – be it ever so slightly – there was a brief darkness, a shadow behind the leaves, a hint of something that humanity might call loss, equate with pain. But the watchers knew nothing of that, being indifferent to such matters.
With the illness of Mister Puss and worry surrounding it I’ve been comfort-reading, but before that I was feeling the urge to read about fairies, as you do, but spiky rather than sparkly fairies. I’ve been dipping back into Sylvia Townsend-Warner’s collection of short stories, Kingdoms of Elfin, and re-reading Fairy Tale, by Alice Thomas Ellis. Sylvia Townsend-Warner’s fairies are amoral and often cruel, but the horror of what they do is distanced by the cool impersonal tone in which she writes. Alice Thomas Ellis’s fairies are more disturbing because we find them in a novel with developed human characters. Furthermore, Fairy Tale is steeped in Alice Thomas Ellis’s pitch black humour, and it’s the often jagged juxtaposition of social satire with supernatural horror that gives the book its disquiet. It’s as if Evelyn Waugh wrote an Edgar Allan Poe story.
Nineteen-year-old Eloise and her ‘nice’ boyfriend Simon have moved from London to a small house in the Welsh countryside, where Simon earns a living picking up agricultural work and Eloise stitches exquisite nightdresses and petticoats for a local boutique:
one of those exclusive little shops with a single garment and something imaginatively incongruous – a monkey’s skull or an old boot – arranged in the window. Simon took the clothes in when Eloise had made a dozen. They were all finished by hand, which made them precious and gave them a hint of pathos, as though child labour had been employed: the women who wore them might feel, at once, delicate and ruthless, like some hard-hearted princess.
Eloise is bored but does not wish to admit it because to do so would be to admit that her fantasy of living in the countryside has not worked out. She pricks her finger; she wishes for a baby. But what she does not know that she and her husband are intruders on fairy land. Peculiar visitors arrive at her door. Eloise’s mother and her friend Myriam arrive, bickering and criticising. Soon the cat is having a nervous breakdown, the house is full of branches and herbs and vegetarian Eloise is craving steak and taking long walks in the rain in which she remains bone dry.
I vaguely remembered reading this a few years ago but I had forgotten just how funny but also surprisingly unpleasant it is. If you prefer your novels to contain sympathetic characters and not to shred pretty much every aspect of modern life, this is not for you. Alice Thomas Ellis’s work is strong meat but she was a perceptive and elegant stylist with an eye for the absurd in modern life and a knifelike wit with which to fillet it.
Her fairies are ancient, alien, predatory:
The [fairy] gamekeeper found it incomprehensible – the conflict in the human race between its passion for interference and its basic indifference to its members. Not that he cared. He didn’t think in human terms. Humans were useful for breeding when you could catch one, and every now and then when it seemed safe he ate one, but otherwise he avoided them on the whole ...
There is little room left for them in twentieth-century Britain and they must fight against human encroachment. Underneath the humour and the folklore lurks an eco-fable, though I am sure Alice Thomas Ellis would hate it to be called so. Anyway, it has reminded me of her other novels, which I must re-read...
(Alice Thomas Ellis with Beryl Bainbridge, whose work she edited; photographed by Edward Hamilton West; from here)