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The Literary Midwife

Round the kitchen table with Alice Thomas Ellis

Illustration by Fran Pulido of woman by window thinking what to write with book birds flying past window.

I first met Alice Thomas Ellis at a noisy lunch party at her house in Camden Town’s Gloucester Crescent in 1993. To enter the house through the basement door you had to battle an overgrown front garden and once inside it was no less crowded with heavy furniture, religious icons and guests. At that time I was a 27 year-old travel writer and aspiring novelist, and a mutual friend had suggested that she may be able to offer me advice and encouragement. A critically acclaimed novelist, she was also, under her real name of Anna Haycraft, fiction editor at Duckworth, the respected publishing company owned by her husband, Colin.

Her reputation was that of a literary midwife, nursing novelists as accomplished as Beryl Bainbridge, Caroline Blackwood and Patrice Chaplin through the pains of novel writing. I found myself fascinated by her ethereal beauty, perfectly modulated vowels and her air of being a person who wished they were elsewhere. A gracious and interested hostess, she sat at the table not touching the delicious food she had prepared for us, preferring a steady intake of white wine and Silk Cut instead. Nothing in her polite questions indicated the profound influence she was to have on my life for many years to come.

In the current climate of corporate professionalism at the big publishing houses, the notion of author development – of one individual editor patiently nursing a writer’s talent through their entire career – seems almost quaint. From a distance of twenty years, it strikes me as extraordinary if not fantastical that I should have been offered a two-book deal on the strength of a couple of hastily scribbled pages of ideas, but it was enough for Anna to make the decision to take me on. She was the embodiment of dogged permanence and the promise that she would guide me through not just my first novel, but the next, and the one after that, was a reality I could take for granted.

Working entirely on instinct, Anna took fledgling writers and enveloped them maternally. The novelist Shelley Weiner credits Anna for giving her confidence: ‘She made me feel I was interesting enough to start writing.’ The commercial transaction was not to her taste; indeed she was gloriously unconcerned with sales figures.

Born Anna Lindholm in 1932 to a father of Russo-Finnish ancestry and a Welsh mother, Anna was raised by humanist parents before converting to Catholicism at the age of 19. She attended the Liverpool School of Art and later entered a convent, where she was a postulant for a year, before a slipped disc rendered her unsuitable for life in the community. Leaving the convent she found work in a delicatessen in Chelsea and it was here that she met her husband, the classicist Colin Haycraft. They spent the next 40 years together and produced seven children, but Anna was not sentimental about the relationship. Interviewed in The Times in 2004, she said: ‘I forget now when it was that Colin died of a stroke. We had been married some 40 years but I didn’t miss him at all. The marriage was unimportant to me because the children were everything. He was just sort of there and after he died it didn’t seem that he was particularly further away. There was no anguish. It was more, “you go first and I’ll catch you up later.”’

Anna made the rare leap from working in a delicatessen to being a novelist and editor with only a first-rate mind, a thirst for knowledge and plain good taste powering her ascent. Of course it helped having a husband who was a publisher, but of itself this would not have been enough to earn her the good name and esteem with which she was held in literary circles. At the Literary Review’s Bad Sex Awards in 1995, for instance, I found myself talking to Mark Booth, then a successful editor at Random House. When it transpired that Anna had edited my first novel, Let Me Count The Ways, and that Duckworth was to publish it, Booth immediately made me an offer far in advance of what Duckworth was proposing: the fact that Anna thought it worth publishing was recommendation enough. It was typical of her generosity that she continued to be my editor even though I took the Random House dollar.

For all her publishing and literary achievements, Anna was steeped in domesticity and happiest at the kitchen table where she wrote 13 novels and other works of non-fiction. The table groaned under the weight of manuscripts, and piles of unopened bills upon which mugs and wine glasses would be perilously balanced. There was an ever-shifting tableau of her grown-up children and their spouses and children trooping in and out, and the phone rang constantly. It was a delicately balanced state of controlled chaos in the middle of which she sat serenely.

Her kitchen was the nerve-centre of her operation, and her mordantly funny ‘Home Life’ columns for the Spectator were drawn from the ever-changing scenes of her rich family life. A woman with considerable experience on the shop floor, she was an expert witness of human nature in general, and family life in particular. She wryly observed: ‘There is no reciprocity. Men love women, women love children, children love hamsters.’ Though depressive and sceptical by temperament, Anna was cheerful and amusing company and thrived in an atmosphere of high bohemia. Her parties were legendary; on one famous occasion Beryl Bainbridge woke up in a skip parked down the street.

Although the demands on Anna’s time were considerable she was never rushed, and when I called round she could reliably find time to sketch out an idea for a novel on the back of an envelope. Her brilliance lay in the lightness of her touch and her utter conviction that one’s ideas were worthwhile.

For many years she wrote ‘The God Slot’ column for the Oldie and her editor Richard Ingrams noted: ‘Although I never compared notes about editing with Anna, I’m sure she would have agreed with her long term friend Beryl Bainbridge, all of whose early books she edited, when she said “Everybody could write books and I never understand why they don’t. Once the grammar has been learned it is simply talking on paper and in time learning what not to say.” The editor’s job is not to tell you what to say, because only you can decide that, but perhaps to tell you what not to say and if necessary to cut it out. It is noteworthy that Anna and Beryl both wrote short novels. There was never any padding.’

Like the Christ she worshipped, Anna loved a sinner. She was as happy in the company of drunken adulterers as Catholic priests, and for all the sharpness of her observations she was a loving and forgiving woman. One night she interrupted a 13 year-old boy trying to burgle her home. Once apprehended the child burst into tears and rather than call the police, Anna fed him and gave him a bed for the night. That boy went on to become a firm family friend and was still visiting her in Gloucester Crescent long into adulthood.

The great tragedies of Anna’s life were the loss of two children, a daughter, Rosalind, who died in infancy and her 19 year-old son, Joshua, who fell from a roof while train-spotting at Euston station. Her first novel, The Sin Eater, was published in 1977 while her son lay dying in a coma, and she credited his loss with the urge to keep writing, a way to make sense out of the darkness which would surround her for the rest of her days: somewhat poignantly, in Welsh rural tradition, a sin eater was a stranger who’d visit the house of the recently deceased and ‘eat’ his or her sins so their could pass easily into the afterlife.

For some, these events would have destroyed their faith but Anna’s belief in God never wavered. After the death of his daughter, Anna wrote to Richard Ingrams: ‘Nothing one can do but accept that weirdly convincing promise that death isn’t the end, no matter what the evidence to the contrary.’

In 2005 she succumbed to lung cancer. A requiem mass was held at the beautiful St. Etheldreda’s in the City of London, a hauntingly moving service in rigid accordance with tradition and marked throughout with soul-stirring plainsong. For those in any doubt, it was a complete vindication of her argument about the proper role of the Church as a place to give solace to the human spirit. She was not a reactionary but rather a woman who recognised the essential truth that tradition is important because it is allied to eternity. Her complexity, her strangeness even, made her, despite her many publicised thoughts, an essentially unknowable woman. I will never stop missing her.

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