Anna Margaret Haycraft (1932-2005), known to her readers as Alice Thomas Ellis, was a journalist, novelist, painter, Catholic polemicist, cookery book writer, fiction editor, mother of seven and a member of the Gloucester Crescent literary milieu. In the 1980s and 90s she was considered one of Britain’s finest novelists; now she is largely remembered only in Catholic circles, and not for her fiction but for her controversial defences of the pre-conciliar Church and her open criticism of Archbishop Derek Worlock of Liverpool – positions that have earned her the label of iconoclast and reactionary.
In the decades since the Gloucester Terrace household was dismantled, its conflation of home life, writing, painting and publishing has invited comparisons to the Duckworth milieu and the Bloomsbury Group. But Anna was neither Virginia Woolf nor Vanessa Bell. Although, like many good Catholics, she preferred the company of artists and inebriates to that of saints or peers, Anna was no political progressive but rather a defender of ancient moral codes disappearing with terrifying rapidity from the nation’s conscience.
Nor was she particularly interested in the personal satisfactions or creative triumphs of art: painting and writing were simply ways to spend the time allotted to her. One of the century’s most sought-after fiction editors, she was only in publishing because it was her husband’s calling; she would always claim that had he been a tailor she would have sewn his buttons. Anna’s indifference to any careerist identification with the numerous talents she commanded left one interviewer exasperated.
“You’re not a novelist, not a journalist, not an artist and not a cook. So what are you?”
“A Catholic,” she answered, without a second’s thought.
The one constant at the heart of everything Anna wrote was the home. Whether speaking from her “Home Life” column in the Spectator or through the voice of one of her numerous fictional female characters, Anna demanded that her readers take their place beside her in a household where for most of the 20th century the kitchen table bore the weight of endless manuscripts, canvases and cats, and provided food and conversation for the constant traffic of children, friends, neighbours, Religious and authors seeking publication.
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