I don’t read a lot of Catholic classics.
Raised a Catholic, I am no longer even sure how to do the Sign of the Cross. At my mother’s funeral last summer, my brother, an atheist, prayed loudly. My father, another atheist, was disconcerted by my brother’s prayers. As the agnostic only daughter, I decided I had as much right to pray as anyone. I took a deep breath, crossed myself (perhaps backwards: I’m not sure), took Communion (my brother didn’t dare go that far), and said the Lord’s Prayer without the Protestant addendum that has been adopted as an interfaith gesture.
Alice Thomas Ellis, the English writer, was a real Catholic, a Catholic convert. She wrote remarkable novels that I consider both women’s classics and Catholic classics. Her books are not widely known in the U.S, except for The Summer House, which was made into a movie with Jeanne Moreau, Julie Walters, and Joan Plowright. But most of Ellis’s books have been published here, in paperback by A Common Reader, a defunct book catalogue and publisher, and in hardback by Moyer Bell, a small publisher.
Her 1990 novel, The Inn at the Edge of the World, begins with the innkeeper’s thinking of murdering his sexy wife. He is fascinated by Mabel, but she treats him badly. He has lost his faith in his work, and decides to advertise a Christmas holiday at the inn for people who want to skip Christmas. When Mabel makes fun of his ad, they fight, and she accuses him of deliberately hitting her as he pushes back his chair and the armrest hits her stomach.
It was guilt, thought Eric, that made her so determined to blame him for the occurrence. She had been particularly bad that day, taunting him as he had struggled all by himself to perform the multifarious tasks of a small innkeeper; asking him if he were satisfied that he had dragged her away from the comfort of their modern luxury home in Telford and dumped her here in the teeth of the Atlantic gales with no one to talk to and nowhere to go.
“It was partly because of the people she had talked to and the places she went that Eric had resolved to realize a vague ambition and buy himself an inn at the edge of the world.”
Mabel takes off for a party on the mainland, leaving Eric to cope with Christmas.
And five people respond to the ad: Jessica, an actress who does commercials; Jon, an actor who, unbeknownst to her, is her stalker; Harry, an ex-soldier who wants to die, because his wife and son have died, but who cannot commit suicide because of his faith; Anita, a lonely single woman who has promised herself not to think about her work in a retail store during her vacation, and Ronald, a psychoanalyst. All are in a spiritual crisis.
But they cannot leave their pasts behind. And their inability to recognize Christmas leads to a bigger crisis. It is only Harold, as he works on a book about Gordon of Khartoum, who understands Christmas.
The novel has a fairy tale feeling: there are ghosts and selkies (seal people with webbed hands and feet) in the characters’ peripheral vision. The couples who form on the island simply aren’t meant to be, and they often end up walking around in groups of three. Two of the island’s inhabitants, a professor and a faithless wife, show a level of spiritual bereftness none of the guests, except for Jon, has quite reached.
It’s a beautiful book, well worth reading.
I cannot tell you how much I miss the Common Reader catalogue and publisher.
Off to binge on more Ellis.
P.S. I had meant to write a very short post here, but it’s not as short as all that, is it?