Alice doesn’t live here any more

Damian Thompson on the enchanting world of Alice Thomas Ellis, the former Spectator columnist who died last week

Alice Thomas Ellis, the novelist and former Spectator columnist who died last week, once took part in an earnest feminist questionnaire that asked her to name the most important event in women’s history.

‘The Annunciation,’ she replied.

Alice — known to all her friends by her real name, Anna — bore the physical aspect of a sensitive north London novelist: her huge, panda eyes were pools of compassion, framed by wispy hair and hand-made earrings. When people discovered that she was a Catholic — indeed, that it was the most important thing in her life — they sometimes assumed that she belonged to the Church’s ‘justice ’n’ peace’ brigade and subscribed to the Tablet, an archly progressive Catholic magazine.

Nothing could have been further from the truth. ‘I sometimes think that the Devil lives in Islington and reads the Tablet,’ she announced shortly before she died. ‘But I may be doing him an injustice.’ She would have been pleased to know that her obituary in the Tablet this week was short and mean-spirited.

In fact, Anna lived in a part of Camden every bit as right-on as Islington. She was a conservative in Bohemia. Like James Lees-Milne, she had converted to Catholicism only to discover that Mother Church was just about to dismantle her glorious heritage with Zwinglian zeal. Unlike Lees-Milne, who scuttled back to Anglican Choral Matins, she stayed and fought her corner. It was a messy, prolonged and (for her admirers) enjoyable battle.

Here is a much abbreviated list of things that Anna disliked about the modern Catholic Church: the ineptly translated English Mass; the ‘sign of peace’; nuns who wore Crimplene instead of burka-like habits; lay people strutting about the sanctuary; the word ‘empowering’; folk hymns; and the Most Revd Derek Worlock, Archbishop of Liverpool.

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