Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Alice Thomas Ellis on secrets

When not beset by the other obligations that have rendered me an unreliable blogger lately, I've been reading Alice Thomas Ellis's The Clothes in the Wardrobe (1987), the first volume in The Summer House Trilogy, which Paul Dry Books has recently done readers the service of returning to print in the States. I've written already of my love of Ellis's fierce, astringent novels, a love that grows with each new one I encounter. Her observations are so acute--and, more distinctly, so uncompromising in their judgment--that The Clothes in the Wardrobe easily kept my Twitter feed busy all week. A sample:
Surely to make a great fool and spectacle of yourself for the sake of another is a form of martyrdom.

No one can love a person who knows a secret about him that he would prefer not to know himself.

Pride is the subtlest of sins, offering the most morally destitute some comfort.

She couldn't help disapproving of people. It seemed to be essential to her sense of identity.

If it is not possible to be free, perhaps to be hidden is the next best thing.

I told my mother with timid spite, hidden terror, and a certain mad braggadocio.

If she was a wife, she was, by conventional standards, a gloriously bad one.
Tonight, I'll add a scene that probably ought not to be taken straight as advice--in context there's more going on in this conversation than might appear at first read--but is fun to think of as such:
I wondered as I thought of secrets if I might find some release in telling Lili the thing that festered in my soul, and I asked her if she would listen.

She said something I found so odd that my vision of the world faintly changed and my despair lessened. If the world was not as I perceived it then it was possible that I was not damned. I felt no great assurance of comfort, but my conviction of evil grew a little less.

She said, "If you have a secret you don't want the world to know you must never tell it except to an enemy. And if you must tell your dearest friend your secret then you must tell others too, for inevitably the world will get to know and you will blame your dearest friend and lose him. So tell him, if you must, but also tell his brother and the butcher and the baker and the candlestick-maker and then you will never know who has betrayed you and you can, to some degree at least, go on loving your friend. If you tell your enemy, your hatred will be even more satisfactorily justified, but the best thing to do is tell the priest. No one else. He won't tell. The trouble is, sometimes people want to be betrayed. It makes them feel more at home and less lonely."
And if you don't believe in priests, your only option is the wind and the stars.


  1. Having run out of novels by her, I've recently bought the four volumes of her columns from The Spectator - Home Life, Vols 1-4 (the first one isn't numbered). I am trying to eke them out.

  2. I just learned about her columns, then had a Twitter friend recommend them. Clearly this is something I'm going to have to seek out the next time I'm in the UK. I can't imagine getting to the end of her last novel and not wanting more.

    1. You might need Abebooks rather than a trip to the UK - I suspect the books of her columns, like so many good books, are out of print

  3. King Alfred (the Great) disagreed with Alice Ellis on whom one ought to choose to confide a secret: "If thou has a woe // tell it not to thy foe // but tell it to thy saddle-bow // and ride forth singing."