Alice Thomas Ellis was Our Lady of Good Success's Historian and Britain's Flannery O'Connor
In early March of this year, I was about to leave the house for Mass and suddenly I was presented in my mind’s eye with a vision of my late friend Richard Collins standing next to the noted Catholic author, Alice Thomas Ellis. At the time I was ignorant of Ellis, I only knew to recognise her, but it was like Richard was introducing her to me and bidding me to acquaint myself with her impressive catalogue of books. Ellis died in March 2005 with 21 fiction and non-fiction titles to her name. In recent months I have steeped myself in her writing and can soundly say Ellis had the talents of three Catholic writers and she deserves three accolades that recognize her accomplishments.
Firstly, I wish to honour Ellis as the historian of Our Lady of Good Success. What Our Lady foretold at Quito, Ecuador, to Mother Mariana, about the sordid state of society towards the end of the 20th century was chronicled by Ellis in her book Serpent on the Rock. This greatly concerns Millennials like me who were born in the last decades of the 20th Century.
When I read Serpent I felt I was revisiting my childhood because the cornerstone of the book is an account Ellis made of her tour around Ireland in 1992 during the wake of the Bishop Eamonn Casey scandal. At the time I was making my First Holy Communion and Ireland was learning of Bishop Casey's torrid affair with Annie Murphy, with whom he fathered a son. I remember hearing so much about the Bishop Casey saga that I thought it was usual for bishops to be in secret sexual relationships. Our Lady of Good Success had prophesied that children of my generation would be overly sexualised and that there would be exceedingly few virgin souls and as Ellis unflinchingly recorded the media in Ireland had something of an obsession with the Casey affair and gave Annie Murphy a platform to poke fun at Bishop Casey - her virgin caprice - "He was in his 40s and a virgin. I can see the humourous side now." Among the native Irish, Ellis did not find so much sorrow as spicy banter, as they joked that Bishop Casey had been sent to Peru to take up a missionary position.
In Serpent Ellis made lacerating critiques of post Vatican II Catholicism, and with this in mind I wish to honour her as a courageous Cassandra who would not be cowed. Ellis described a landscape of, “new or reordered churches of Lutheran barrenness, all Catholic culture, all tradition lost. Clown-like priests vainly trying to be "with it", women flitting round the altar, lay Ministers of the Eucharist handing out the Host, guitars twanging in the aisles, clapping , hugs and handshakes and never a hint of awe or reverence.” Her work was lightened with witticisms which were nonetheless loaded with truth, “There were a number of Protestants involved in Vatican II…they do not apparently find the New Mass offensive: a terrible indictment.”
She was heroic because she was often a lonely figure, writing in a climate of deepest denial, and relentlessly she was met with, "that smiling determination to deny that there is anything awry in the Church.” And on at least one occasion her criticisms of the shepherds who led the changes meant Ellis was punished by a prelate.
In her time, it was often a joust between the reformers and Ellis. Time, however, has proved her right. And the denial used as an attempt to dominate her is now seem as dotage or destructive in view of plummeting baptism rates, the consequent rise of the nones and dismal rates of Mass attendance. Ellis bemoaned the brand of Vatican II Catholicism that I and many people younger than I have rejected in favour of her great love: the Tridentine Latin Mass.
If anything Ellis' writings on the beauty of the Old Mass and her criticisms of Vatican II Catholicism is much more useful to us now than in her time: our peers are ready for it. Serpent on the Rock needs to be rediscovered by the youngest generations of Traditional Catholics so we may give it to our friends and I would urge a publisher to consider reprinting it.
Thirdly, I wish to honour Ellis as a novelist, she was Britain's Flannery O'Connor. Just as O'Connor's works are hailed as classics, many of Ellis's 13 novels are worthy to be deemed classics, too, most especially The Sin Eater. Ellis's novel The 27th Kingdom has as its protagonist a young woman with a vocation to be a nun with something of St Catherine of Siena's gift of levitation. This extraordinary novel was shortlisted for the Booker Prize.
Since I had the vision of Richard Collins with Ellis, I have learned from his daughter Catherine that he thought very highly of her, which tells us he was a man of excellent taste.
This column appears in the Autumn 2019 edition of The Mass of Ages, you may read the entire magazine here which is a cracking good read. You may also be interested in an interview that Alice Thomas Ellis gave the BBC in 1998.