Alice by Elizabeth Eliot

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Reviewed by Simon

Hurrah to Dean Street Press and their continued Furrowed Middlebrow series, bringing back underrated women writers that most of us haven’t heard of before. Elizabeth Eliot certainly fits that category for me, but after reading Alice (1949), I’ll be keen to read more Eliot.

Despite being called Alice, the narrator is Margaret – she first encounters Alice when they are at boarding school together, in the late 1920s. It is immediately clear that Alice has left a significant effect on her schoolfriend, with Alice’s almost artless carefreeness showing options for a bohemian lifestyle that Margaret can’t quite aspire to.

This relationship continues after school, as Alice makes all sorts of mistakes in her adult decisions – from her marriage to her milieu. Throughout it all, Alice is unhappy but undaunted. The conversations she has are casual and thoughtless, and we are left to interpret her situation between the gaps of Margaret’s own irreverent narrative. Because this is definitely a funny book rather than a bleak one, and the main reason for that is the style.

Authors are often used in blurbs to give the reader a sense of comparison. Usually those are a little bit of a stretch, and often they’re hopelessly ill-chosen. In this case, though, mentions of Rachel Ferguson and Barbara Comyns on the back of the book are perfect guides to where Alice will take you. The tone has the matter-of-factness of Comyns, however absurd or emotional the scene being described – while the high-society bizarreness could be lifted from the eccentric families that populate Ferguson’s novel. Here’s a bit I made a note of that seems pretty representative (as well as being exactly the sort of comic tone I like):

My own Easter holidays were dull. I went to the dentist again, and my grandmother and I spent some time at Scarborough, where she did a cure. We saw Anne Bronte’s grave, which was very sad, and of course interesting, but it hardly filled the holidays. I wondered how Marie was getting on, and wished again that I was illegitimate and Italian. My grandmother said that I must try to be a more animated companion, and we went and looked at the Bronte tombstone again.

This sort of humour is so well constructed, and relies on the balance of each sentence to sustain it. For a first novel, it’s extraordinary that Eliot maintains that balance so well and so effectively.

Another similarity with Ferguson’s writing is the arrival of the theatre – for Alice decides to become an actress. Unlike the rest of her life, this is something of a success. It’s interesting to see it from the perspective of her childhood friend, rather than her own account of these adventures. It gives the novel an ironic distance, but also faint pangs of… envy? Uncertainty? Something that keeps the narrative at one remove, allowing plenty of space for humour, but also introducing more poignancy as the novel closes.

The Furrowed Middlebrow series has done it again – I would say this is a one-of-a-kind novel, but I’m rather hoping that the other Elizabeth Eliot novels they’re reprinted are just as good.

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Elizabeth Eliot, Alice (Dean Street Press, 2019) ISBN 9781912574599, paperback 226 pages.

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