The Clothes in the Wardrobe by Alice Thomas Ellis – Review

Alice Thomas Ellis, author of The Clothes in the Cupboard (1987)

The Clothes in the Wardrobe, the first in a three book series telling the same story from three female perspectives, is an illuminating insight into the experiences and depression of a young, middle-class bride, Margaret, soon to be married to a much older man she finds detestable. In its dream-like short episodes of domestic scenes, the short novel captures the complex array of emotions and injustices which elicit depression and resignation in a woman who feels herself a fish in a gilded cage.

As well as a portrait of depression, the book casts a light on the grey area between a marriage of choice and a forced marriage. Margaret says. “I had known that I couldn’t go on living with my mother. I had nowhere else to go and now I was being carried along – that ship bound for wrecking.”

Margaret’s own mother, a divorcee, fussing over the bride, is an instrument of oppression: “In a sane world, I thought, we would have discussed the state of my feelings, debated whether I loved Syl sufficiently to commit the rest of my life to him, questioned my views on the institution of marriage, examined my mother’s motives in striving to introduce me into this state, have said something of some interest. But the cake had been ordered and that was that. There was no more to be said.”

However, there is a strong sense in the book that society as a whole is corrupt and oppressing Margaret:“I wished I was dead, but I had been too well brought up to snatch at death without being invited. It was not there for the asking but had to be deserved or – sometimes – offered as a gift…Perhaps the death-fearers perceived life differently from me. For me it was being a vessel of evil afloat a sea of evil. If I broke it, it would take the power of God to separate my elements from the elements of the sea…”

Margaret is helpless and afraid but in the days leading up to the wedding an old friend of her mother, Lili, comes to stay. Opinionated, irreverent and, apparently, unafraid, Lili is a comfort to Margaret: “I wondered if she could see into my mind, and I didn’t care, for during that one short walk I had come to believe that Lili would not harm me.”

Lili (whose narration of events forms book three – The Fly in the Ointment) laughs and gleams with “deathlessness” and “the pride of life.” She is full of bold suggestion and opinion – to Margaret’s mother’s annoyance: “What nobody ever did was go to bed with someone because he was virtuous.” Lili, detached and, apparently, hedonistic, is Margaret’s one comfort during this crisis period.

The Clothes in the Wardrobe provides a fascinating insight into Margaret’s depression, brought about by utter disempowerment in choosing her fate – as well as the strength and vitality of Lili, in the face of abusive social conventions and situations. The book questions approaches to happiness, the nature of relationships and questions a society that treats a young woman as a commodity.

In a 1994 New York Times review of the three book series, of which The Clothes in the Cupboard is one, combined into one book under the title, The Summer House, Francine Prose wrote: “The book is so edgy, bright and subversive about women’s inner lives and experience — with sex and men, with youth and old age, with the domestic and the spiritual, with morality and amorality — that one can plainly understand why such fiction might be patted nervously on the head or ignored, like the smart, ill-advisedly outspoken girl we remember from our school days.”

More information:

Alice Thomas Ellis obituaryThe Guardian – 2005

InterviewThe Independent – 1996