Lulah Ellender, author of Elisabeth’s Lists: A Life Between the Lines (Granta, 2018), met her grandmother through the lists she left behind. The book reconstructs from lists the life of Lulah’s grandmother Elisabeth, who died when Lulah’s mother was nine years old. Elisabeth started writing her curious book of lists after marrying a diplomat in the 1930s. These lists, which provide glimpses into Elisabeth’s life and mind, offer Lulah a starting point for exploring the life of a grandmother she never met. The following is a conversation between Lulah Ellender and the editors of Listology.
- Listology: Lists tend to be an underestimated form of writing – they are practical, and we use them rather than reflect on them. However, for your book, you treated them as serious artefacts. How did you come to conisder the dire practicality of many of the lists your grandmother made?
LE: I initially began looking not just at Elisabeth’s lists but lists more widely, collecting lists made by famous people and everyday people alike. There is something so intimate and revealing about these curious scraps, and I became fascinated by the stories they might contain within their seemingly mundane lines. I see lists as a conversation with ourselves – less self-conscious than diaries and more revealing perhaps than letters, which are often written with a reader in mind. Lists speak of the ways we manage our lives, how we try to make sense of the chaos of life, our relationships with the objects and ‘stuff’ that surround us, and of how we see our place within our world.
With Elisabeth’s lists the practicality was intriguing. Partly this was connected to her role as a diplomat’s wife, a position so removed from my life that I was instantly fascinated. I loved reading about the food she served at cocktail parties or the Christmas presents she bought for her family, people I knew but was seeing through a very different lens. I also thought a lot about why she made so many lists, and as I uncovered more of her story, I saw how she relied on her book of lists as not just a practical resource but a lifeline when she was floundering.
- Listology: What kinds of lists did Elizabeth make? Are there certain occasions in which the list form is particularly striking or frequent?
LE: Her lists are varied in both length and form. There are a lot that are concerned with the many household moves she had to organise as part of her nomadic life in the diplomatic service: lists of linen, crockery and glassware, lists of things needed for a new house, lists of accounts and expenditures, lists of guests to invite to embassy parties. And there are more personal, domestic lists: laundry lists, an inventory of all the eggs their chickens laid in a year during the War, and a list of things she needed for her first baby.
There are two lists that feel very different, and which struck me as particularly revealing. One is a list of her brother’s belongings, made in the wake of his suicide. Elisabeth, deep in grief and heavily pregnant, had to go around his flat and note down all his possessions, presumably before they were sold or given away. It’s a heartbreaking list, and it set me off on a path of discovering more about this rather hidden, silenced man. The other list that feels soaked in sorrow is one Elisabeth made just before moving to a new house in Surrey after the birth of her first child. She was suffering a savage bout of post-natal depression and in this list she uses emphatic crosses that felt to me as if she was summoning energy and trying to be positive about a house that she hated. They moved out after just a few days, and this list was made during a low point for Elisabeth.
- Listology: Your grandmother led a turbulent life that involved many moves, and she also suffered from depression. Would you say that her lists became a beacon of stability and security in a life that often lacked stability and security?
LE: I definitely think her lists were like a vital grounding point. In such an unpredictable world, and in a service that decided where she lived and when she moved, I think making lists gave Elisabeth a sense of control. I found one amongst her letters, entitled Things that Worry Me that she made during one of her depressions, and it feels full of her despair and frustration, yet also as if there was something cathartic in the act of making it. For Elisabeth her lists were a way of assigning purpose and meaning to a life that sometimes felt devoid of both.
- Listology: In some ways, lists can be considered a basic form of writing that precede detailed narratives rather than becoming narratives themselves. It is a wonderful coincidence that you have become a writer, reconstructing a life that was recorded in lists. Were Elizabeth’s lists perhaps the first step towards turning her life into a narrative?
LE: This was such a lovely, surprising, aspect of writing my book! I grappled a lot with the ethics of revealing someone’s inner thoughts and intimate domestic details to the world (or at least a few readers), but Elisabeth also kept amazingly vivid diaries, and I am certain she intended to write her story at some point. I’m not sure if she would have used the lists as I did, but I often felt as if I were merely a co-author and that she was very present during the writing.
At one point I nearly gave up, after years of writing and being broke and thinking I should just get a proper job. I was stuck on a chapter about Elisabeth’s move to Beirut, and completely randomly my mum sent me a parcel that arrived on the day I decided to stop working on the book. It contained a novel Elisabeth had started writing just two weeks before she died (of cancer), and it was a story about an ambassadress moving to Beirut. It was extraordinarily serendipitous – I burst into tears and felt I absolutely had to finish telling her story. She couldn’t finish hers because she died; I had no excuse. So, I took her words and used them as the start of that chapter, and we continued in our strange parallel worlds.
- Listology: Also relating to the previous question: Lulah, you also teach creative writing courses. What role do lists play in the progress of writing more generally? Would you recommend list-writing as a strategy for sparking creativity?
LE: I do use lists in my teaching and writing. I think they can be very freeing, as well as revealing. One powerful exercise that’s used a lot in creative writing workshops is to make a list of memories – I base mine on Joe Brainard’s poem I Remember and have been amazed at what students come up with. It’s as if the lack of editorialising and the repetitiveness of making a list allows them to access different memories and emotions.
- Listology: Do you make lists yourself? In what contexts?
LE: I’m a huge list-maker generally, but often use them in my planning when working on a book idea. I also love post-its and index cards. I’m big on stationery!
As mother to four children I also make endless, and very tedious, lists of things to remember/ do/pack/buy. I doubt anyone could wrangle any of these into any kind of narrative, but they do help keep me sane. Inspired by Elisabeth’s lists of things to take on holiday, I’ve made generic lists of things to pack so I don’t make the same list every year.
- Listology: Do you have a favourite list in your grandmother’s book?
LE: This is a tricky question. I think my favourite is probably the Egg Register. I love it for the detail: Elisabeth records not just every egg that’s laid by her chickens, but also which chicken laid it and whether it was a double- or single-yolker. The list is imbued with such a sense of optimism – she was trying so hard to be a good wife and mother and to make a success of wartime domesticity.
- Listology: Would you say that one can get to know people through the lists they make? Should we pay more attention to our own list-making activities?
LE: I think you can definitely get to know people through the lists they make – and probably on a different, deeper level than you might get from diaries or the more public front they put up. But I think this only comes from not paying attention to our list-making! If all lists were made with an eye to a potential future reader, they would lose this freeform, spontaneous element that makes them so peculiarly fascinating and revealing.
Click here to find Lulah Ellender’s book at Waterstones.