Ruby Brunton | Longreads | April 2019 | 10 minutes (2,674 words)

Rachel Ingalls, who passed away earlier this year at the age of 78, was a writer who did not seek out the spotlight, but found it not at all unpleasant when at last it came. Beyond a small circle of loyal friends and regular visits to Virginia to see her family, Ingalls lived a fairly reclusive existence after her move from the U.S. to the U.K. in 1965. “I’m not exactly a hermit,” she said, “but I’m really no good at meeting lots of strangers and I’d resent being set up as the new arrival in the zoo. It’s just that that whole clubby thing sort of gives me the creeps.”

A writer of fantastical yet slight works of fiction, with a back catalog numbering 11 titles in total, Ingalls flew more or less under the literary radar until recent years, when the newfound interest that followed the 2017 re-issue of her best-known book, Mrs. Caliban, also finally allowed her readers to learn about her processes and motivations; the attention slowly brought her into the public eye. Reviews across the board revered the oddly taciturn novella, in which mythic elements and extraordinary happenings are introduced into the lives of otherwise normal people by a prose remarkable for its clarity and quickness. “Ingalls writes fables whose unadorned sentences belie their irreducible strangeness.” Wrote Lidija Haas in The New Yorker; in the same piece she described Ingalls as “unjustly neglected.” (Mrs. Caliban was also lightheartedly celebrated as a venerable addition to popular culture’s mysterious year of fish sex stories, a fittingly strange introduction of her work to a broader readership.) 

Ingalls passed away from myeloma, a cancer of the blood, on March 6th of this year, a few weeks after New Directions re-released a second of her novels, Binstead’s Safari, under their imprint.

Hugh Fleetwood, her friend and fellow author, said of her reaction to the rising recent interest in her work, “She seemed to be not merely happy, but — like Violetta in the final scene of her favorite opera, ‘La Traviata’ — reborn.” Ingalls was a lover of the opera, theater, and films. She sometimes said her largest literary influences were Henrik Ibsen and William Shakespeare. Other times, she said her literary influences were anything she had read. When asked what advice she would give writers, she recommended they “go to literary sources which are not books, such as film and theater, and anything else which deals with the same themes as books.” Given her passion for cinema, it is of no surprise that her writing has a filmic quality; her novel Mrs. Caliban has been the subject of several attempted film adaptations, none of which have made it to production.

She was holding up a mirror.

Born May 13, 1940, in Boston, Ingalls spent her childhood in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Her father was a professor of Sanskrit at Harvard and her mother took care of the children and the house. Husbands who go off to work and the wives who stay and tend their houses are often featured in her writing, though her fascination with relationships extended beyond marriage. In an interview with Dan Sheehan, he asked, “What is it about the institution of marriage that you find so rife for this kind of deliciously dark treatment?” to which Ingalls replied, “It seems to me that in order to have any strong connection or rupture between characters there has to be a sense of intimacy; so that marriage or family relationships are ideal backgrounds for drama of any kind, either tragic or comic. Books are a great source of knowledge but so are school friends, adult conversations overheard, taunts shouted in the playground.”

Another consistent influence were the stories her father read out loud throughout her childhood — fairy tales by the Brothers Grimm, science fiction, and other classics. Her sister recalled Ingalls asking family members to call her “Taffy” after the character Taffimai in Rudyard Kipling’s Just So stories. She wrote from a young age, her sister also recalled, filling notebooks with ideas which she’d turn into stories; narratives were formed by placing scraps in a bag and shaking them out when she wanted to write. The element of surprise, the frisson of encounters between species, and the suspension of disbelief can all be seen in her later work.

While she loved writing and creating her own stories, she did not seem to be very fond of school. She ricocheted between Massachusetts’ private day schools — Shady Hill School, what was then called the Buckingham School, and finally Cambridge School in Weston — but dropped out of Cambridge School for several months, although she returned in time to take that year’s final exams. “I was depressed. Fed up! With everything!” She once told the Boston Globe about her decision to leave school early and spend time in Germany, where she learned enough German to attend university. She returned to the United States in 1964 and finished her Bachelor’s Degree at Radcliffe. Once she’d completed her studies, she spent a summer in the U.K., where she had an aunt, in part because she wanted to visit Stratford-on-Avon, the birthplace of Shakespeare; he was her favorite writer and she wanted to celebrate the 400th anniversary of his birth. The next year she returned to settle in London.

It wasn’t long before her first novella Theft was published; in a few short pages, Ingalls tells a sad story of poverty. Seth, starving and penniless after losing his job, steals a loaf of bread out of desperation, and is punished. Included in the narrative are a group of youthful activists protesting economic inequality; it is hinted that, with their backgrounds of wealth and privilege, they will almost certainly grow up to join the class of conservative voters who maintain the system that keeps people like Seth desperate. This empathy for outsiders and talent for wry societal observation carried into Ingalls’ later works. She had an ability to show the hypocrisy of human nature while remaining neutral in tone, as if instead of guiding the reader’s opinion, she was holding up a mirror. More of her advice to young writers is, “Just look around you. Notice how the world is, how it should be, how it isn’t.”

In 1970, Theft won the Authors’ Club First Novel Award in Britain. Although this was a nice piece of recognition for an emerging writer, it would be another 16 years before news of her work reached her country of origin, the U.S. Her novel Mrs. Caliban, first published in 1982, was chosen four years later by the British Book Marketing Council as one of the best twenty books published by an American author since World War II. Other winners included John Updike, Philip Roth and Thomas Pynchon, all far more recognizable names. Regarding the lateness of attention to her work, David Canfield wrote “Part of this delayed embrace has to do with the uncommon length of her books, part her distinct stylistic flourishes, and part the fact that she is — yes — a woman.” In her introduction to the 2017 edition of Mrs. Caliban, Rivka Galchen adds Ingalls to a list of (women) writers who are ‘famous for not being famous,’ writers whose work is adored by other writers but who never achieved mainstream success, such as Jane Bowles, Barbara Pym and Leonora Carrington.

Attention to only the absolutely necessary.

Prior to Mrs. Caliban’s first publication in 1982, Ingalls had spent nearly a decade looking for her next project after a flurry of fabulist short stories and novellas that followed Theft. In a 1987 interview with the Boston Globe, she talked about this dark period during which she was “‘feeling all the time that the writing wasn’t any good,’ [and] she was ‘close to starving,’ and borrowing from her parents.” A collection of the stories she wrote during this period were published by Graywolf Press under the title Times Like These in 2005. As of this writing, there are only two reviews of the book on Amazon. The first says, “No thanks, none of these stories held my interest,” and gives the book one star; the second bemoans her lack of notoriety and brings the rating average up with a generous five stars.

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In 2017, the same year as the New Directions publication of Mrs. Caliban, an American writer and Ingalls enthusiast, Daniel Handler, was charged with selecting and presenting a trio of her earlier novellas in a collection named Three Masquerades, released by Pharos Editions. Handler, better known to the public under his nom de plume Lemony Snicket, author of A Series of Unfortunate Events, had been so affected by Ingalls’ prose that he jumped at the chance, only to find that very little about her and her work was available to the public. Handler decided to go straight to the source for answers. Ingalls’ written responses to his questions, published in a Literary Hub article dubbing her “the best writer you don’t know,” begins with the most charming exegesis:

“Please forgive the delay in answering your letter. Since the collapse of my Amstrad years ago, life has not been the same and until I acquire a laptop that prints from dictation, I’m stuck with an old machine I can’t control and a printer I don’t understand.”

She goes on to cite her literary influences, her early abandoned attempts at poetry — “great poets think like Einstein,” she states, and says that she doesn’t think much of contemporary poetry, a style which she finds executed more successfully in the lyrics of country and western songs — and muses on her preference for shorter page counts and an aversion to self-promotion.

Her opinion on the great novelists speaks to her own predilection for an exhaustive editing process. “Victor Hugo, Charles Dickens, Joseph Conrad — they succeeded. But War and Peace? Big, heroic, terrific read and yet what a mess. And Anna Karenina should be two separate books,” she comments. Her most known and successful works, the two novels selected by New Directions for reissue, display a tightness of plot and attention to only the absolutely necessary. In fact, Binstead’s Safari is reported to have begun as an 800-page manuscript which she left alone, unsure how to tackle, for years before returning to it and whittling it down to a cool 218, around the same length as Mrs. Caliban. The two titles also both feature unhappy housewives who find an escape from their marriages in not-altogether-human arms, and they share that characteristic detached tone.

In Mrs. Caliban, an unlucky housewife, Dorothy, who has lost a son, a pregnancy, and her pet Jack Russell terrier, all while trying to keep a home for her forgetful, cheating husband Fred, meets a frog-like sea creature with the stature of an NBA player and who, as Mrs. Caliban quickly discovers, pays careful attention to his partner during sex — a perfect combination in a lover, though one who may or may not be a figment of Dorothy’s imagination. Known charmingly as Larry, the sea creature has not merely shown up to set Dorothy’s long neglected loins on fire. He is an escapee from a lab, where, after having been captured from his home near the Mexican Gulf, he was subjected to experiments, torture and sexual abuse. In order to escape, he had to kill his captors, and, despite the empathy he receives from Dorothy, has been branded a dangerous criminal and soon becomes scapegoat for other violent crimes in the area.

The passionate love affair the two enjoy is short lived and full of complications as Dorothy attempts to keep him hidden from her husband, neighbors, and the rest of the town, while also taking him to swim regularly and taking care of his monstrous vegan appetite. Larry, for his part, being from the sea, in not familiar with the complexities of the human world, and attempts to disguise himself using make-up of a completely different shade to the majority of Dorothy’s neighbors, a move he naively quips has finally helped him blend in since everyone avoids him. In another moment of literal fish-out-of-water misunderstanding, Dorothy is puzzled by a series of movements Larry continues to replicate, only to find out it’s a Merce Cunningham dance sequence he’s learned from an ad on television.

In Binstead’s Safari, a couple head to an unnamed country in Africa to hunt lions. Stan Binstead, anthropologist and philanderer, reluctantly allows his wife Millie to join him on an expedition in search of a lion-god and his worshippers. Millie, a meek and quiet subaltern, finds a new lease on life during their stayover in London, and arrives in East Africa a rejuvenated, bubbling, and much more stylish woman. She meets Henry Lewis, a game hunter, and they fall in love at first sight. Lewis is soon killed by poachers, only to return, as the prose hints, as a lion who visits the couple’s camp daily.

Throughout the book, tension builds not just between husband and wife, but animal and human worlds, indigenous and colonial knowledge, making this a much more complex narrative than simply a woman straying from her unhappy marriage. At one point, a local taxi driver recounts his harrowing passage to Spain and the abuse he was exposed to upon arrival, before he decided to return home and be free of “the devils, the pigs, the dogs” who hurt him. Later, Stan contemplates writing the tale of Henry Lewis only to conclude, “The truth, the real story, was that the man had been just an opportunistic exploiter of black labor and credulity, and perhaps tribal prejudices too.” In the end, it is partly Stan’s stubborn insistence in his search to find a scholarly resolution to his hunches, despite the warnings of his local colleagues, that leads the couple into danger.

The women characters rarely end up free.

It’s easy to see why her books have been read as tales of women’s liberation; however, the women characters rarely end up free. Dorothy’s plan to help Larry escape by sea is thwarted by her failure to have confronted her husband Fred about her dissatisfaction with their marriage and about his cheating. Left unchecked to continue his affairs in peace, discovery of Fred’s final and most shocking adventure rips the road right out from under Dorothy and Larry’s escape plan. Likewise Millie, the newly empowered charming socialite, whose transformation arrives via a capitalistic ‘liberation through consumption,’ experiences a transformation so swift and largely superficial that it is hard to imagine it would be permanent or of much benefit. The second part of her transformation, and more weightier in terms of narrative, is tied up in another relationship with a man, the poacher Henry Lewis. Ultimately, the affair leads to Millie’s gruesome death, arms outstretched, expecting the embrace of the lion’s pounce to return her to her lover.

When asked by Handler for her thoughts on feminism, Ingalls responded, “As for feminism, I don’t consider myself a feminist because it’s a subject about which I feel ambiguous (as about so much else). I don’t think that women have harder lives than men, only different, although I’m incensed by institutional misogyny which is obvious and political and, of course, unfair.” Her narratives present a nuanced depiction of human existence, albeit injected with magic, one in which no one is free from flaw.

While much of Ingalls’ life remains shrouded in mystery, one writerly aspect shines through. “I write because it’s a compulsion,” She wrote to Handler. It was a compulsion to which she applied much discipline. As she told Kevin Kelly all the way back in 1987, “I work early in the morning, late at night — and always, no excuses. I used to wait for perfectly clear days, good weather. I don’t do that anymore; I don’t believe in inspiration.”

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Ruby Brunton is a nomadic writer, poet and performer.

Editor: Dana Snitzky

Factchecker: Sam Schuyler