Rachel Ingalls obituary: Writer rediscovered after 30 years

Her tales are often dark and ambiguous – they thrum with female empowerment

Rachel Ingalls:author of Mrs Caliban (1982) ‘A lost-and-found surrealist treasure’

Rachel Ingalls:author of Mrs Caliban (1982) ‘A lost-and-found surrealist treasure’


Rachel Ingalls
Born: May 13th, 1940
Died: March 6th, 2019

Rachel Ingalls, an American writer living in London, toiled for most of her life in obscurity.

In 1986, when one of her books, Mrs Caliban (1982), was named on a list of best postwar American novels, she earned some recognition, but it was fleeting. She never sought the limelight, and it rarely found her. “I’m really no good at meeting lots of strangers,” she once said, “and I’d resent being set up as the new arrival in the zoo.”

Then, in late 2017, editors at New Directions, the New York publishing house, rediscovered Mrs Caliban, the unsettling tale of a romance between a lonely suburban housewife and a sea creature. The editors reissued the book in the United States.

The renewed interest in Mrs Caliban dovetailed with The Shape of Water, in which a lonely woman falls in love with a sea creature

It won a new round of flattering reviews (“A lost-and-found surrealist treasure,” said the Los Angeles Times; “A damn-near perfect novella,” said Literary Hub), and suddenly an Ingalls revival was underway – fuelled perhaps in part by the December release that year of The Shape of Water, a movie with a similar plot.

The media was paying attention, from Entertainment Weekly, which called Mrs Caliban a “searing masterpiece,” to The New Yorker, which deconstructed the entire Ingalls oeuvre. Last month, New Directions reissued another of her books, Binstead’s Safari (1983).

But just as she was blinking into the new light, Ingalls learned she had myeloma, a cancer of the blood, and was told it was terminal.

The diagnosis had an unexpected effect on her, said her sister, Sarah Daughn. Ingalls, in her late 70s, began to enjoy the recognition that had long eluded her.

“She was so happy,” Daughn said in a telephone interview. As her stories gained wider readership, she said, Ingalls “felt she was getting to say everything she wanted to say.”

Ingalls died on March 6th under hospice care near her home in London. She was 78. Daughn said myeloma was only the last of her sister’s illnesses; she had had four previous cancers.

Her friend Hugh Fleetwood, a British author and painter, agreed that Ingalls had been delighted by the literary world’s recent embrace. In remarks at her funeral in London, he said, “She seemed to be not merely happy, but – like Violetta in the final scene of her favourite opera, La Traviata – reborn.”

Over a half-century, Ingalls produced 11 books, most of them quite short, some of them collections of short stories. Her tales are often dark, ambiguous and threatening, but not without humour. If not exactly feminist, they thrum with female empowerment. Characters are always on the verge of betrayal or doom; the aura is fatalistic.

The housewife in Mrs Caliban is mourning a recent miscarriage as well as the deaths of her child and her dog, and everything around her seems in a state of grief. “Everything,” Ingalls wrote. “It was a wonder the grass on the front lawn didn’t turn around and sink back into the earth.” Ingalls has said her biggest literary influence was Grimm’s Fairy Tales, which she took to bed with her as a child.

“I stuck with the Brothers Grimm while my friends went on to the Bobbsey Twins and Nancy Drew,” she told The Boston Globe in 1987 in a rare interview. “The next book in my life was Bulfinch’s Mythology,” which popularised the stories of Greek and Roman mythology and other legends.

While she was absorbing heavy classics, and reading all of Shakespeare, Ingalls was fixated on the radio. She loved listening to soap operas and melodramas, and often incorporated into her work both the entertainment elements of the soaps and the menace of the Brothers Grimm. She also went to movies, the theatre and opera constantly, soaking up all manner of storytelling.

The renewed interest in Mrs Caliban dovetailed with The Shape of Water, in which a lonely woman falls in love with a sea creature. The movie won four Academy Awards, including for best picture.

Despite the similarity of the movie’s plot to that of Mrs. Caliban, however, Ingalls never raised an objection. (The authors of other works that also claimed similarities did protest, but Guillermo del Toro, the filmmaker, insisted that he had not read any of them, and a lawsuit against him was dismissed.)

Rachel Holmes Ingalls was born on May 13th, 1940, in Boston and grew up in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Her father, Daniel Henry Holmes Ingalls snr, was a Sanskrit scholar at Harvard and decoded Japanese radio messages during the second World War. Her mother, Phyllis (Day), was a homemaker.

At her request, her family called her Taffy, her sister said. It was short for Taffimai, the girl character in Kipling’s Just So Stories who invented an alphabet.

Ingalls attended Shady Hill School and the Cambridge School of Weston, Massachusetts, but did not graduate. Instead she went to Germany to live with a family for a year and learned German well enough to study at Gottingen University.

“I suppose that was ‘dropping out’ before most people started doing it routinely,” she told The Globe. “I was depressed. Fed up! With everything!”

She returned to the US, took a high-school equivalency exam and was accepted at Radcliffe, where she specialised in languages and from which she graduated cum laude in 1962.

She went back to Europe in 1964, this time to Stratford-on-Avon, where she celebrated the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth.

The following year she moved to London, where she stayed for the rest of her life. She returned every year to visit her father – often in Hot Springs, Virginia, where his grandfather had been an early investor in the Homestead, a palatial hotel resort now called the Omni Homestead. Rachel spent summers there as a child with her parents and siblings. In addition to her sister, she is survived by her brother, Daniel.