Children wise beyond their years: dialogue in Ivy Compton-Burnett’s ‘The Present and the Past’

Ivy Compton-Burnett,  The Present and the Past, 1953

Last week I wrote from sweltering Berlin about Ivy Compton- Burnett’s 1953 novel The Present and the Past, showing how a description of a character’s clothes and appearance functioned to point up the mordant humour and enrich the narrative. Today, back in divided, rain-squally England, I shall turn to other aspects of this writer’s distinctive technique.

As noted previously, ICB writes novels consisting almost entirely of dialogue. This makes her prose fiction resemble playscripts; she’s on record as saying that this approach came naturally to her. She didn’t go in for descriptions of setting, furniture and so on; it was dialogue that she felt was the most natural way for her to develop plot and reveal relationships, motives and themes.

In The Present and the Past all the characters speak in a highly cultivated, witty way. Even the children – to whom I turn in this post.

Some context first: after five years of marriage, Cassius Clare divorced his wife Catherine, part of the settlement involving his retaining custody of their two boys – Fabian and Guy. Nine years later, and after three more children with his second wife, Flavia – Henry, Megan and Tobias (8, 7 and 3 respectively) – Catherine suddenly demands access to her sons, now aged 13 and 11. Flavia had selflessly brought up all of the children without distinction between her own offspring and her stepsons. When Catherine drops her bombshell, announcing her imminent visit – the first of many, she insists – the shockwaves profoundly disturb the Clare family.

Critics described ICB’s dialogue as ‘stylised’ or artificial – a charge she rejected, preferring to see it as ‘condensed’. She was likened to Congreve, Austen, Henry James and the Elizabethan ‘horror’ tragedians. I can see some of all of these in her writing, but also of the epigrammatic wit of Wilde in his plays, and Edith Wharton’s novel about a post-divorce dysfunctional family of step-siblings, The Children (about which I wrote recently).

Let’s begin with the first exchange between the children and their head nurse, Bennet, and Miss Ridley, their governess. The children had heard about the ‘trouble’ caused by the first Mrs Clare’s desire to see her sons again, and their blasé discussion of the effects on the family of Catherine’s return causes consternation in the adult servants, who expect the children to seem less worldly and knowing:

‘It is nothing for you to think about,’ said Bennet, in an easy tone that was belied by her eyes.
‘It is the only thing. What would anyone think about in our place?’ [this is Fabian]
‘You have your mother here.’
‘We have our stepmother.’
‘What is a real mother like?’ said Guy.
‘Like Mater to her own children,’ said his brother [they call Flavia ‘mater’, and Catherine ‘mother’]
‘You know that no difference is made,’ said Miss Ridley.
‘The difference is there. There is no need to make it.’ [Fabian again; ICB regularly omits the names of her speakers in stretches of multiple-participant dialogue, so it requires some effort to figure out who says what – this is part of the textured effect she is after]
‘Are all fathers like our father?’ said Guy.
‘No father is like him,’ said Fabian. ‘We have no normal parent.’
‘He is devoted to you in his way,’ said Miss Ridley.
‘I daresay a cat does the right thing to a mouse in its way.’
‘Doing things in your own way is not really doing them,’ said Megan.
‘Why, Fabian, what a conscious way of talking!’ said Miss Ridley. ‘And it leads others to copy you.’
‘Why should I talk like a child, when my life prevents me from being one?’

So much is going on in this short extract. We have the first intimation that Cassius is not the most successful or loving of fathers. Fabian, the oldest child, is revealed to be caustically witty and mature beyond his years, with a satiric insight into the weaknesses and shortcomings of the adults in his world. In this respect I find ICB’s a more satisfying ‘divorce novel’ than Edith Wharton’s.

Miss Bennet’s limitations, which I examined in my previous post, are pointedly revealed here, as she’s effortlessly outwitted by Fabian. She represents for him the adult world which has let him down, and is therefore a legitimate target for his excoriating wit. Her efforts to control and placate him and the other children are comically futile, and she’s shown to be both dim-witted and hopelessly, condescendingly conventional.

Guy is more sensitive and naive, and hero-worships his older brother – a relationship that has powerful repercussions later in the novel. Megan is clearly destined to become another  Fabian in terms of shrewdness and verbal acuity.

But all of these family and servant-child dynamics play a crucial role in the plot; this sample of sharp exchanges and verbal jousting is typical of ICB’s method throughout her work. That barbed aphorism of Fabian’s at the end is disarmingly funny, but also tinged with disingenuous cynicism and…what I can only call sadness. Fabian’s sadness makes me sad, too. His childhood has been tainted by the selfishness of his natural parents.

This discussion has already taken longer than I anticipated, and there are so many more such crackling exchanges I’d like to explore, so I’ll stop there with the hope that I’ll be able to return soon to ICB’s unique, subtle anatomising of this fractured, suffering family, with her inimitable blend of witty comedy of manners and sombre family tragedy.

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4 thoughts on “Children wise beyond their years: dialogue in Ivy Compton-Burnett’s ‘The Present and the Past’

  1. Hi Simon,

    You “win” the world of blogging this week with the immortal phrase: “divided, rain-squally England.” How perfect!

    Enjoyed this very much. Wow. Creating an atmosphere on a foundation of dialog is high-level creativity. Reminds me a bit of Henry Green.

    You are absolutely right, poor Fabian. So much sadness there under the wit. 13 is an interesting age. Not to be too revealingly American, I can remember being quite aware of the huge dysfunction operating in some of the adults in my life, and spent part of my 13th summer tagging along after one of them to the barber shop and the pubs while my mother was at work and he was in one of his more “manic” phases, and sitting outside his bedroom while he was burrowed under his pillows during one of his “downers.” But the 13 year old who deals with such things may develop a hard shell of cynicism, but is in danger of building what is a very brittle crust around a molten exterior that may well crack the surface later in life. And, per your description of Guy, I wonder what the “repercussions” are for him later in life. Makes me eager to read this!

    Best of luck in “squally,” “divided” Britain. A writer named E.O. Higgins tweeted about a “baby march” of those opposed to Brexit. Babies on the move!

    Take care,

    Maureen M.

  2. Actually, Simon, I think the molten part was inside and the brittle crust on the exterior, sort of like a fruit sour with gel inside that it heating up inside your mouth…! But anyway….

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