Yesterday I wrote about the biting wit in the dialogue of all the characters in Ivy Compton-Burnett’s 1953 novel The Present and the Past. Even the children talk with a maturity and poise that belies their years.
Here’s another example, from pp. 32-33 of my battered PMC edition. Here the destructive behaviour of the smallest Clare child, Tobias, who is three, is being discussed. Henry is eight, Guy eleven; Cassius is the father, and Flavia his second wife (the mother of Fabian, who is 13, and Guy, was Cassius’ first wife, Catherine, who has suddenly reappeared after nine years, demanding access to her sons. Cassius and Flavia have had three children of their own).
Cassius has expressed his shock that Tobias doesn’t always speak the truth. When told by Fabian that the child is confused by having stories told to him, Cassius retorts that in future he should be told nothing but facts. Maybe, he muses, tales should not be told to children.
‘It would not be natural,’ said his son. [Fabian] ‘And it would not make any difference. The infant mind invents stories. All infancy is the same. In the infancy of the race tales were invented.’
‘Have we been wrong in deciding on a home education?’ said Flavia, smiling at her husband.
Such epigrammatic dialogue from young children is characteristic of ICB’s approach to fiction. It often involves this kind of witty generalisation arising from individual examples of human behaviour. Flavia’s admiringly bemused reaction is understandable.
The conversation moves on to the topic of the development of all five children:
‘I think the elder ones are of the higher type,’ said Cassius, in an even tone. ‘Especially if Guy’s backwardness is a passing phase.’
‘Well, their mother is a gifted woman. I have heard many people say so. It is natural that her children should take after her.’ [says Flavia]
‘Has she more gifts than you have?’ said Henry.
‘Yes, I think she probably has.’
‘Do children inherit only from mothers?’
‘No, from both their parents.’
‘Then Father might have some gifts for us to inherit.’
‘He hardly seems to think that you have inherited any.’
Eight-year-old Henry uses impeccable logic here to outwit the adults, managing to disparage his aloof, dismissive father (who is beginning to turn against Flavia, as he had against Catherine), while simultaneously defending his slighted mother. Cassius is exposed as the one behaving with childish egotism here.
ICB was much concerned with Darwinian evolution and related concepts of inheritance, as well as with the toxic relations that often flourished in the Edwardian upper-middle-class families that formed the basis of her cast of characters. She never lets such thematic matters interfere too much with the drama conveyed exclusively through dialogue. It somehow doesn’t seem to matter that real children don’t talk like this; nobody really talks like characters in novels. ICB’s characters talk exactly as she wants them to, and the fulminations, manoeuvrings and put-downs are highly entertaining.
Here the scene is being set for the comedy of manners to shade into domestic tragedy. It takes rare skill to pull off such transitions, and such dialogue.