It is easier to face death than to face life: Ivy Compton-Burnett, ‘The Present and the Past’

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

My previous posts on this novel have centred on ICB’s extraordinary dialogue, even from children’s mouths – epigrammatic, witty and caustic, usually serving to outsmart the self-absorbed or distracted adults around them. Here’s another example.

The children are discussing their father, Cassius, whose moods and selfishness have cast a pall over the family for some time. He is jealous that his two wives have become friends, and exclude him from their intimacy, and that his children do the same.

‘Is Father happy?’ said Guy.

‘He is often satisfied,’ said Megan. ‘You can see him having the satisfaction’

 

That use of ‘the’ is pure Henry James. The apparently irrelevant but deeply meaningful reply by Megan and her subtle progression from ‘satisfied’ to ‘the satisfaction’ suggests a shrewd, cynical but profoundly perceptive understanding of her father’s volatile, introspective character. Megan is seven years old!

The conversation continues:

‘There is a great deal about grown-up people that children cannot understand,’ said Miss Ridley [the governess].

‘And a great deal that they can,’ said Fabian. ‘That is where the danger lies.’

‘I don’t think there is much to understand about Father,’ said Megan. ‘When he is unhappy himself, he wants other people to be.’

‘You cannot judge human beings as simply as that,’ said Miss Ridley. ‘They are complex creatures with many conflicting qualities.’

‘Ah, your father never wants you to be unhappy, my little one,’ said Cassius, quickening his pace. ‘It is true that he is sometimes unhappy and uncertain, but he never wants to hurt his children.’

Given that the crisis of the novel comes when this father of five children, two by his first wife, Catherine, three by the second, attempts suicide because he feels ignored by his family, this is a revealing demonstration of his fragile, egotistical nature. Even more interesting is the insight into it that his children show here; Fabian, the oldest, is only 13, yet he talks like an Oscar Wilde wit, with his paradoxes and aphoristic tendency. The children are the ones who sound mature, reflective and sensible in this flawed but fascinating novel.

And all is done through dialogue. No narrative comment is necessary. This is a highly unusual technique, difficult to accomplish, but done with panache by ICB. All that’s lacking is a little variation in the tone: it tends to be all at this pitch, and can become wearing.

In this extract, as we have seen in my earlier posts, Miss Ridley, the starchy governess, is too limited and conventional in her view of how children should comport themselves – dull and obedient like dutiful, ignorant Victorian children – to be their ally against their father and his self-indulgent, self-pitying heedlessness. By patronising them she shows herself unequal to the task of teaching them how to deal with their inadequate parents.

That final, insincere speech by Cassius is chilling in its childishness, hypocrisy and duplicity. Almost every line of dialogue in this novel is resonant with such (often dark) significance and ambiguity.

To round off this short sequence of discussions of extracts from the novel, here’s one of the most memorable aphorisms:

‘It is easier to face death than to face life.’

This isn’t just clever word-play; it compresses into ten words the tragicomedy that is life as portrayed unflinchingly by ICB. It also shows up the breathtaking selfishness of Cassius.

Cover of my elderly PMC edition, with an illustration from Stanley Spencer, 'Villas at Cookham'

Cover of my elderly PMC edition, with an illustration from Stanley Spencer, ‘Villas at Cookham’

Other bloggers on ICB

If you’d like to learn more about her, I’d recommend a visit to the numerous posts in Simon Thomas’s excellent blog (full of plenty of other interesting pieces on lesser-known or neglected writers) – Stuck in a Book.

It has links to biographies, memoirs, etc., and examines most of the major novels, with recommendations where to start. Much more comprehensive than my first tentative explorations of this inimitable writer’s work.

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3 thoughts on “It is easier to face death than to face life: Ivy Compton-Burnett, ‘The Present and the Past’

    • Simon Thomas -I sent you a mail in response to your enthusiasm about Ivy on your blog. Don’t know if you got it? I hated her 50 years ago ( had to read her for an essay – what a struggle!)
      and hate her now because she won’t let me read anyone else. Totally addicted. More potent than Ecstasy. The woman’s a tyrannical as Matty or Duncan Edgworth or Anna Donne. Are you my rescue remedy? – LC

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