A martyr and a ruler: Ivy Compton-Burnett, A House and its Head

Ivy Compton-Burnett, A House and its Head (1935)

Ivy Compton-Burnett has possibly the most idiosyncratic and instantly recognisable literary method and prose style of any modern writer. I’ve written about her technique extensively in my previous two posts about her:

The Present and the Past – several posts

A Family and a Fortune

In A House and Its Head she sticks to the formula that works so well for her: a forensic portrayal of a deeply dysfunctional upper middle-class family – the Edgeworths – living in a large country house in the 1880s. The villagers with whom they come into contact are mostly hypocritical, outwardly pious, virtuous types in the vein of Dickens’s ‘telescopic philanthropist’, Mrs Jellyby, or just malicious gossips.

Ivy Compton-Burnett, A House and its Head - coverDuncan Edgeworth is the most interesting character in a novel full of them. He’s a monster – straight out of her usual pool of Jacobean revenge-tragedy nasties. “He behaved like a god,” one of his daughters says at one point, part in awe, part rancorously. “He is always a martyr and a ruler,” is another description of him near the end.

In the opening chapter he starts in a minor way to show his tyrannical, oppressive control of his family: of his downtrodden wife Ellen, two spirited daughters who rebel as far as they dare, but ultimately succumb to his bullying, and of his more courageous and rebellious nephew, Grant, who for a while looks like he’ll be the one to refuse to be constrained by Duncan, but turns out to be just a self-serving, shallow hedonist.

First, he berates innocent, timorous Ellen for the tardiness in coming down to breakfast of the younger generation – as if it’s her fault. When they finally appear, his sarcasm is vicious. It’s Christmas day, and they open their presents. Grant’s is a book ‘inimical to the faith of the day’ that Duncan disapproves of: ‘on every page there is poison’. Presumably it’s Darwin. Duncan places it on the fire to burn. When elder daughter Nance mildly objects (‘Oh, Father, really!’), this is his characteristically venomous response:

“Really? Yes, really, Nance. I shall really do my best to guide you – to force you, if it must be, into the way you must go. I would not face the consequences of doing otherwise.”

“Would not the consequences be more widely distributed?”

“I shall really do what I can to achieve it,” went on Duncan, as if he had not heard, “and I trust it will not be impossible. I do not do it in my own strength.”

His coercive control here is revealed as a combination of patriarchal laying down of the law (i.e. his), personal attack on what he sees as heinous moral turpitude in those around him, and ridiculing of the linguistic-semantic shortcomings, as he pedantically represents them, of his victims’ attempts verbally to resist his strictures and oppressive behaviour.

As always, it’s the brilliantly contrived dialogue that’s the main vehicle for ICB’s mordant, witty take on the corrosive nature of this privileged, borderline deranged cast of characters. She makes little attempt at the usual novelistic technique of presenting what’s meant to be naturalistic dialogue (it never is, even in writers noted for their “realistic” dialogue; it’s always a literary contrivance), and this heightens the sense of artificiality, pomposity and egotism in the characters who deliver the dialogue.

Here’s Duncan still being cruel to Nance near the end of the novel, when her friend Cassie has called to announce the death of her mother:

“Nance, here is Cassie, out of sorts and out of heart. So listen to her, and let her talk herself out. She hasn’t come to you, for you to be of no good to her. See you are of some use as a woman, as you can be of none as anything else.”

So accustomed (and cowed) are the others in his house to this kind of casual unpleasantness that his comment receives no response.

The plot enables ICB to show the nastiness and defects in her characters in full flow: there are many deaths, an infanticide, incest and adultery – plenty for the salacious gossips in the village to indulge in. See what I mean about Jacobean tragedy? Oh, and there’s an insulting marriage proposal that Trollope would have been proud of (“you and I would be a charming couple”, the young woman is told by her would-be husband, whereas if he married her sister, who had just turned him down, they would have made “such an awkward pair”. How could anyone resist this charmer?)

It’s never easy to read a Compton-Burnett novel: the style is arch and dense, and it’s necessary for the reader to keep alert as multiple characters converse with minimal identification of who says what. But she’s well worth the effort.

Scott at his Minor Moderns blog wrote a perceptive, more detailed account of this novel (I liked his summary of it as a modernist Gothic comedy), with a useful biographical portrait of the author.