A whole that conformed to nothing: clothes in Ivy Compton-Burnett’s ‘The Present and the Past’

I write this in Berlin and it’s 31 degrees and heavy humidity presages a thunderstorm, so this will have to be hastily done – especially as two young grandchildren need my attention soon.

I wrote recently about the significance of clothes in Anne Enright’s novel The Green Road, inspired by Moira’s blog Clothes in Books. Today I’ll look at a scene early in Ivy Compton-Burnett’s (1884-1969) 1953 novel The Present and the Past. Earlier this year I considered her 1939 novel A Family and a Fortune, and noted her extraordinary capacity for extended scenes written entirely in dialogue – more like a play script than conventional prose fiction. Her affinity with Jane Austen in this respect has often been noted (this includes her focus on upper middle-class families in a historical period slightly earlier than the one in which she wrote).

 

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’

In The Present and the Past the plot, such as it is, deals with the seismic effect on the Clare family of the paterfamilias Cassius’ first wife, Catherine, whom he divorced nine years earlier after five years of marriage, and two sons – Fabian, now 13, and Guy, 11 – reappearing with the announcement that she regrets her decision to yield custody of the boys to their father, and expressing the wish to be able to see them whenever she wishes. Cassius’ second wife, Flavia, is understandably unhappy with this development, but is generous enough in spirit to accede to the demand.

Early in the proceedings we see some of Compton-Burnett’s incisively drawn scenes in which the children talk and interact with each other with precocious poise. In these she throws satiric light on the foibles of the adults who squabble and fret around them.

Cassius and Flavia had three children of their own together: Henry, 8; Megan, 7 and Tobias, 3. In this passage we meet Miss Ridley, their stereotypically starchy governess. In the opening pages they outwit her by talking metaphysics in the context of the imminent death of a hen, moving on to demolish her limited attempt to explain Darwinist theories of evolution (a key feature in Compton-Burnett’s fiction, along with Nietzschean power struggles).

In a rare passage of narrative description, here’s how Miss Ridley is presented:

Miss Ridley was forty-seven and looked exactly that age. She wore neat, strong clothes that bore no affinity to those in current use, and wore, or had set on her head an old, best hat in place of a modern, ordinary one. She was fully gloved and booted for her hour in the garden. Her full, pale face, small, steady eyes, non-descript features and confident movements combined with her clothes to make a whole that conformed to nothing and offended no one. She made no mistakes in her dress, merely carried out her intentions.

The outward appearance is used to suggest the woman’s inner nature. The adjectives that describe her clothes – ‘neat’ and ‘strong’ – are satirically ambiguous, suggesting utility and durability, rather than aesthetic qualities, as the rest of that sentence goes on to show.

The note that her has is ‘set on her head’ rather than worn there further suggests a physical awkwardness and disjointedness with her time –  the added detail that it is outmoded reinforces this impression. Wearing her ‘old’ and ‘best’ hat in the garden tempers this slightly snobbish account by indicating that it’s probably her only hat; she’s poor. Our sympathy is now partially invoked, while we are shown at the same time her limitations of character and intellect.

Added to this is the detail that she’s ‘fully gloved and booted for her hour in the garden’: she’s more in thrall to propriety than to common sense or individuality of expression.

The next set of adjectives, about her face, eyes, ‘features’, ‘movements’ and ‘clothes’, do nothing to contradict this growing image of a narrow-minded, cribbed personality. The portrait is rounded off with that killer ending: the whole conforming to nothing and offending no one. She is deeply conventional and full of a conviction that she is just as she should be in her submissive role as governess – hence her inability to conform to anything, for this would be to commit herself to something, and her status and nature forbid her to do such a thing. She must be firm and narrow with the children, teaching them what she can from her limited range of knowledge, but ultimately remain inoffensive – and servile. Hence the lack of ‘mistakes’ in her ‘dress’: they signify the ‘intentions’ I’ve just outlined. She is in the invidious position of having to set an example but possessing no social identity.

I find this portrayal brilliantly suggestive. It seems at first sight a little cruel and patronising to a woman whose status at the period in which the novel was set, which seems to be Compton-Burnett’s favourite – late Edwardian or slightly later – would have been ambiguous: neither a servant, nor an equal to her employers. The children are astutely aware of this, and they regularly run rings round her emotionally and intellectually, as practice for their interactions with their trickier, more complicated parents (and contriving stepmother).

This description, then, isn’t just an ostentatious display of waspish, Austen-light character-sketching; it’s symptomatic of Compton-Burnett’s exploration of class and family dynamics. I hope to go on in later posts to examine other aspects of this interesting novel.

 

Our appearance is our reality: John Harvey, ‘Clothes’

I wrote recently HERE about John Harvey’s two fascinating studies of the colour black, and HERE about his novel The Subject of a Portrait, about the love triangle involving John Ruskin, Effie Gray and the artist Millais. Clothes is part of a series of philosophical studies by Acumen Publishing ‘on matters of life and death’, and in particular on the question: ‘How should we live?’ Other titles include ‘Death’, ‘Sex’ and ‘Work’.

 

Harvey ClothesIn this characteristically energetic, accessible and entertaining short study, Dr Harvey deploys his considerable scholarship and intelligence on a topic that concerns us all – no matter what our attitude to what we wear. Whether we choose designer labels, functional casual or work wear, or power suits, our clothing is ‘an outer envelope’ that we can ‘select and manipulate’ to make a statement about how rebellious, conservative or ‘on trend’ we are. It indicates – even more than our naked skin can – ‘many allegiances, sensitivies and foibles.’

 

Clothes can even be a matter of life and death, as the introductory chapter indicates: two young goths were beaten to death in a Lancashire park, simply because of their outlandishly distinctive look. Military uniforms enabled soldiers to identify who to kill or not, who to salute or not.

Our clothes represent a metaphor for ‘misrepresentation’ – they ‘can be treacherous companions’, his argument begins, because ‘they touch us closely, because they touch our skin.’ Our ‘recurring mistrust’ of them has recurred throughout history, and has exercised philosophers since the time when Socrates deprecated “women’s adornment” and advocated extreme simplicity in garb. In Christian thinking, nakedness and the need to cover it to hide our shame is a theme introduced in the Genesis story of Adam and Eve.

Drawing upon his scholarly research into visual art and its relationship to our literature and broader culture, Dr Harvey explores works as diverse as Titian’s ‘Sacred and Profane Love’ and literary texts; Shakespeare was much concerned with dress and its physical and metaphorical power. George Eliot and Dickens are also cited for their treatment of characters’ dress.

We are ambivalent about clothes, he argues, for they are ‘dangerous things’, often a ‘metaphor for hypocrisy’; what other people wear can take us in, deceive us, until we discover what they are like under this second skin, this body mask or disguise. Clothes are part of our perpetual performance in the world. We dress for ourselves and for others: the ‘sense of an audience’ is important.

Apart from material he’s discussed in a slightly different context in his books on the colour black, such as the contrast between puritanical plainness in costume in some periods of western history and foppish dandyism in others, there’s much that’s new here. There is, for example, the Liz Hurley of the 20s, Rita Lygid, who designed and wore the first backless dress and caused a scandalous success.

What I particularly like about Dr Harvey’s studies is the way he communicates his formidable range of literary and artistic knowledge with an intelligently readable, often witty prose style. For example, he has a way with metaphor:

When we put on clothes we sheathe ourselves in a social shadow: an ethos, an ethic, that guides and limits.

 I also liked this on a design by couturier Jean-Paul Gautier, expressed as wittily as the garment it describes:

When he is not clowning, still there is wit, as when he lets a tight-waisted dress of aluminium-ish silk flare out extravagantly over a froth of flounced chiffon petticoat with a little the look of a washing machine exploding.

He has a good ear for sound patterns, rhythms and linguistic symmetries, as those extracts I hope show; but he also has a subtly prompting, guiding voice. He has that rare gift: the ability to make the familiar strange and new. But I never felt he was lapsing into academic-speak. On the ‘issue of shoulders’, to take an example of his cheerfully discursive tone, he points out that men’s fashions have tended to bulk them out and cover them up, whereas for women’s fashion this is an equally ‘sensitive issue’ for different reasons: John Singer Sargent’s famous portrait of ‘Madame X’ caused a ‘furore’ when it John_Singer_Sargent_(1856–1925)_Madame_X_(Madame_Pierre_Gautreau),_1883–84was first exhibited around 1900 because ‘one slender strap’ was ‘hanging down off the shoulder’:

The strap was scarcely more than a thread, but loosening it was a step too far, and Sargent was required to mend the portrait, and replace the strap. Only later still could shoulders be wholly naked.

There’s much more detail in this book than I can hope to summarise here. Briefly, he looks at the the history, materials, functions and aesthetics of clothes, and the way we use them to ‘be ourselves’ or ‘be someone else’ in order to avoid exposing our ‘private self’ to the public gaze while revealing different “sides” of ourselves ‘deliberately or quite unconsciously’, as he suggests in another elegantly balanced aphorism:

clothes may help us to possess our soul, and we may place our soul within the clothes.

Clothes enable us to innovate or conversely to follow the herd, by conforming to fashions of the day or team to which we belong (I notice most of my teenage female students now favour a torn gash across both knees of their jeans).

As in his other books Harvey explores the differences between the relatively uncovered or exposed, colourful and extravagant look of women’s fashion compared with the more sober, suited, buttoned-up (in every sense) male costume. Young fashions versus old, politicians, soldiers (especially the ruthlessly fearsome black-clad SS) all present various degrees of individuality and uniformity, power and powerlessness.

Politically and socially, then, clothes tend to be mass-produced (often by sweat-shop exploited labour) and enable us to express our individuality but also to group ourselves. They can exhibit modesty, and ‘protect us from temptation as they protect us from the cold’, constituting a ‘moral fence, enclosing our sinfulness and frustrating the desires of others’. Of course, they can also, paradoxically, enflame them, and play a key part in our search for a sexual partner.

As the text on the book’s cover says, by being aware of the role clothes play in our lives, we can come to know and better understand who we are.

John Harvey, Clothes. Acumen Publishing, Stocksfield. 2008. Paperback, 134 pp. Copy supplied by the author.

Apart from the piece on this blog about John Harvey’s studies of the colour black cited above, there are these two pieces from last year: this one, in which the author of the novel The Subject of a Portrait discusses in a guest post the ways in which he treated his historical theme, and its relationship with the film scripted by Emma Thompson which came out shortly after his novel’s publication. There’s also this piece by guest writer Michael Flay, proprietor of the independent imprint Polar Books, which published the novel.

Photo of book jacket my own; ‘Madame X’ in public domain via WikiCommons.