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.

Darwinian aphorisms from the mouths of babes: Ivy Compton-Burnett again

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.

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’

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.

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.

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.