Ivy Compton-Burnett, Parents and Children

Ivy Compton-Burnett, Parents and Children. PMC 1970. First published 1941

It’s strange to think of Ivy Compton-Burnett (ICB for short) turning out these exquisitely fashioned country-house-of-the-gentry novels set in the late Victorian or early Edwardian period (families drive to the train station in carriages) in the middle of the twentieth century. They seem a throwback to Trollope’s world, not that of the Battle of Britain.

As always with ICB, most of the text takes the form of long set-piece conversations, most of them in dining or drawing rooms. The speakers reveal through their dialogue the ties and fissures, the tensions, frustrations, oppressions and cruelties lying not far below the surface of the family’s apparent gentility – for ICB is always exposing with unwavering precision the dynamics of families that are more or less dysfunctional.

Ivy Compton-Burnett Parents and Children cover

The painting on the cover of my battered old paperback is from ‘Interior’ by L. Campbell Taylor

Parents and Children is particularly concerned – as the title suggests – with the impact on offspring of their parents’ upbringing, their capacity for showing, sharing or withholding love, their tendency to keep important secrets, or to impose upon their children constraints that develop or deform them emotionally.

The central location is the huge country house inhabited by middle-aged Eleanor Sullivan, her barrister husband Fulbert and their family of nine children (ICB came from a large family herself, and knew how they formed mini alliances and animosities). The house is owned by his elderly parents, Sir Jesse and Lady Regan, which creates another level of tensions.

Eleanor is made to feel keenly that she is not the mistress of the house, while Fulbert is also uncomfortably aware that he is only the heir because of the death of his elder brother. This is conveyed early on in a typically acerbic character appraisal usually provided when a character first appears (when she allows them, ICB’s taciturn narrator makes these portraits stingers):

The two women lived in a formal accord, which had never come to dependence; and while each saw the other as a fellow and an equal, neither would have grieved at the other’s death.

Fulbert strives for recognition and affection from a father whose attitude is distant, high-handed and judgemental – not just towards his only surviving son, but of his grandchildren and their mother and other dependents on the estate.

There are numerous scenes in which these children (ages range from three to brothers in their final year at Cambridge; as ever they are all impossibly precocious and articulate) are seen with their governesses. Neville, the baby of the house, is meant to be charming, I think, with his habit of speaking of himself in the third person. I found there was a little too much of him.

In another of those narrative portraits of newly arrived characters, here’s when the two oldest sons appear; Graham, 21:

He had a deep, jerky voice and a laugh that was without mirth, as was perhaps natural, as he was continually called upon to exercise it at his own expense.

Daniel, 22, constantly snipes spitefully at his languid, maligned brother, who (as younger brothers do in this situation: I know, I am one) bites back with knobs on. Daniel’s antagonism arises from his being more conventional and assiduous in his attitude to filial responsibility (at the novel’s end we learn he gets a first, while Graham scrapes a low third class degree – both seem unsurprised by and content with this outcome). Most telling at this point in the narrative about the parental view of this corrosive sibling rivalry is this insight into their mother’s gaze upon them when they first enter the room to join their parents:

Eleanor surveyed her sons with affection, sympathy and interest, but with singularly little pride.

There’s a dark secret at the heart of the family, and several revelations and reversals emerge unexpectedly. Rather as in a detective mystery, details only make complete sense when the narrative is read a second time; clues and hints then take on a deeper significance.

The novel’s familial theme is clear – though it’s difficult to quote illuminating extracts from ICB’s fiction, because every detail is connected like a thread in a web to what goes before and after it in the narrative. Here’s one passage that’s particularly pertinent.

The family have been more than usually strained by the imminent departure of the father, Fulbert, on a six-month business trip to South America (at the orders of his exigent father). The children have been more than usually unsettled and testy. Their mother, Eleanor, has upbraided them for openly showing their honest, ‘natural selves’, when the released emotions would be better kept ‘disguised’. The ensuing emotional explosion causes her own attitude to be criticised by the older children, who see her as having ignited this ‘inflammable material.’ Luce, the perceptive, intelligent eldest daughter (she’s 24), sighs:

“Dear, dear, the miniature world of a family! All the emotions of mankind seem to find a place in it.”

“It was those emotions that originally gave rise to it,” said Daniel. “No doubt they would still be there.”

It’s the brilliance of the author’s depiction of characters interacting with each other, with disgruntlement, venom and spite barely concealed beneath the veneer of sophistication, that makes an Ivy Compton-Burnett novel such a rewarding read. Look out for moments when the narrator tells us something about a character’s expression or gaze: who they turn their eyes on, in what manner, what response they get.

An example of this shortly before the final crisis: a shocking piece of news has been delivered that’s upset the equilibrium of the whole family, and historic secrets are in danger of being revealed.

“We have our memories,” said [grandfather Sir Jesse].

“Yes, you can add to them a stock of those.” [This is said by his wife, Regan]

[Eleanor enters, and a frisson is felt in the room’s emotional temperature:]

Regan met Sir Jesse’s eyes, but the latter’s face told nothing.

In a similar way, there’s a deeper significance than the narrative reveals on a first reading in the messages conveyed by a photograph of a loved one: what is shown, what concealed or not perceived by those who look at it.

Adult characters are usually less than transparent in what they disclose about themselves and their true feelings; this means the reader has to slow down and consider the implications of every speech. It’s worth making this effort.

It would be easy to dismiss or dislike this technique as being too contrived: people “don’t speak like that in real life”. But the witticisms and epigrams serve multiple purposes. I’ll finish with one example.

Eleanor wonders if the governess Miss Mitford has noticed it’s stopped raining, and the fractious children could be sent with her outside to let off steam more harmlessly:

“She [Miss Mitford] does not notice anything when she is reading,” said Venice [aged 13].

“Does she do nothing but read? I hope she will not teach you to be always poring over books. There are other things in life.” [this is Eleanor, their mother]

“Not in every life,” said Graham…[In the next exchange he’s sarcastic about her rose-tinted view of her children’s happiness, especially considering his complex, timid little brother James – even more put-upon than he is; Eleanor is affronted at the suggestion that James is ‘a pathetic character’]

“Graham dear,” said Luce, in a low tone, “things can only be done by us according to our nature and our understanding. It is useless to expect more. We can none of us give it.”

“That does not take from the pathos. Indeed it is the reason of it.”

“It is partly the ordinary pathos of childhood, Graham.”

“Of childhood in the later stage, when it is worked and confined and exhorted. For its weakness the burden is great.”

“James has his own power of throwing things off,” said Luce.

“Of course all my children are tragic figures,” said Eleanor.

I said it’s hard to quote briefly to convey the richly textured subtlety of ICB’s prose. She’s a master of the suppressed.

There’s a link HERE to other ICB novels I’ve posted on.

 

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

 

Ivy Compton-Burnett, ‘A Family and a Fortune’

Ivy Compton-Burnett’s novel A Family and a Fortune, published in 1939, is the only one of her twenty novels that I have read so far, but from what I have gleaned from other reviews and articles about her, they are all mordantly witty, surgical explorations, written almost entirely in the form of elegantly expressed dialogue, of the painful vicissitudes of comfortably well-off country gentry at a late Victorian-early Edwardian period of English history. Hilary Mantel, for example, refers to each one as ‘a gavotte on needles’.

The plot is complicated and eventful. It concerns the dramatic impact on the Gaveston family (and their circle) of a large inheritance; there are several deaths, a broken engagement, and various other twists and narrative turns.

In ‘A conversation between Margaret Jourdain and ICB’ in the Turtle Point Press ‘Traveltainted’ online literary magazine here (MJ was ICB’s housemate-companion for much of her adult life; she died in 1951), Compton-Burnett cheerfully agrees that she has very little interest in ‘exposition and description’, and prefers to hear her characters’ voices. Authorial comments or free indirect discourse are sparse; much of the wickedly pleasurable experience of reading this novel derives from the brilliantly orchestrated, extended sequences of internecine warfare conducted through acerbically epigrammatic drawing-room or dining-room family conversations in the Gavestons’ large country house.

Unfortunately for me, this makes it almost impossible to demonstrate the exquisite skill shown by the writer, for each speech depends on the whole context of the entire conversation, for each one is intricately woven into the whole sequence of discourse; to quote a short extract out of context would not do the longer sections justice.

Often it is difficult to determine who is speaking to whom, for the characters tend to converse in fairly large family groups, without the author ascribing a name to the speaker, or making it clear which of the group they are addressing. This means one has to read closely and attentively, and often, I found, re-read – but it’s an effort that I recommend you make, for the dialogue has some of the wit of Wilde, the insight and wisdom of Austen, and the technical dexterity and psychological subtlety of Henry James – with a touch of the bleakness and darkness found in later masters of suggestive, elliptical dialogue such as Pinter and, weirdly, Beckett himself.

What I can do is to quote a few sections in an attempt to illustrate some of the other rewarding aspects of what second son (of three) Mark Gaveston calls ‘our family drama’ (the Freudian note is apposite). His late-middle-aged father, Edgar Gaveston, is married to Blanche, whose sister Matilda (Matty), two years her senior, comes to live, along with her elderly father, Oliver, and her much-put-upon companion, Miss Griffin, in the Lodge House on the Gaveston estate, having come down in the world and grudgingly sought charitable refuge. Far from showing gratitude for Blanche and her family’s generosity, Matty displays nothing but venomous selfishness and resentful self-pity for her straitened circumstances, and she verbally skewers each of the Gavestons remorselessly, while bullying the unfortunate Miss Griffin, and anyone else who has the misfortune to enter into her sight. The Gaveston family is completed by the presence with them for much of his adult life of Edgar’s kindly, slightly younger bachelor brother, Dudley, whose inheritance of a large fortune precipitates the action of the novel.

The cover of my beautifully designed PMC edition of 1962

The cover of my beautifully designed PMC edition of 1962

Character description is one of the only occasions when the author ventures into authorial comment of any kind. When Matty first appears at the Gaveston house, this is what we are told about her:

 A fall from a horse had rendered her an invalid, or rather obliged her to walk with a stick, but her energy seemed to accumulate, and to work itself out at the cost of some havoc within her…She had never met a man [ie potential marriage material] whom she saw as her equal, as her conception of herself was above any human standard. She may also have had some feeling that a family would take her attention and that of others from herself. [This portrait is frequently shown to be accurate in Matty’s conversation later, for example:]‘Dear, dear, it is a funny thing, a family. I can’t help feeling glad sometimes that I have had no part in making one.’

Dialogue is not always unnaturally poised, literary and stylised, as most critics have complained – although it is often baroque and deviously allusive; here’s Matty, talking to the assembled characters around her, when Dudley’s huge inheritance has been revealed:

‘I too might have been left a fortune…Well, a man was in love with me or said he was; and I could see it for myself, so I cannot leave it out; and I refused him – well, we won’t dwell on that; and when we got that behind, he wanted to leave me all he had. And I would not let him, and we came to words, as you would say, and the end of it was that we did not meet again. And a few days afterwards he was thrown from his horse and killed. And the money went to his family, and I was glad that it should be so, as I had given him nothing, and I could not take and not give. But what do you say to that, as a narrow escape from a fortune?’

This speech could hardly be simpler in structure or vocabulary, with its multiple paratactic ‘ands’ and ‘buts’, those colloquial largely monosyllabic expressions and the repeated discourse marker ‘well’. This shows how the author’s skill resides not just in the beautifully wrought, subtly nuanced prose conversations, but in her ability to reveal character indirectly like this in passages of realistically, apparently straightforwardly ingenuous, dialogue. But Matty’s bitter irony at the end of this speech is breathtaking. Whether she intends to reveal so much of her sordid nastiness, or realises she’s doing so, is part of the ambiguous effect. Did she even have such an experience, or is she just making up a story about another horse accident victim to highlight her own devious self-depiction as a worse sufferer, who persists in projecting a monstrously distorted image of herself as a martyr, a long-suffering saint?  And Compton-Burnett herself acknowledges in the interview cited earlier that wrong-doing in a novel is more ‘spectacular’ and attracts more sympathy from a reader than virtue, and makes a ‘more definite picture or event’; the villain tends to ‘usurp the hero’s place’. Egocentric Matty seeks revenge on the whole world for what she perceives as the injustices life has meted out to her.

Money – a central theme and topic of conversation – is also a device for revealing characters’ flaws, defects and occasional merits (Edgar’s daughter Justine’s stern moral probity and her little brother Aubrey’s adolescent but precocious wit, for example), as Dudley’s inheritance is disbursed to then withdrawn from the other Gavestons with the plot’s rollercoaster swoops; this is Dudley, on announcing he’s to give his brother’s rancid sister-in-law, Matty, a small allowance out of his inheritance – but a generous sum nonetheless:

‘Two hundred a year is a tenth of two thousand, and it must be mean to offer anyone a tenth of what you have. It sounds as if I were keeping nine times as much for myself. I hope Matty will not hear before she goes. People don’t resent having nothing nearly as much as too little. I have only just found that out. I am getting the knowledge of the rich as well as their ways. And of course anyone would resent being given a tenth.’

‘Riches are a test of character and I am exposed’, he says soon after, when Matty writes him an unctuously ambiguous note to thank him. He is one of the few characters to emerge with much dignity. All the others reveal more or less unflattering aspects of themselves as they respond to the fluctuations of their fortunes in the light of Dudley’s (and hence their own) changes of circumstance. Watching this process unfold is fascinating and often darkly, deliciously humorous.

The dialogue distributes ambiguities, multi-faceted, hinted-at underlying meanings and innuendo, lurking insidiously below the apparently innocent surface remarks; these in turn often lead to discussion and metapragmatic debate as to what the speaker might really have meant, and how their words could or should be interpreted. It’s a heady mix.

An example of this: Dudley has announced his departure to arrange some legal matters, and his thirty-year-old niece, Edgar’s only daughter Justine – a wonderfully drawn, outspoken character, who has some stirring verbal duels with formidable Aunt Matty – has asked for one of the menfolk to take her aunt’s arm to help the self-proclaimed invalid; Matty snaps,

‘I think I may stay here, dear. I am not so able-bodied as to keep running away on any pretext…’

‘I think it would be better to forget your office [senior woman of the household at that point] for once. Too duenna-like a course is less kind than it sounds.’

‘It did not sound kind, dear. And the words are not in place. There is nothing duenna-like about me. I have no practice in such things. I have been a person rather to need them from other people.’

 As always she wrings every last drop of self-pity out of a speech intended for once by Justine to be attentive to her aunt’s needs, and a dramatic situation in which her family – even the perennially exasperated Justine – are trying to be helpful.

‘Yes, I daresay, Aunt Matty [Justine replies]. I did not mean the word to be a barbed one.

Oh, I think you probably did, Justine, and doesn’t Matty let you know it!

After one of the final critical plot developments, Dudley is stung into an uncharacteristically critical and heartfelt outburst against his brother Edgar, who has unapologetically and shamelessly stolen Dudley’s fiancée Maria Sloane from him to replace his deceased wife, and Maria is forced to contemplate the awkward position she now occupies, in another rare moment of authorial comment; this is Dudley to Edgar:

‘You may be glad to be left with your wife, and I shall be glad to leave you. I shall be glad, Edgar. I have always been alone in your house, always in my heart. You had nothing to give. You have nothing. There is nothing in your nature. You did not care for Blanche. You do not care for your children. You have not cared for me. You have not even cared for yourself, and that has blinded us. May Maria deal with you as you are, and not as I have done.’

Maria stood apart, feeling she had nothing to do with the scene, that she must grope for its cause in a depth where different beings moved and breathed in a different air. The present seemed a surface scene, acted over a seething life, which had been calmed but never dead. She saw herself treading with care lest the surface break and release the hidden flood, felt that she learned at that moment how to do it, and would ever afterwards know…

This may not be a novel to rank with Austen or James, but it’s not far off, in my view. But I think for many it will be an acquired taste. I’d be interested to hear what others who’ve read it think.