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1st November, 2020

‘Anyone who picks up a Compton-Burnett finds it very hard not to put it down.’ So said Ivy Compton-Burnett herself, and she had a point. Her novels are startlingly, even shockingly unlike anyone else’s. If they were a drink, they would be Grappa, that formidable Italian digestif– fierce, harsh and bitter at first sip, intoxicating in a rather unsettling way, but, once you’ve got the taste for the stuff, strangely alluring and moreish, even addictive.

Dame Ivy – a highly distinguished literary figure from the mid-Twenties through to her death at the end of the Sixties – is nearly forgotten today, and most of her twenty-odd novels are out of print, though it’s easy to find many of them online (or even in charity shops – I recently bought two first editions for next to nothing). It would surprise many of her contemporaries that Ivy Compton-Burnett is so nearly forgotten today. The critic David Holloway wrote of her that ‘It is always dangerous to prophesy immortality for any writer, but it is certain that Dame Ivy Compton-Burnett’s novels will be discussed a century hence.’ Norman Shrapnel opined that ‘Of the two candidates for greatness among comic novelists of our time, Evelyn Waugh and Ivy Compton-Burnett, it is her prospect that looks the more secure…’ Both critics proved to be wrong, but two other things are striking about Shrapnel’s judgment: that he doesn’t name P.G. Wodehouse as a candidate for greatness, and that he classes Dame Ivy as a comic novelist. It is easy to forget, reading her now, that she was, in her day, read as a comic novelist, and as a highly entertaining, if demanding, one. Ideas of comedy change, and so does the amount of effort readers are prepared to make. It has often seemed to me that readers were once a good deal tougher, prepared to do a bit of heavy lifting: can you imagine a writer as knotty and opaque as Meredith or Ruskin or Carlyle becoming a popular favourite today?

Dame Ivy’s popularity was at its height in the war years, perhaps for good reason. As her biographer Hilary Spurling puts it, ‘What might be called the moral economy of Ivy's books had always been organised on a war footing.’  Elizabeth Bowen wrote of ‘an icy sharpness [that] prevails in the dialogue. In fact, to read in these days a page of Compton-Burnett dialogue is to think of the sound of glass being swept up one of these London mornings after a blitz.’ Angus Wilson went further: ‘In the age of the concentration camp when, from 1935 or so to 1947, she wrote her very best novels, no writer did more to illumine the springs of human cruelty, suffering and bravery.’ And she had had an early and painful education in human cruelty, suffering and bravery.

Ivy (if one dare presume to call her that) grew up in a large, complicated and increasingly troubled Edwardian family. Her father died when Ivy was 16, and grief turned her mother into a fearsome, emotionally manipulative domestic tyrant – a role that Ivy seems, sadly, to have taken over after her mother’s death, and one that is enacted repeatedly by the men and women in her novels. Two favourite brothers died young – one of influenza and one in the Great War – and her two youngest sisters died in an apparent suicide pact. ‘One was a good deal cut up by the war; one’s brother was killed, and one had family troubles,’ as she later summed up, with typical patrician understatement.

Then, apparently out of nowhere, came Pastors And Masters, the first of the stream of novels that were to make her name. It wasn’t, in fact, her first novel: she had made a false start with one called Dolores, which was, by Hilary Spurling’s account, pretty terrible – a tale of strenuous self-abnegation in the manner of such once popular novelists as Charlotte M. Yonge and Mrs Humphrey Ward, with a touch of George Eliot at her most unbearable. Pastors and Masters could hardly have been more different. The sparely told tale of two talentless academics and a sorry act of plagiarism, Pastors And Masters set the template for all the subsequent novels (right down to the binary title). Like all of them – regardless of when they were written – it is set in what seems to be the Edwardian period, and in a social milieu some way north of middle-class. Like all of them, it depicts a small, airless, claustrophobic world – domestic or institutional or both – in which the characters talk endlessly in long, ultra-formal, finely nuanced conversations that teem with subtext, with unspoken motives and passions.

Almost everything – the action, characterisation and character development, sudden twists and shocking revelations – is carried by dialogue alone; there is virtually nothing else in a typical Ivy Compton-Burnett, apart from sharp thumbnail sketches of the characters, rudimentary stage directions, and occasionally a piece of ‘action’ so stagey it could have been taken straight from a Victorian melodrama. The mise-en-scène rarely strays beyond the immediate environs of the house where the characters live, which is a world, a universe, in itself. Reading IC-B’s extraordinary, highly wrought dialogue with care and close attention, you come to learn – gradually or, often, explosively – what is really going on. You have to be on your toes even to keep track of who is speaking, as these conversations often involve several people, sometimes talking over each other or aside. It’s rather like listening from outside a door – something Dame Ivy’s characters frequently do. (They also have a habit of suddenly appearing from nowhere, like Jeeves.) ‘As regards plots,’ said IC-B, ‘I find real life no help at all. Real life seems to have no plots. And as I think a plot desirable and almost necessary, I have this extra grudge against real life. But I think there are signs that strange things happen, though they do not emerge.’ Note that ‘almost necessary’. IC-B is perhaps the perfect exemplar of the Aristotelian distinction between plot and action: her plots are perfunctory to the point of absurdity, but the action of her novels – that which unfolds almost entirely through the dialogue – is rich, complex, layered and dense with meaning. Too much meaning.

No one, I think, would describe reading Ivy Compton-Burnett as easy. However, once you have plunged in, you gradually begin to get your bearings, and then the fun begins. For these novels are indeed – for all the seething tensions, vicious power struggles and murderous resentments – comedies. Comedies of the darkest hue – featuring all manner of dastardly deeds, up to and including murder – but comedies none the less. They might even make you laugh (they do me) – more with a shocked gasp than a hearty chuckle, but it’s laughter all the same. The comedy comes partly from the contrast between all that endlessly refined dialogue and the baseness and dark emotions that drive it, and partly from the author’s shameless use of the creakiest plot contrivances. But of course it’s pointless trying to analyse comedy – far better to dive in and read.

Where to begin? In a sense, it hardly matters, as every Compton-Burnett is much like every other (and very much unlike anything else), but her own two favourites were Manservant and Maidservant – a novel in which life ‘downstairs’ mirrors the emotional battleground ‘upstairs’ – and A House and Its Head, a devastating portrait of masculine domestic tyranny.

Ivy’s opening paragraphs are always, to put it mildly, arresting. Here’s how A House And Its Head begins:

‘”So the children are not down yet?” said Ellen Edgeworth.
 Her husband gave her a glance, and turned his eyes towards the window.
 “So the children are not down yet?” she said on a note of question.
 Mr Edgeworth put his finger down his collar, and settled his neck.
 “So you are down first, Duncan?” said his wife, as though putting her observation in a more acceptable form.
 Duncan returned his hand to his collar with a frown…’

And here are the opening exchanges of Manservant And Maidservant:

 ‘”Is that fire smoking?” said Horace Lamb.
 “Yes, it appears to be, my dear boy.”
 “I am not asking what it appears to be doing. I asked if it was smoking.”
 “Appearances are not held to be a clue to the truth,” said his cousin. “But we seem to have no other.”’

The speakers here are Horace Lamb, domestic tyrant and cruel paterfamilias, and Mortimer, his dependent cousin (and the cause of the smoking fire is a dead jackdaw in the chimney). Mortimer is in love with Horace's wife and hopes to take her and the cruelly tyrannised children away from Horace. ‘Horace,’ IC-B explains, ‘had married her for her money, hoping to serve his impoverished estate, and she had married him for love, hoping to fulfil herself. The love had gone and the money remained, so that the advantage lay with Horace, if he could have taken so hopeful a view of life.’

As the title suggests, there is a downstairs world also, to mirror, comment on and caricature the horrors of life upstairs, and there is even another household nearby, consisting of the young man who is tutor to the unhappy Lamb children, his ghastly mother who plumes herself on a resemblance to George Eliot, and his sister, who will play a pivotal part in the plot – as will another subsidiary character, the illiterate woman who runs a poste restante service for letters the locals don't want delivered to their houses. An intercepted letter is crucial to the plot – as is the gloriously improbable contrivance of a nearby ravine with a broken footbridge across it. The dialogue, as ever, is the thing. Above stairs it is used chiefly to insult, manipulate and humiliate; below stairs the butler and cook pursue similar aims in an orotund, biblically inflected style; while in the nursery the children talk like wholly disenchanted, precociously wise and aware (they have to be) miniature adults. Often in Dame Ivy’s novels it is the children who have the clearest sight and the deepest wisdom.

Another good place to start might be with A Father And His Fate, a relatively late, relatively short and relatively accessible work. Miles Mowbray, the monstrous patriarch at the centre of this one, is, as ICB’s male monsters go, a relatively benign one, a pompous, grandiloquent and absurd figure (whose absurdity is constantly being pointed up by his sharp-witted nephews, Nigel and Rufus). However, when fate presents him with the opportunity – or appears to – he steps in briskly to steal his nephew’s fiancée, his junior by decades, and propose to marry her. (This, or something very like it, actually happened in my own family, when my much-married and philoprogenitive great-grandfather stole his son’s fiancée and married her, fathering several more children.) Miles Mowbray’s plans, however, are thwarted when the past makes an unexpected reappearance in the present.

‘“It is the future we must think of,” said Constance. “It is useless to pursue the past.”
“It is needless,” said Audrey. “It will pursue us.”’

Dame Ivy was posthumously very lucky in being the subject of one of the great literary biographies of recent decades – and one of the most necessary, as so much about its subject’s life was obscured in secrecy or myth. Hilary Spurling’s two-volume work – Ivy When Young and Secrets of a Woman’s Heart – uncovered the often terrible facts of her early life, and gave depth to the outwardly forbidding, almost self-caricaturing literary grande dame of her later years. Ivy spent those years settled in comfortable, if hardly friction-free, domesticity in a grand Kensington apartment with Margaret Jourdain, a formidably well connected expert on English furniture and design. If this was a sexual relationship, it was certainly discreet. Ivy’s novels show a remarkably relaxed attitude towards homosexual relationships, which are simply taken for granted as features of the world she describes (for this reason, I believe, her works are taken seriously in the wonderful world of Queer Studies). Ivy and Margaret, who liked to surround themselves with adoring young men of ambiguous sexuality, seem to have enjoyed entertaining, but dinner chezIvy and Margaret could be a strangely soporific affair: one guest recalled falling fast asleep between soup and fish, and another wrote of waking from a deep sleep to find the table cleared and his hosts long abed. Lunch, too, could be something of an ordeal, as James Lees-Milne recalled:

‘We ate lentil soup, white fish with sauce and steamed potatoes, a rhubarb and ginger tart, Morecambe shrimps and biscuits. Margaret Jourdain opened a large bottle of Cydrax, poured out [Ernest] Thesiger's and my glasses and was about to pour her own when Miss Compton-Burnett shouted, "Margaret! Remember at breakfast it was decided that you were to finish the opened bottle of flat Cydrax."'

Cydrax, for heaven’s sake! Not even proper cider.

Secrets of a Woman’s Heart is full of such treasurable vignettes, such as the occasion when Dame Ivy met Mr and Mrs T.S. Eliot, who lived in an apartment just around the corner from hers. This was at a time when Ivy had developed a habit of mischievously steering the conversation relentlessly towards such subjects as the price of refrigerators at the Army & Navy stores. She would then exclaim with mock dismay, ‘Here we are – some of the best-educated people in England, I suppose – and all we can talk about is the price of refrigerators at the Army & Navy.’ She applied the technique to Mr and Mrs T.S. Eliot when they met at a party in Knightsbridge and subsequently shared a taxi home. By all accounts, they talked of nothing but the forthcoming Rent Act (an obsession of Ivy's), cake shops, fishmongers, greengrocers in the Gloucester Road, and where to go for the best fillet steak. Ivy found the whole episode very amusing, as did the Eliots, who were ‘tickled by the fact that she was complaining bitterly both at the party and in the taxi at having to pay the porter five shillings for bringing up her coals!’

The poet and the novelist continued to glimpse each other on their rounds and no doubt exchanged more observations on cakes and fish. ‘I don't see very much of him, you know,’ reported Ivy, ‘but I like to know he's there.’ She found the phenomenon of ‘Mr Eliot's bride’ quite fascinating. ‘Apparently she's always adored him,’ she told Elizabeth Taylor (the novelist), ‘although she was his secretary for years. I am sure if I had been his secretary for a fortnight I should have wanted to poison him, not marry him ... Yes, I should have run round to the chemist's for three pennyworth of poison after a very short time.’

Spurling’s biography – both volumes of it – makes wonderful reading, and it probably would even if you had never read Ivy’s novels. However, if you hadn’t, it would surely lead you to them – and then, who knows, you might end up like me, a hopeless addict.

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