A series of pamphlets called Writers and Their Work was issued by British Book News in the early 1950s, and I happen to have got my hands on two of them. In fact, they were amongst the books I bought during Project 24. As you’ll be gathering from this week (as if you didn’t already know) I love authors writing about authors – especially when both sides of the equation are authors whom I love. I. Compton Burnett by Pamela Hansford Johnson was a no-brainer for me – I love ICB, and I like PHJ, so I had to get hold of this. Plus it ticks off 1951 on A Century of Books in under fifty pages. I’ll try to make my post appropriately brief.
I bang on about Dame Ivy quite a bit here – basically, I want everyone to try her, and I’ve resigned myself to the fact that at least four-fifths of those who give Ivy a whirl will be unimpressed. But the final fifth… oh, boy, we love her! As Hansford Johnson writes, ‘She is not to be mildly liked or disliked. She is a writer to be left alone, or else to be made into an addiction.’ Reading this pamphlet has made this addict desperate to read another ICB novel, and I imagine it won’t be long before I’m writing about one. I love reading another author’s enthusiasm for ICB, especially when she describes so perfectly what it is that I love about the Ivester. (Sorry. That won’t happen again.)
The peculiar charm of Miss Compton-Burnett’s novels, the charm that has won her not merely admirers but addicts, lies in her speaking of home-truths. She achieves this by a certain fixed method. One character propounds some ordinary, homely hypocrisy, the kind of phrase from which mankind for centuries has had his comfort and his peace of mind. Immediately another character shows it up for the fraud it is, and does it in so plain and so frightful a fashion that one feels the sky is far more likely to fall upon the truth-teller than the hypocrite. In these books there is always someone to lie and someone to tell the truth; the power of light and the power of darkness speaking antiphonally, with a dispassionate mutual understanding.
I can’t add much to that, except ‘agreed!’ A perceptive reader is always such a joy to read – that’s why we love blogs, isn’t it? – and Hansford Johnson writes as a reader, rather than a critic. She shares the joy of the ICB addict; she recommends which novel to start with, and which to save for later; she even writes what amount to mini blog reviews of each novel – and, be warned, she gives away most of the plot, although plot is easily the least essential ingredient of a Compton-Burnett novel. Drastic and shocking events occur, but only incidental to a lengthy discussion about grammar or, as PHJ points out above, the hypocrisy of a common phrase. There is the occasional sense that PHJ wrote this quickly and could have done with editing a bit – one particular sentiment about service being unpleasant is repeated three times in 43 pages – but we can forgive her that.
What makes this pamphlet even more intriguing is that it was written in the middle of Ivy Compton-Burnett’s career. In 1951 she still had seven novels yet to write, including my introduction to her, Mother and Son. So this is not the place to go for the final say on Dame Ivy’s work, but it is fascinating to read a response in media res, as it were.
There is one description in this pamphlet which I will cherish – which so perfectly sums up ICB’s peculiar genius, and which I will finish on. (Come back tomorrow for the final in this mini-series of Authors on Authors – and one which is rather less niche.)