“Dear, dear, what clever talk it all is!”
“It sounds so,” said Jenney, on a puzzled note. “And yet it is all about nothing, isn’t it?”
It’s canny of Ivy Compton-Burnett to incorporate into Elders and Betters (1944) the main criticism aimed at her novels – it shows a self-awareness, but somehow also deflates the common argument (from those who have read her unadmiringly) that her work is all surface and no depth. I’m going to do my best to defend her, but… I do have to concede that a lot of what I love about Ivy Compton-Burnett’s exceptional writing is the surface wit. A lot, but not all.
Elders and Betters starts off on moving day for the Donne family. Anna has chosen a house for them, and the various members of the family are moving in, in dribs and drabs. Since we started off with only three, I thought that Ivy Compton-Burnett had been uncharacteristically frugal with her cast – but more and more arrived, and then we were introduced to a second family. I’ll save you some time, and rattle through them. Skip the next paragraph if you want to – it’s deathly dull, but needs must. Here goes.
Father: Benjamin, children: Bernard, Esmond, Anna, Reuben (ages about 30 to 13, in that order). Benjamin’s cousin Clara Bell ‘known as Claribel to the family, and to as many people outside it as she could contrive’; housekeeper Maria Jennings (Jenney to all), Cook (nobody seems to know her name) and Ethel, the maid. Benjamin’s sister Jessica lives nearby, along with her husband Thomas, adult children Terence and Tullia, and young children Dora and Julius. Benjamin’s other sister, Sukey, also lives there – and is dying of a vague heart condition, without any apparent time-limit on its fatal nature. Finishing things off are Miss Lacy (the young children’s teacher) and her niece Florence.
Phew! At one point I did sketch out a family tree, but they actually all have quite distinct personalities and affinities, and it wasn’t too tricky to keep them all sorted in my mind. Back to the plot. As I say, we start with visiting a new house – the sort of scene I always warm too, especially when one character is trying to convince others that it’s a great choice, and they remain firmly unconvinced.
“The drawing-room and dining-room are what we should expect,” said Anna, throwing open the doors. “The kitchens are below them. The staircase leads to those above.”
“A natural use for a staircase,” murmured Claribel to Jenney, as she set foot upon it. “I am glad we are to be allowed to put it to its purpose.”
Oh, how I adore the witty pedantry which informs so much of Ivy Compton-Burnett’s writing. And the backtracks and change of tempo brought about by her authorial asides. How can you not adore a writer who constructs so perfect a sentence as this? :
Ethel tried not to smile and entirely succeeded.
Round and round the conversations go, seemingly to lead nowhere, but actually forming brilliant portraits of family dynamics, and exposing the barbs and bitternesses behind people’s facades – as well their occasional generosity or kindness. For her characters so rarely have facades – they say what they think, or (more often) contradict what others think. There is one utterly wonderful scene where nothing more complex happens than someone notices there are thirteen sitting down to dinner – and they deliberate who shall sit down first (or last; they cannot recall the superstition correctly.) It is a scene which should be anthologised time and again.
But Elders and Betters is not a novel where nothing happens. Ivy Compton-Burnett was always keen to stress that novels must have plots, and hated those which seemed not to. In Elders and Betters, the pivotal point could be borrowed from any detective novelist, even if the treatment could not. Aunt Sukey has written two wills – one inheriting her sister Jessica, one her niece Anna. She asks Anna to destroy the will which would benefit her; Anna destroys the other. Sukey, of course, dies shortly afterwards of her heart condition. And this propels the happenings, and (more importantly) the conversations, for the rest of the novel.
Recently, on my very positive review of Elizabeth Bowen’s The House in Paris, Rachel commented “I’m sure you’ll entice some more people to read Bowen – she’s streets ahead of ICB!!!” Those exclamation marks show me that she was teasing, but I do have to say – I still think Ivy Compton-Burnett is a better and more important writer than Elizabeth Bowen. These author-vs.-author battles are probably rather silly, and will end up going in circles, but the reason I think ICB is more important is that Elizabeth Bowen does, very well, what a lot of other authors try to do; Ivy Compton-Burnett does brilliantly what nobody has really tried to imitate.
“It is a modest but pleasant house,” said Reuben’s voice, “and a home is where a family is gathered together.”
“That is what makes family problems,” said Bernard.
“We have none of those,” said Benjamin, in a tone that defied contradiction.
“None,” muttered Esmond. “Problems imply a solution.”
“Jenney is proud of me for being able to talk like other people, though I cannot walk like them,” said Reuben, rightly interpreting the expression on Jenney’s face.
It is not true that Ivy Compton-Burnett’s narrative voice is absent – although her novels are mostly dialogue, she very often gives speech this sting in the tail, offering a flash of insight into a character’s mind, and darting away again just as quickly. Hopefully I have given some examples of what makes her so special, so different, so important a novelist.
But, while musing about Ivy Compton-Burnett on the bus (for such is my glamorous life), I wondered why I believed her to be such a significant author, considering she seemed to inspire no one and take inspiration from no one. There appears to be no distinct literary tradition that she adapted or futhered, besides the vague quantities of the domestic novel. And then it struck me, the author she most reminded me of – which is, curiously perhaps, Shakespeare.
Characters who speak as no person would ever speak (for who ever spoke in blank verse?) but who perfectly represent how people feel and think. Characters engaged in large-scale comedy and tragedy, but bound by the familial ties, and rarely missing the opportunity to philosophise in the midst of anguish or (more rarely) joy. And of course, with all that dialogue, Ivy Compton-Burnett’s books are as much plays as they are novels. The deal was sealed when, in the final act (if you will) a flurry of unexpected engagements occurred. Perhaps with these criteria I could compare Ivy Compton-Burnett to any playwright in a Shakespearean tradition, but it seemed to me that it was William S’s particular mantle that Dame Ivy was seeking to inherit. This only struck me towards the end – with my next venture in Ivy Compton-Burnett’s novels, I shall keep it in mind from the outset, and see what it brings out of the text and reading experience. Elders and Betters, to conclude, is not my favourite of the Ivy Compton-Burnett novels I’ve read (More Women Than Men retains that crown), nor is it in the top half, but she seems incapable of writing a novel that I will not thrive upon and relish – Elders and Betters is no exception.