The Sack of Bath by Adam Fergusson

One of the more surprising choices for Persephone Books over the past few years has been The Sack of Bath (1973) by Adam Fergusson. While they have a range of titles and topics, usually they tick at least one of the boxes from ‘written by a woman’, ‘published in the first half of the 20th century’, and ‘fiction’. The Sack of Bath is none of these things – but what it is is fascinating. And – for those who care about this sort of thing – it has one of my very favourite Persephone endpapers:


The book was written in the 1970s as a rallying cry – it must almost immediately have become a historical piece instead – about the destruction of Bath’s beautiful Georgian architecture. The book is short in length and in its message: stop demolishing original architecture and replacing it with hideous buildings. The council of the time apparently were all about knocking stuff down if it was – or might be – in places where they wanted to put roads or businesses or anything whatsoever. Fergusson writes about it rather eloquently:

The set pieces – Royal Crescent, the Circus, Milsom Street, the Pump Room, and so on – stand glorious and glistening (some have been restored and cleaned) for tourists to come and see in their thousands every year. But now, more and more because the devastation goes on, they have become like mountains without foothills, like Old Masters without frames. The Bath of the working classes, the Bath which made Beau Nash’s fashionable resort possible, has been bodily swept away. Irreplaceable, unreproducible, serendipitous Bath, the city of period architectural vignettes with a myriad tiny alleys and corners and doorways, is either being wrenched out pocket by pocket or bulldozed in its entirety.

Isn’t ‘like Old Masters without frames’ brilliant? The initial purpose of Fergusson’s book may be over (and was, I believe, more successful than he could have hoped), but it is still extremely interesting to read. It’s hard not to get worked up and cross when one reads the nonsense that the vandal council and architects said – and see the before-and-after pictures of streets which were knocked down and replaced with architectural horrors. Indeed, much of this short book is photos – and while 21st-century books would be better produced, there is a certain poignancy to seeing 1970s photography at work.

Fergusson is not afraid to get his gloves off. This is not an academic’s careful analysis – this is impassioned. One photo caption reads ‘The redevelopment below Sion Place lurches inelegantly down the slope, like a juggernaut with a flat tyre’. All in all, it fills one with a slightly fruitless rage – because the fight has completely changed since the 70s, but also because so much of the damage had already been done. Thank goodness Fergusson wrote this book, helping stem the tide of wanton destruction – and, now, it’s a really engaging cultural document.


The Life of Ivy Compton-Burnett by Elizabeth Sprigge

Some of you might be sick of hearing about Ivy Compton-Burnett on Stuck-in-a-Book, as I know she is an author who divides people absolutely, but I keep finding myself wanting to read more about her life.  Probably as much as I want to read her fiction.  And there are plenty of people who have provided biographies, memoirs, and celebrations.  Cicely Greig’s memoir is still the best I’ve read, and actually the book I’d encourage people to start with if they haven’t read any of Dame Ivy’s fiction (love the author and understand her approach, and I think you’ll be in the best place to try her novels) but Elizabeth Sprigge’s The Life of Ivy Compton-Burnett (1973) is also pretty good…

Like Greig, Sprigge knew Ivy Compton-Burnett personally, which gives the biography a similar tone of friendly love for the author.  It perhaps also explains why the chapters about her childhood and family are the least interesting – because Sprigge had no firsthand experience of them.  Ivy Compton-Burnett had a staggeringly large number of brothers and sisters, and although plenty of events befell them (two sisters died in an apparent suicide pact; a brother was killed at war) I found this section far less interesting than the rest of the biography, and Ivy herself doesn’t seem to have been particularly interested in her family, excepting the brother who died.

The most interesting part of the ‘early years’ is the discussion of Dolores (1911), published when Ivy was still pretty young (the age I am now, thinking about it), later disowned by her and generally considered to be pretty poor.  Sprigge disagrees, and, while acknowledging the disparity between it and what she would later achieve, includes several contemporary reviews which saw Dolores as the promise of a new and talented author.  It would be another fourteen years before Ivy Compton-Burnett would publish her next novel (Pastors and Masters, which, to my mind, is very much ICB-lite) but after that she was pretty regular – a novel every two years, essentially.

The formidable look of Ivy Compton-Burnett on the cover of this biography wouldn’t encourage to think of her as a slap-your-thigh laugh-a-minute type, and Cicely Greig certainly attests to how thin-lipped she could be if anybody fell below her high standards of good manners, but in Elizabeth Sprigge’s book it is definitely Ivy who provides the laughs (since Sprigge is not an especially witty writer.)  For instance, this may not have been a deliberate witticism on Dame Ivy’s part, but it is certainly amusing…

Margaret Jourdain had the gift of taking an interest in whatever interest in whatever interested her companions – an ability which Ivy Compton-Burnett did not share.  If a conversation took a turn alien to her, Ivy would bring it to heel.  For example, one day at a friend’s tea-party a number of people began discussing a Russian icon hanging on the wall.  Ivy listened for a few moments abstractedly, then observed decisively, “I do like a laburnum.”
Unsurprisingly, it is discussion of Ivy Compton-Burnett’s writing and reception which most interested me, and this biography includes an edited version of a long interview which Ivy Compton-Burnett and Margaret Jourdain (a close friend who lived with her many years) compiled for Orion in 1945, which is essentially a discussion of her writing.  And in turns out that Ivy Compton-Burnett is a very bad reader of her own books – or, at least, very different from everyone else.  She does not consider her books to be very similar (they are) or her characters to speak in a heightened manner (they certainly do), nor does she think her writing is difficult to read (I suppose in one way it isn’t, but Ivy seemed genuinely unable to see the difference in accessibility between her novels and bestsellers – Sprigge records many instances of Ivy Compton-Burnett bewailing her own lack of bestseller status.)

It is curious that somebody can write novels which, to my mind, are works of genius – and yet not be on the same page as her critics when it comes to recognising that genius.  She certainly believed herself to be one of the best living novelists, according to Sprigge, but doesn’t seem to have realised that it was her style and unique approach which gave her that title.

If, like me, you an avid reader of Ivy biographies, then I certainly recommend you get this one – let’s face it, you probably have it already, there are plenty of copies about – but if you are toying with trying your first memoir of Ivy Compton-Burnett (or, indeed, yet to make her acquaintance at all), then please seek out the equally-findable Cicely Greig’s Ivy Compton-Burnett: A Memoir.

A few little reviews…

It has come to my notice that it is December, and there are only 27 days left this year.  I have almost 20 reviews to write for A Century of Books… oops, didn’t work this out very well, did I?  (Well, I still have 10 books to read – but I have 4 of them on the go already.)  So I’m going to rush through five of them today – books that, for one reason or another, I didn’t want to write whole posts about.  But do still free to comment on them!

Daddy Long-Legs (1912) by Jean Webster
An orphaned girl is given a scholarship by a mysterious, anonymous man – she has only seen his back – and one of the conditions is that she must write updates to him, without getting any replies.  She nicknames him Daddy Long-Legs.  Can you guess what happens?  Well, I shan’t give away the ending.  I was mostly surprised at how modern this children’s book felt, despite being a hundred years old – a lot of it would have been at home in a Jacqueline Wilson story.  I enjoyed it, but did find it a little creepy, and rather repetitive, but these are probably signs of not having read it when I was the target age.

Metamorphosis (1915) by Franz Kafka
Gregor Samsa wakes up one morning to discover that he is an enormous bug.  Which is going to make his job as a salesman somewhat difficult.  The reason I’m not giving this novella/short story its own review is that I don’t feel I have anything new to say about it.  Kafka is famed for his matter-of-fact approach to the surreality in this story, and rightly so.  What surprised me here was how middlebrow it all felt.  It is definitely comparable to David Garnett’s Lady Into Fox – which actually seems to have greater pretensions to literariness.

Married Love (1918) by Marie Stopes
Another one which surprised me – I’d always heard that Marie Stopes started a sexual revolution in the UK, offering knowledge about sex to the everywoman for the first time.  Turns out she is much more conservative, and less revelatory, than a lot of the other guides written around the same time, and earlier.  I read these guides for my current DPhil chapter, by the way – my favourite so far being the person who argued that sexual intercourse and reproduction were acceptable as separate impulses, because protozoa separated them.  Sure, why not?  (I wonder if I’ve just made all sorts of inappropriate search terms for this blog now…)

Miss Hargreaves: the play (1952) by Frank Hargreaves
This is something of a cheat, since it was never published – but it was performed, with Margaret Rutherford in the lead role.  Tanya tipped me off that copies of all performed plays were in the Lord Chamberlain’s archives in the British Library – so I had the great privilege and pleasure of reading the play, with Baker’s own penned changes.  It’s pretty similar to the novel, only with the action restricted to a few settings.  Such fun!

V. Sackville West (1973) by Michael Stevens
I’m a sucker for a short biography, and I hadn’t read one of VSW before, so I gave this one a whirl.  It’s a critical biography, so Stevens discusses and analyses the work while giving an outline of VSW’s life.  About halfway through I thought, “this feels way too much like a doctoral dissertation.”  Turns out it was a doctoral dissertation.  I think I’ll be turning to a more charismatic writer for my next biography of Vita, as this one was rather prosaic and charmless, although very thoroughly researched.

Right, well that’s five down!  How are the other Century of Bookers getting on?