When we chose 1951, I was mostly excited that I could finally read an Ivy Compton-Burnett novel for a club outing. I’ve mostly been reading authors and books that I’ve long meant to get around to (which has been lovely), but I also treated myself to what I think is my 10th Ivy Compton-Burnett novel. I’ve got to the stage where I can’t remember which I’ve read and which I haven’t – because all the titles are the same. You’ll see what I mean when you see a sample of the ones I’ve read: Parents and Children, Mother and Son, Elders and Betters, A House and Its Head, A Heritage and Its History. Have I read A Father and His Fate? A God and His Gifts? I don’t know.
Her 1951 novel is Darkness and Day, which is the last of her novels that I bought (I have them all, except her first novel, Dolores – which I thought was impossible to find, but apparently the 1971 reprint is widely available). It starts off with a much smaller cast than I’d anticipated – just Sir Ransom Chance (what a name!), his daughters Anne and Emma, the servant Mrs Jennet, and the housekeeper/companion/dogsbody Miss Hallam. Anne and Emma could be considered the darkness and day of the title (though this later has myriad interpretations): the older sister is cynical and selfish; the younger is selfless and kind. The scene is a deliciously odd debate between servant and master as to whose place in life is better:
“I envy you, Jennet,” said Sir Ransom. “Because it is the proper thing to envy people placed as you are. Not because I really do.”
“Well, I shouldn’t expect it.”
“Do you envy me? That is not the proper thing. But tell me if you do.”
“Not on every count, Sir Ransom.”
“You mean you have longer to live. Why do people always think of age? Or why do they ever think of anything else? I often wonder why I do. Perhaps I don’t.”
“Well, I have the advantage of thirty years there.”
“Jennet, we do not talk of our advantage over people.”
“It is not a thing I can often do. I am not in danger of the habit.”
But we end up seeing surprisingly little of them – the cast gets much wider when we move to another house.
Like all Compton-Burnett’s novels, this one is set in late Victorian opulence. The families live in enormous houses, usually with a big household staff – and the house down the road is one such. The second son of the house is returning home, bringing his wife Bridget and two young daughters, Viola and Rose. They bring with them a secret; one that led to them leaving, and which has blighted their lives.
Some people say that nothing happens in Compton-Burnett’s novels. Well, I defy any novel to match this one for plot and twists – which I shan’t spoil here – and it ties together many different characters in an unlikely but satisfying way. What makes ICB’s novel so unusual is that it takes you a while to work out what the bombshell is. In a swirl of people correcting each other and talking about the inconsequential, the bomb is dropped, almost in passing. And several characters see their world in a whole new light – the darkness and day here represent ignorance and enlightenment, as is made (sort-of) explicit in the text.
What can I say about Compton-Burnett’s writing that I haven’t said before? This novel has the same unique, love-it-or-hate-it style of all her others. It’s mostly dialogue, there is a lot of pernickety arguing, and it is (if you like it) very funny indeed. The keynote of a Compton-Burnett novel, I realise, is that there is no such thing as an acknowledged truth. Whether it is a maxim or an attitude or what, no character will allow an assumption to stand unchecked – instead, it is passed around the characters until it is unrecognisable.
This is true (as always with ICB) with characters of any age or strata. The servants, the masters, and the children will all debate and analyse in the most highbrow words imaginable, and my favourite sections were when Miss Hallam attempts to be a governess to Viola and Rose. She approaches the task with affected good humour and gentleness; they meet it with stony independence and a refusal to take anything at face value. It is very, very funny.
“Are you painting?” she said, in a tone of pleasant interest.
“Well, you can see we are,” said Rose.
“Yes, I can. It was a useless question, wasn’t it?”
“Yes, it was.”
“But I am afraid painting is not lessons.”
“Of course it is not, or we shouldn’t have been doing it before you came.”
“Well, you don’t want to do it now I am here.”
“We do want to,” said Viola.
“I mean that I cannot let you do it.”
“You did not say what you meant.”
“How can you prevent us?” said Rose, continuing her work.
“I am not going to prevent you. I am going to ask you to put away your painting things, and I am sure you will.”
This confidence was not justified and the minutes passed.
How did this stack up against other ICB novels? Well, besides the slightly uneven apportioning of time spent with characters – it felt odd to kick off with several characters that we barely saw again until much later in the novel – I thought that Darkness and Day was fantastic. It’s not worth especially tracking this one down, though, because all her novels are pretty much the same – which does make me feel a bit of a fraud for including it in the 1951 Club. Yes, it was published in 1951, but Ivy Compton-Burnett paid absolutely zero heed to the changing fashions of writing, and continued writing in exactly the same way for forty years. Sorry for cheating – but I couldn’t resist.