Darkness and Day by Ivy Compton-Burnett – #1951Club

Darkness and DayWhen 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.

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.

Elders and Betters – Ivy Compton-Burnett

“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.

Ivy Compton-Burnett: A Memoir – Cicely Greig

My favourite thing in the blogosphere in 2012 has been Claire discovering, and loving, A.A. Milne.  Every time one of her AAM reviews come out, I more or less burst with glee that somebody else has found out how funny and delightful his many and various books are.  Most of my AAM reading happened before I started blogging (I’ve read about 25 books by him) so you haven’t witnessed my love of his books as much as you would have done had you engaged me in conversation in 2002, but – it is there!

So, that’s one favourite author off the list.  Back when I started blogging in 2007, it seemed that nobody much liked Virginia Woolf either – but plenty of people have come to the blogosphere since who share my love of Ginny.  And there’s never been any shortage of those who’ll wax literary over E.M. Delafield, Barbara Comyns, and Persephone & Virago etc.

But… but… as of yet, I haven’t found a blogger who loves Ivy Compton-Burnett as I do (although I think Geranium Cat is more in favour than not?).  There is no-one who gets as excited as I do about her novels; most people, indeed, have either never read her, or run screaming from the thought of having to read her again.

Picture source

Which is why it is so wonderful to find books which match my enthusiasm for Dame Ivy.  Earlier in the year, I read Pamela Hansford-Johnson’s enthusiastic pamphlet on Ivy Compton-Burnett – and now I’ve read something I loved even more.  In fact, it’s in my top two or three books of the year so far.  AND it’s available from 1p on Amazon.  It’s Ivy Compton-Burnett: A Memoir (1972) by her typist and friend, Cicely Greig.

Had I know that Greig was Ivy Compton-Burnett’s typist, I probably would have read this book much sooner (according to the date I scribbled inside, I’ve had it for nearly three years.)  It’s such an interesting perspective on this fascinating author.  Gradually they became friends as well, but the Victorian/Edwardianism of Ivy’s novels extended to her understanding of social mores, and it took quite a long time for her to unbend enough to treat Greig as a friend.  As Greig writes, Ivy Compton-Burnett just couldn’t quite understand her position – as a woman who had to earn her living, but wasn’t a servant.  The mechanics and background detail of writing fascinate me, and Greig is uniquely able to provide firsthand experience of certain aspects of Ivy’s writing process – as the first person to be given the novels in longhand:

I had not yet opened her parcel with the manuscript of her novel.  We
said goodbye to each other at the front door, and I flew back to the
sitting-room.  When I opened the parcel I found fourteen school exercise
books of the cheaper kind, blue paper covers and multiplication tables
on the back cover.  I remember thinking this last detail quite a fitting
logic for a book of Ivy’s.  Her books so often have a sort of
inexorable logic about them, like twice one is two.

For Greig was not solely a typist, but also an ardent fan.  This was how she got the job: she wrote to Ivy Compton-Burnett (and, incidentally, Rose Macaulay) expressing her admiration and asking that they consider her for future typing.  Macaulay didn’t take her up on it, but months later Ivy Compton-Burnett did.  As an admirer of Dame Ivy’s work, Greig combined professionalism with the sort of mad joy that any of us would feel at this privileged position with an author we loved.  Greig echoes Pamela Hansford-Johnson when writing about her love of Ivy:

Why did I like her books so much?  I have been asked that question many times, sometimes with a note of incredulous exasperation.  With Ivy one is either an addict or an abstainer.  I became an addict from the first chapter of A House and Its Head.  Most of my friends, unfortunately, are abstainers.  Suggest her, and if they have ever tried to read one of her books their reply can be an indignant refusal.

She really is love or hate.  Greig goes on to explain her own love of Ivy Compton-Burnett, not quite as astutely as Pamela Hansford-Johnson does, but still in a fascinating manner.  But it was her firsthand interaction with Dame Ivy which makes this book so thrillingly interesting to me.  Greig has no illusions about Ivy Compton-Burnett’s fairly terrifying character, but she also recognised the fondness behind it.

Her fierceness, when it showed itself, and when I provoked it, was always short-lived.  Any breach of normal decorum, and her standard was perhaps exceptionally high, was annoying to her, and she never failed to let this be seen.  But having let it be seen, the matter was over.

Ivy Compton-Burnett was always keen for Greig to visit, and expressed an interest in her life which was far from perfunctory.  They could not meet as equals, nor did they even use each other’s first names for many years, but there was a genuine affection and (more characteristically) curiosity from Ivy.  One gets the sense that Greig’s other friendships were more free and easy, but that perhaps this was one of the most valued – and while Ivy Compton-Burnett wanted to meet Greig’s friends, Greig felt she could only bring people who also admired Ivy’s writing; few and far between.  So, although Greig also grew to know Ivy’s dear friend Margaret Jourdain, theirs was mostly an exclusive friendship, in a vacuum, as it were.  Ivy’s life, aging, and death are shown sensitively, from the angle of a friend who saw her all too rarely, and Greig balances Ivy’s life and work excellently, being herself fascinated by, and involved with, both.

I would have been scared rigid of Dame Ivy, I’m sure.  Obviously manners maketh man, but decorum and etiquette often baffle me – and Ivy Compton-Burnett’s standards were positively Victorian, as though she were part of the world she so often depicted through fiction.  Ivy Compton-Burnett is one of those authors (like Virginia Woolf, like Muriel Spark) whose writing and personality I adore, but with whom I cannot imagine being friendly or even at ease.  And yet I lap up their comments and views of the world, whether or not I agree – and Greig’s perspective offers greater potential for these.  A brief observation Ivy Compton-Burnett made to Greig is one with which I do very much agree, for her time but more especially for ours:

“Yes, that’s the worst of writers today,” Ivy said.  “They will write about something.  Instead of just writing about people, about their characters.”

That’s probably one of the wisest things I’ve ever read about writing, and if more writers today considered it then we wouldn’t have the deluge of issue-driven books, which doubtless market well but prove rather uninspiring, to me, at least.

When people ask me where they should start with Ivy Compton-Burnett, I usually recommend either Pastors and Masters (as it is an early work; a sort of Ivy-lite) or simply say that they’re all more or less the same, so it doesn’t much matter.  I’d now be inclined to suggest they start, in fact, with this book.  Jumping straight into Ivy Compton-Burnett can be an intimidating prospect; I think becoming acquainted with her through Cecily Greig’s eyes is a great halfway house, and one which (through Greig’s infectious enthusiasm and personal insight) might well pique a reader’s interest, and make Ivy Compton-Burnett’s novels feel not only accessible but an absolute must.  These sorts of books are rather hit or miss, but Cecily Greig’s is one of favourite reads this year.  Hurrah!

More Women Than Men – Ivy Compton-Burnett

When I wrote about Pamela Hansford Johnson’s pamphlet on Ivy Compton-Burnett, I mentioned that it had made me keen to read more of my beloved Dame Ivy’s work soon.  It didn’t take me long – at Easter I delved through my collection of Ivy Compton-Burnett novels to find one to fill a gap in A Century of Books, and opted (because I love its dryly prosaic title) for More Women Than Men (1933).

If I dared, I would try an Ivy Compton-Burnett Reading Week, but I don’t think it work – partly because people often seem intimidated by her, but also because it’s no secret that Ivy Compton-Burnett’s novels are all similar in tone and title.  It’s difficult to differentiate Mother and Son from Daughters and Sons; Parents and Children from Elders and BettersA Family and a Fortune from A Father and his Fate, etc. etc.  The previous owner of my copy of More Women Than Men obviously had the same issues, for she has noted down a little list on the first page:

1933
Girls’ school
Mrs Napier
Felix Bacon.

Well, anonymous (and probably deceased) owner of my book, you have organised my thoughts for me.  More Women Than Men does, indeed, take place in a girls’ school – which is unusual for Ivy Compton-Burnett, who usually sets her novels in sprawling families with nine or so children.  I initially thought that she would just transfer this dynamic to the hierarchies and alliances of pupils and teachers, but in actual fact none of the girls say anything at all in the novel.  Rather, we watch the headmistress, Josephine Napier, rule over family and staff with a firmness which doesn’t repress the verbal dalliances of those around her, but which does render them powerless in the face of her unflappable logic.  People love to chop logic in Ivy Compton-Burnett’s novels – and I love reading them do it.  Truisms are interrogated; the polite shorthand tricks of conversation are exposed as evasions, and analysed to death.  None of it is very natural, it is definitely stylised – but deliciously so.
“I feel a little conscious of my appearance,” said Felix, coming up to the group.  “Perhaps it is being one of the few people who can wear formal clothes.”

His speech was met by incredulous mirth, his hearers keeping their eyes on his face, in case of further entertainment.

“Well, I hope that no one will be conscious of mine,” said Josephine.  “It is not my habit to be aware of it; but when I am oblivious, it may be hitting other people in the eye.  I got into the garment in time, but I admit it does not add to the occasion.”

“People always seem to think admission alter things,” said Helen, “when it really rather helps to establish them.”I’m running ahead of myself, as usual, since I haven’t explained who these people are.  Apologies if the following run-through is confusing – there are always a lot of characters in Ivy Compton-Burnett’s novels, often with complex interrelations.  More Women Than Men starts with Josephine greeting her all-female staff back after the school holidays.  Helen is a new staff member, and the others are returning – none of these are pivotal to the plot, for the majority of the novel, but each is rather wonderful to read about.  Miss Munday is large, vapid, and doleful; Miss Luke is grateful and ignored; Mrs. Chattaway is one of the few who has been married (now widowed):
Mrs. Chattaway seldom referred to her wedded life, and her companions, in spite of their sincere deprecation of the married state, assigned her reticence to her sense of loss; whereas the truth was, as they might consistently have guessed, that the memory was uncongenial.Josephine herself is married to Simon, who fades into the background – not so much browbeaten as so wholly in her shadow as to be rendered free of personality.  They have an adopted son, Gabriel, who is in fact Josephine’s nephew – he is in his early twenties, but still living at home, rather uselessly.  Josephine’s brother Jonathan (Gabriel’s father) taught pupils independently, until the last one stayed with him for 22 years.  This last one is Felix Bacon, who (joining together disparate groups) becomes the drawing master at Josephine’s school.  There are plenty of amusing conversations where Felix defends the idea of a man teaching girls to pupils’ fathers who think the job beneath him.  (I should add that More Women Than Men, like maybe of Dame Ivy’s novels, is set in a vaguely Edwardian period.)  And then there is the change of dynamic when a man is introduced to the all-female staff…
“You will find that not much gossip is done here,” said Josephine, smiling as if in spite of herself.

“I suppose it hardly could be in a common room.”

“Either there or elsewhere.”

“And in a community of women!  I am glad I am seeing life for myself, as all the theories about it are untrue.  Now I see that you are dismissing me with a look.  Of course you are one of those people whose glance is obeyed.”Josephine initially appears to be the paragon of diligence and kindness – a rather dominant and detached paragon, one whose glance is indeed obeyed, but a paragon nonetheless.  It becomes apparent, however, that she is ruthlessly manipulative – and yet she is far more complex than those words suggest.  Her love for husband and adopted son is deeply genuine, but it is coupled with her immovable sense of justice, and the love she demands in return.  She puts up a great deal of resistance when Gabriel becomes engaged to Ruth, the daughter of Elizabeth, an old acquaintance of Josephine and Simon Napier whose reappearance causes quite a stir earlier in the novel.
“In that case you will be grateful to Ruth, Josephine,” said Gabriel, coming nearer with a stumble, to avoid lifting his head.  “She is giving me a happiness greater than I had conceived.”

“Then it must be on a generous scale indeed, indulged boy,” said Josephine, her tone out of accordance with the change in her eyes.  “Let us hear about it before I resume my labours.  Come to the point, and enunciate some demand of youth.”

“It is the demand that I was bound to make one day.  It is naturally often a demand of youth.  This breaking up of our life seemed to the best time to make it.  The lesser change must count less at the time of the greater.  I make the demand with confidence, having been taught, as you will say, to make demands.  I have said enough for you to understand me?”

“No,” said Josephine, in a quiet, conversational tone; “I don’t think so.  You have not said anything definite, have you?”

There are almost never histrionics in an Ivy Compton-Burnett novel.  Whatever their emotions may be, characters are far more likely to react by calmly picking apart their antagonist’s sentence than hysterically screaming in their face.  These verbal gymnastics are not true to life, but they raise tension far more effectively (and originally) than a few outbursts could achieve.

did you really think that Sherpa wouldn’t find her way into this post?

The interconnections, misalliances, grievances, dependencies and loyalties between characters in More Women Than Men would be impossible to explain in a mere blog post.  Although the dialogue is undeniably stylised, there are complex and believable relationships throughout the novel – an aspect of Ivy Compton-Burnett’s writing which is seldom applauded.  A discussion of whether or not her novels are realistic would be fascinating – because ‘realistic’ has so many facets and definitions.  Would people talk like this?  No, definitely not.  Would people act like this?  Probably no.   But would people feel like these characters feel?  Yes – absolutely – and it is Ivy Compton-Burnett’s genius that she can interweave the genuine and the bizarre.
It is not true, either, that nothing happens in Ivy Compton-Burnett novels.  In fact, More Women Than Men contains one of the most ingenious murders ever – done by exposing a ill person to a draught.  A spoiler, yes, but the reason that Compton-Burnett’s novels have the reputation of nothing happening is that the plot, as such, doesn’t really matter.  It’s the way things happen, and the way she writes.  Oh! the way she writes!  I adore it.  Settling down to her aphorisms and linguistic somersaults is a joy – because they are not simply clever, but hilarious.

Of the six Ivy Compton-Burnett novels I’ve now read, this is perhaps my favourite.  Others have had sections where they dragged, but this one never did.  It’s not the easiest of her novels to find, but definitely worth hunting down – I’m hoping that my enthusiasm will lead to one or two Ivy Compton-Burnett converts, or at least encourage some more readers to give her a go.  You’ll love or loathe – and, if you love, you’ll never look back.

Authors on Authors (Part 2)

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.)

This is why Miss Compton-Burnett’s writing appears so strange to the reader who comes upon it without warning, a gentle tea-cosy madness, a coil of vipers in a sewing-basket.

Ivy & Stevie – Kay Dick

The first book I read from my recent Hay-on-Wye haul was Kay Dick’s Ivy & Stevie (1971) about Ivy Compton-Burnett and Stevie Smith.  Dick was friendly with both, and recorded conversations with them as part of a wider project she was researching.  ‘When’ (she writes) ‘Stevie Smith died earlier this year, not long after Ivy Compton-Burnett, it occurred to me that public interest in them both was sufficient to warrant publications of these two conversations on their own.’  So the book is divided into two – transcripts of each interview, paired with Dick’s reflections on each author.  Ivy C-B gets the first half of the book (and is the reason I bought it), while Stevie Smith gets the second half.

As I say, ICB – sorry, Dame ICB – is the reason I bought this book.  Maybe only one fifth of people who try Ivy end up liking her, but that one fifth will be passionately pro.  And she came across pretty much as I imagined she would from her writing and from photographs – formidable, amusing, confident, rather intimidating.  I think all of that comes across in this response:

What question do you most dislike people asking you about your work?
[…] ‘Do you find other people’s conversation useful?’  I went to a cocktail party the other day, and some woman I was talking to said, “Mustn’t this be useful to you?”  Of course it wasn’t useful.  Whatever good would it be to put down, “Do you feel that draught?”, and “Are you sure you won’t have another sandwich?”?  Conceit, because the don’t say a thing that would be any good at all.  One would be only too glad to take it down if one heard something deep or revealing or interesting.  Certainly not at a cocktail party, which is a dreadful function in itself.  I can’t bear them.  I went to this one because it was given by the landlord.  We’re frightfully friendly.  That is to say he’s frightfully friendly to me.  I believe it’s because of the enormous rent I pay him.  He rather likes my fame, but he thinks of the rent much more.
If I was hoping to learn a lot about her writing process, I was rather out of luck.  The interview is mostly about her thoughts on religion, families, even her characters – but not really about how she creates them.  And the big question that everyone must ask when they encounter ICB – why so much dialogue? – is sadly one which she cannot answer herself:

I don’t know why I write so much in dialogue.  I think it must just have been my nature.  It just came like that.  I don’t think one can explain these things – they probably go deep, these reasons, don’t you think?
So, there you go.  Was she being disingenuous?  Hard to say.  There is an air throughout that ICB is slightly above these sorts of discussions, or that she feels distanced from them somehow.  Perhaps that’s just her no-nonsense personality, and that isn’t to say she doesn’t give her views firmly.  I liked what she had to say about accusations that her novels were old-fashioned (I’m going to keep quoting quite a lot from these ladies, because the whole point of Ivy & Stevie is that it focuses on the authors’ voices.  That, and typing out quotations takes less energy than forming my own sentences!)

I know you get very annoyed, don’t you, when people say that you write about a world that is no longer there, because, as you say, human beings are always there.
Oh, I think the world will always be there.  It is true I put my books back, because the kind of world one knows one doesn’t know completely until it’s finished.  In a sense one has to wait until it’s finished.  Things are so much in a state of flux now.  I think that some of these modern books that depict human life with people just roaming about London and living in rooms and sleeping with everybody – it’s not interesting, because, of course, I can’t read them.  Everybody doesn’t live like that, do they? […] They live in civilized houses as they always did.  They have servants as they always did, although fewer.  Supposing I were living fifty years ago, situated as I am, I should have had a house and a cook and a housemaid, and, I suppose, a pony trap and a stable boy, instead of just a flat and one factotum.  But that’s a superficial difference.  I don’t think people do alter – if they do, they react back again, don’t they?  There must be family life.
Stevie Smith says something quite similar in her interview:

What do you think of the world today?
Well, much the same as I always thought of it yesterday.  It doesn’t change very much does it?
Well said, Stevie!  I think the difference between question and answer here can be attributed to the difference between journalist and novelist.  Not that Dick was a journalist (she was an erstwhile novelist herself) but she takes that stance for these interviews.  The journalist focuses on change, and everything being new in the present moment; the novelist (especially one as perceptive as ICB) looks at that which stays the same; the consistencies of human nature throughout the generations.

When I say that I bought Ivy & Stevie because of Ivy, I don’t imply any distaste for Stevie.  I just haven’t read anything by her – except for ‘Not Waving But Drowning’ – although I do have a novel or two of hers on my shelf.  Having now read the interview with her, she comes across as a charming, modest, slightly scatty woman – qualities which make me rather love her.  She lived with her aunt for a long time, who obviously took scant interest in Smith’s writing, and she describes it wonderfully (I think there is something in the expression ‘my dear’ which will always win my support):

What did you aunt think of your work?
Oh, her attitude was simply splendid, everything one asks for really.  I should hate to live with a literary aunt.  My aunt used to say, “I’m very glad to hear you’ve got another book coming out, but as you know I don’t know much about it.  It’s all nonsense to me, my dear.”  I felt this was the right attitude.  My aunt had a faintly sardonic attitude, I think, to the whole world.  Her highest praise was when, after I got the Cholmondeley Award, she said, “I wish your mother was alive and could have known about this dear.”
Being unfamiliar with her work, I couldn’t really relate it to what she said.  My main knowledge of Stevie Smith comes from Kathryn Williams’ song ‘Stevie’, from the album Leave to Remain.  I can’t find a version online to imbed, but it includes the line ‘They say she’s obsessed with death and that / but what else do you laugh at?’  Which prepared me for Stevie Smith saying something like this:

There’s a terrible lot of fear of life in my poems.  I love life.  I adore it, but only because I keep myself well on the edge.  I wouldn’t commit myself to anything.  I can always get out if I want to.  I think this is a terribly cowardly attitude to life.  I’m very ashamed of it, but there it is, dear.  I love death, I think it’s the most exciting thing.  As one gets older one gets into this – well, it’s like a race, before you get to the waterfall, when you feel the water slowly getting quicker and quicker, and you can’t get out, and all you want to do it get to the waterfall and over the edge.  How exciting it is!
So I came away with a new fondness for Smith, and determination to read her writing, and a renewed admiration for (and slight fear of) Dame Ivy.  As for Kay Dick herself, I rather enjoyed her brief reflections upon knowing both writers.  Neither sticks in my mind particularly, but the personal touch was valuable.  I thought I knew Kay Dick’s name from somewhere, but can’t track down where… I Googled her and read an obituary which I wish I hadn’t, as it was incredibly vicious (and provoked letters giving opposing views.)  Well, whatever else Dick was or wasn’t, did or didn’t do, I am grateful that she preserved these conversations, which could only take place with an interviewer with whom the authors felt comfortable.  An invaluable resource for anyone interested in either of these writers – or, indeed, in the lives of writers in general.

Pastors and Masters

So far, bought nothing in 2010… but to be honest I haven’t had any temptation, since I’ve spent most of the New Year in bed so far, while my research work stares at me from across the room. Still, not feeling too awful right now, and hopefully I’ll be back on my feet before long. In fact, I feel well enough to try and catch up on reviewing some of the books I read in December…

First up is Pastors and Masters by Ivy Compton-Burnett, which Hesperus Press very kindly sent me. As you’ll have spotted in my recent purchases, I have enough ICB to last me a while – but I had to support Hesperus as they’re the only people keeping ICB in print in the UK. (Having said that, the New York Review of Books Classics series does have two in print, and they’re stocked in some bookshops in England – like the Persephone Bookshop off Notting Hill Gate, for example). Pastors and Masters is ICB’s first ‘proper’ novel, from 1925, and unlike the others I’ve read, doesn’t take place in a big, sprawling family. Instead, we are in a boys’ school, witnessing the interactions of teachers up and down a slightly bizarre hierarchy. Though there are also a lot of boys, they don’t get much dialogue, and hence not much of the novel concerns them – for even in her first novel, ICB privileged dialogue over description, though not to the same extent as in her later works.

Mr. Merry, the central schoolmaster, is prone to the deliciously and infuriatingly sarcastic speechs which ICB scatters throughout her books: ‘And get to your seats without upsetting everything on your way, will you please? Oh, who would be a schoolmaster? I should not be doing my duty to you all, if I did not warn you all against it. And I suppose it is a good thing to have the east wind from an east window blowing in upon forty people, thirty-nine of them growing boys, before their breakfast on a March morning? And… one, two, three, four, five, six, seven… it takes eleven boys to shut a window, does it? And I suppose I cannot make a few remarks, without having you all fidgeting and gaping and behaving like a set of clodhoppers instead of gentlemen? Get to your work at once, and don’t look up again before the gong.’ Though he feels himself in charge, there are also junior masters and those who own the school and their wives and governors and parents and… I must confess I got a little confused as to who was whom (or whom was who, or something). ICB’s character delineation matured in her later novels, I think. The plot running through this novel, aside from the everyday activities of the school, is that two of the teachers have written books, and intend to publish. I shan’t spoil the storyline, but it is rather more cloak and dagger than some of ICB’s later novels, and involves more Agatha Christie-esque guess-work – but alongside this, ICB’s style is unmistakable, though not wholly developed. I would describe Pastors and Masters as ICB-lite, if you will. Recognisable enough to please the ICB fanatic, but also sufficiently like a more ‘normal’ novel for those who find her style affected. It’s short, funny, and – though by no means her best work – I would recommend it to those who want to give ICB a go, and don’t feel up to one of her longer novels. If you like this, there’s a lot more to explore – if you don’t, at least it has one of Hesperus’ beautiful covers!

Sprawling Ivy

I don’t know how many people managed to join in a group read of Manservant and Maidservant, what with the appalling scarcity of copies, and the fact that (in my case, at least) good intentions rarely make the tbr pile any shorter – but it’s November now, and so I’m going to begin talking about the novel. If you have managed to read it, and post about it, please let me know, and I’ll include links in this post – and shout about them in later posts too. Or, indeed, if you had a go and hated it, didn’t get beyond page 2, I want to hear from you too! And if you’ve been reading and don’t have a blog, or don’t fancy posting it on your blog for whatever reason, I’d be more than happy to put your thoughts up on Stuck-in-a-Book.

Right! Let’s get started. Manservant and Maidservant was published in 1947, bang in the middle of Dame Ivy’s writing career, which spanned from Pastors and Masters (1925) to her death in 1969. She did write a novel in 1911, Dolores, but later disowned it – and all of her other nineteen novels are, I believe, more or less the same. (Having said that, whenever she was asked which were her favourites of her own novels, she’d mention A House and its Head and Manservant and Maidservant.) The plots may differ slightly, but the scenarios don’t seem to, nor does her distinctive approach to writing. In Manservant and Maidservant, like so many of her books, there is an enormous family living in an old house, squabbling and calmly interrogating one another. In fact, what I wrote in my review of Parents and Children still stands: Life-changing events are encompassed by lengthy, facetious discussions – gently vicious and cruelly precise, always picking up on the things said by others. Calmness permeates even the most emotional responses, and ICB’s writing is always astonishing in its use of dialogue. More or less all of it is dialogue, and though often sophistry, it is somehow also accurate about family dynamics. Gosh, quoting myself, isn’t that self-indulgent? But it’s true – blink-and-you’ll-miss-it events of enormity will be mentioned in amongst pages of discussing the lighting of a fire, or whether or not the children are entitled to Christmas stockings. Centre of the family is Horace, father and employer – his wife is mysteriously absent from proceedings, though his cousin and aunt are present. He is strict, decisive, given to posing rhetorical questions – and as the novel develops, hints are given of a cruel nature which has only recently subsided. His relationship with his children is uneasy, and you get the sense that they are unsure of his character, and what he will do next. He, of course, does not see things in the same manner: “This room is never damp. It could not be in its situation,” said Horace, who saw in his family house the perfection he had not found in his family. As the title suggests, the world below stairs is as important as that above. Bullivant, the butler, sees both worlds – Mrs. Selden the Cook, George and Miriam slightly further down the hierarchy. I loved the scenes in the servants’ quarters – the dynamics of those thrown together into a strange home/non-home. I especially liked Cook, unnervingly eloquent (how many servants would say “That was quite a superfluous injunction” ?) and with a firm sense of keeping people in their place.
“I could feel to you as to a mother, Mrs. Selden,” said George, on an impulse.
“Then behave to me as a son and hand me those forks,” said Cook, regarding this as the right way to meet excess of feeling.In fact, keeping people in their place, within a strict hierarchy, is of far greater significance below stairs than above – though it is not ignored there, and in vain does Horace try and teach his children the pitfalls of ‘fairness’. But the manservant and maidservant, et al, provided most of my favourite quotations. For example: “Do you take your tea strong or the reverse, Miss Buchanan?”

“Neither one nor the other,” said the guest, using her rather loud voice for the first time.

“That is my own preference,” said Bullivant.

“My bias is also towards the mean,” said Cook, with her eyes on the teapot. “I am not in favour of excess in any direction.”

“How do the young people like it?” said Miss Buchanan, both her utterance and its nature coming as a surprise.

“I am conversant with their preferences,” said Cook, with nothing in her tone to indicate that she would be influenced by these.and: “It was a bad hour for George, when he told the truth about himself,” said Mortimer. “It was sad to see him thinking that honesty was the best policy.”This is fairly indicative of Ivy Compton-Burnett’s style – warped epigrams; small authorial comment casting a cynical eye upon convoluted conversations. I don’t think anybody could call her dialogue naturalistic, but it does put across people’s characters surprisingly well. And there is such a sense of claustrophobia – people always watching, listening, correcting and analysing.

It’s impossible to skim-read Manservant and Maidservant, or even, I found, to read it quickly. Though not a long book, it took me a long time to read it – the prose is so rich, so ponderous and dense, that I’m forced to settle back and let the characters talk at their own pace. And, once I do that, I love it. I love the long discussions which spiral round and don’t seem to achieve anything, because they are so well crafted – each sentence carefully honed, each inflection deliberate. I love the involved ways in which people rebuke each other or put them down. I couldn’t read two Compton-Burnett novels next to each other, perhaps, but I do need to know that some are waiting on the shelf.

But, of course, the point of a group read is to find out what you all thought… and I can’t wait. Let me know! And, if you haven’t managed to join in this time, perhaps this post will have inspired you to consider ICB next time you spot her in a secondhand bookshop. Or, indeed, in Hesperus’ new reprint of Pastors and Masters. For my money, she is one of the twentieth-century’s greatest and most important writers – but let’s see what everyone else says…