Wednesday 22 February 2012

'This oft-lived heart-throb'

Reading Ivy When Young, Hilary Spurling's superb (and, unlike many a biography, necessary) 1974 account of Ivy Compton-Burnett's early years, I am discovering much. Not least that, a full 14 years before her acknowledged canon began with Pastors and Masters (1925), she wrote a first novel called Dolores, which is not only wholly unlike her later work but, by the sound it, pretty well unreadably awful. It's the story of a young woman's strenuous self-abnegation for the sake of 'service to her kin', with much clenching of hands, trembling of limbs, whitening of lips and furrowing of brow as Dolores wrestles endlessly with her conscience. This kind of thing derives from the novels of such now all but forgotten writers as Charlotte M. Yonge and Mrs Humphry Ward. But, as Hilary Spurling demonstrates at length, it is the baleful influence of George Eliot that hangs heaviest over the novel, some passages seeming so close as to be almost plagiarised. Both George Eliot and the ICB of Dolores 'assume the same stiffish intimacy with the reader, and alternate between lugubrious solemnity and a vivid, mocking, generally patronising gaiety at the expense of the lower orders'. But Ivy adopts novelettish turns of phrase that Eliot would have sniffed at - 'this oft-lived heart-throb', 'the prime knit with a nobler soul' - and 'the book reads at times as though she were alternately translating from the Latin... and coining her own Homeric epithets'. Well, I certainly feel no desire to read Dolores, a book disowned and suppressed by its author (though if I came across it in a charity shop, I'd snap it up - it's quite a rarity) - but I do have a strong urge to read on in Hilary Spurling's biography, and discover how Ivy Compton-Burnett got from writing the dire Dolores to being the author of her later, so wholly different works. What happened?


  1. She learned how to write by getting on and doing it, then reflecting on it some time later when the fires of creative passion had died down! In between she probably showed it to an admired successful writer who tore it to shreds. She wept, then she grew up and got on with writing the next novel, her head somewhat cleared. And so on...

  2. Hmm I think there's more to it than that - the disjunction is too total. No one reading Dolores wld ever guess it was by ICB, adn that's v unusual. I suspect she more or less gave up trying to write a finished novel for a long time, and in the course of it life - mostly grief and domestic oppression - had turned her into the novelist she was. I'll find out in due course... I can't imagine her taking criticism from any other writer! If ever there was a novelist who did her own thing regardless, it was ICB.

  3. Oh I agree that life itself must have played a big part in that change - and the duration of time -but I'd never under value practise. Nor would I be sure re criticism from another writer. Many young writers ask for criticism - even if they then rage about it and go their own least that's what I've often gleaned from the biogs I've read

  4. The pattern is similar to that of Flaubert whose first novel, 'The Temptation of St Anthony' was ripped apart by the Goncourt Brothers for being lurid, ludicrous & overblown (to his face as I recall).

    He completely changed his style & his next novel was the famously naturalistic Madame Bovary.

    I'm not suggesting ICB's writing is on a par with Flaubert, it's not, but her development contains a similarly abrupt stylistic transition.