'As the rockets went up from either trench I saw the cornflowers thick and tall round me, covering with burial flowers so blue and hopeful the poor crumpled form of some enemy, who had been there long dead, for whom Ezekiel wrote an epitaph in the days past "Son of man, can these bones live?"'
That striking passage, reporting a first excursion into No Man's Land, is in a letter written from the front in August 1915 by Ivy Compton-Burnett's brother Noel. Here he is again, calmly describing a bombardment a few days ahead of the Battle of Loos:
'For one minute, lying alone together and close we seemed in the midst of a flaming fiery furnace, or like one of those immaculate heroes who stand in a perfect hail of missiles to advertise Dri-ped shoes or some military tailor. But really no shell came within 30 yds and soon they got more distant. I feel something of the fascination of modern war - this strife of midgets who hurl the thunderbolt...'
'The noise is rather a bore,' he continues coolly. 'Will you get me the Mallock Armstrong Ear-Defender 4s...'
Noel Compton-Burnett, who was a popular Fellow of King's with vague literary ambitions, died in the first assault on Mametz Wood on 14 July, 1916. 'It quite smashed my life up,' recalled Ivy years later in a rare moment of frankness.
Noel's death was but one of a succession of blows that rained down on Ivy in the years following the death of her beloved father: the death of her favourite brother from influenza (pre-war); the decline and death of her emotionally tyrannous mother (whom Ivy succeeded all too well as domestic tyrant); the loss of Noel, who was all in all to her; her own near death from influenza, post-war; and the death of her two youngest sisters, in an apparent suicide pact. 'One was a good deal cut up by the war; one's brother was killed, and one had family troubles,' as she would put it, with masterly understatement, when asked what happened in the 14 years between her first novel and her (entirely different) second one.
Hilary Spurling's brilliant page-turner of a biography, Ivy When Young, which I have just finished, leaves its subject in 1919, with the first beginnings of her creative 'awakening' just apparent. I fear I might have to read the second volume. But not yet, not yet...