Saturday, 3 December 2011

More Women than Men

The annual NigeCorp workstorm having swept furiously in, my time and energies have been distracted from more agreeable pastimes, including blogging. However, I am reading slowly (appropriately slowly) Ivy Compton-Burnett's More Women than Men, one of her less well-known titles, in a paperback edition from 1983, when it was republished by Allison & Busby (along with Elders and Betters). Written in 1933, More Women... is set, like all ICB's works, in an upper-middle-class late Victorian-Edwardian world that is all her own. Here she creates, as ever, an enclosed world of people at close quarters, seething - below the politest of surfaces - with tensions, vicious power struggles and murderous resentments. This time it is a girls' school, presided over by Mrs Josephine Napier, a woman easily taken for a paragon, but who is, as soon becomes apparent, a ruthless manipulator of all around her. However, a combination of circumstances might be about to loosen her iron grip on all around her...
What is most extraordinary about ICB is the way in which almost everything - the action, the characterisation and character development, sudden twists and revelations - is carried by dialogue alone. Her characters' ultra-civilised, razor-edged conversation teems with subtext and unspoken passions, is indeed a heavily mined battleground. It has to be read with care to discover, now gradually, now explosively, what is really going on. The author - at once absent and omniscient - never tells; she only shows. Or rather her characters show, with what they say.
Not all is dialogue, though; each character is introduced with a thumbnail sketch that seems at first old-fashioned and conventional, but is always barbed, askew, off-kilter. Here, from the first page, are - one after the other - Mrs Napier and another major character, Miss Luke:
'Josephine Napier, the head of a large girls' school in a prosperous English town, was a tall, spare woman of fifty-four, with greyish auburn hair, full hazel eyes, an impressive, high-featured, but simply modelled face, a conscious sincerity and simplicity of mien, rather surprisingly jewelled hands, and hair and dress arranged to set off rather than disguise experience.
Miss Theodora Luke, a mistress in her school, was an erect, pale woman of thirty-eight, with a simply straightforward and resolute face, smooth, coiled hair, grey eyes with a glance of interest and appreciation, and an oddity of dress displayed in the manner of the university woman of Victorian days, as the outward sign of the unsuspected inner truth.'
Golly.
Or how about this, a little later?
'William Fane was a local lawyer... It was a need of his nature to feel self-esteem, and as he had no unusual quality but the power of sinking below his class, he esteemed himself for being a man and a potential husband; which human attributes were, to do him justice, less general than many he possessed.'
Indeed being a potential husband is an attribute not very general among the men in this novel. Homosexuality is taken for granted as a feature of the Compton-Burnett landscape, not worthy of remark - a relaxed attitude that has, strangely, made the author something of a heroine of 'Queer Studies'. Well, it helps to keep her name alive... But in her fictional world - in which everything up to and including murder is likely to pass unremarked - homosexuality is the least of what's going on.
I'm not yet halfway through More Women than Men, but already a couple of quiet bombshells have been detonated - by dialogue alone - and I'm sure there will be more. I read on, enthralled, appalled and hugely impressed by a most extraordinary literary talent. I should add that she is also, in her uniquely pungent way, very funny. However dark her materials, she is in the end - thank heavens - a comic writer.

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