Friday 27 November 2015

Talking of Ivy Compton-Burnett...

Three years and more since I read Hilary Spurling's brilliant Ivy When Young (see here and here), I have moved on to the concluding volume, Secrets of a Woman's Heart, which promises to be every bit as illuminating, insightful and diligently researched. It picks up the story after the Great War and the succession of family tragedies that had rained down on Ivy, leaving her deeply traumatised (as we'd say now, and as she most definitely would not say), but at last free to live her own life.
 She set up home with Margaret Jourdain, who was among other things an eminent authority on English furniture and design, and the pair of them lived happily together for the rest of Margaret's life (she died in 1951). Miss Jourdain was very much the grande dame, a formidable woman and already famous in her field, while the unknown Ivy was, to most visitors, a dim governess-like figure in the background. (It was not until Pastors and Masters and its successors came out that the roles began to be reversed, somewhat to Margaret Jourdain's chagrin.)
 The distinguished Miss Jourdain had a vast, rather grand social circle, as well as numerous hangers-on and a following of devoted young men, so dinner guests were numerous and frequent. For some, dinner with the Misses Jourdain and Compton-Burnett was somewhat of an ordeal. One guest was Francis (Frankie) Birrell, 'one of Margaret's liveliest, seediest and most amusing young men', who on his first visit disgraced himself by falling asleep and smashing the arm of his chair:
 'I can quite clearly remember the soup,' he recalled. 'Then, I suppose, we must have had fish, because when I woke up there was plate of fish, uneaten, in front of me. As a matter of fact, my left hand was in it, covered with sauce. I was alone in the dining-room; the lights were burning, and when I looked at my watch I saw that it was past midnight. The ladies had gone to bed.'
 Birrell let himself out and slunk home. And he was not the only one to succumb at the Compton-Burnett dinner table; a similar fate later befell the young Philip Toynbee, invited as an admirer of Ivy, who woke to find that 'the table, even down to the coffee cups, proved that the meal, as he sat bowed over his plate, had otherwise taken its natural and unperturbed course...' And Ivy, equally unperturbed, had gone to bed.

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