Tuesday 22 December 2015

A Great Biography

Since I retired, my reading rate has not increased as much as might have been expected. I only recently finished Secrets of a Woman's Heart, the concluding volume of Hilary Spurling's great biography of Ivy Compton-Burnett. I use the word 'great' advisedly; not only is it beautifully written and impeccably researched, it is packed with acute insights into Ivy's life and work, and imbued with a deeply sympathetic understanding of her often contrary character. When the first volume, Ivy When Young, was written, it was also that increasingly rare thing, a necessary biography: such was Ivy's mystification of her early life and origins that most of the little that was known was in fact untrue. Spurling put that right, telling the harrowing story of Ivy's youth and the succession of hammer blows that left her all but finished off by the end of Ivy When Young. Secrets of a Woman's Heart traces how she came back from that brink, setting up home with Margaret Jourdain and gradually becoming one of the leading novelists of her time, and certainly the least classifiable.
 Secrets is often very funny (I've passed on a few titbits in recent posts), but it is also a serious and deeply thoughtful study of ICB's work and personality, tracing the evolution of both over the years. It's easy to get the impression that Ivy, with her invariably (more or less) Edwardian settings, stylised dialogue and repertoire of recurrent character types, was in a sense writing the same novel over and over again, but Spurling illuminates the differences, particularly of mood, between them, and how they developed over the course of her career. I hadn't realised before how popular Ivy's novels were in the war years, when something in them seemed to chime with the feeling of the times. As Spurling says, 'What might be called the moral economy of Ivy's books had always been organised on a war footing.'  Elizabeth Bowen wrote of 'an icy sharpness [that] prevails in the dialogue. In fact, to read in these days a page of Compton-Burnett dialogue is to think of the sound of glass being swept up one of these London mornings after a blitz.' Angus Wilson went further: 'In the age of the concentration camp when, from 1935 or so to 1947, she wrote her very best novels, no writer did more to illumine the springs of human cruelty, suffering and bravery.'
 Ivy had had an early and painful education in cruelty, suffering and bravery. This hard-won knowledge gave her her formidable, clear-sighted sharpness, but it also gave her a deep understanding of suffering and a profound sympathy with those condemned to it. This more sympathetic aspect of her character - along with a certain surprising mischievousness - came to the fore in her later years, most markedly after Margaret Jourdain died. Theirs seems to have been one of those fiercely close, essentially loving relationships that are indispensably sustaining to both partners, yet bring out the worst in them. Ivy and Margaret's perpetual sniping at each other was often cruel and painful to witness - and yet, when Margaret died, Ivy was plunged into a torment of grief, feeling her life was over. As she emerged from the grief, it gradually became apparent that Ivy was becoming a very much warmer and more sympathetic person - though it suited her to maintain the forbidding, unchanging image that was by then her trademark.
 She died in 1969, productive to the end. By the time Hilary Spurling completed her biography, ICB was already on her way to becoming a half-forgotten figure. Her works will probably never regain the kind of popularity they once had, but for those of us who have acquired the taste for her extraordinary novels, it's good to know that they are still available, thanks to the internet - a few are even in print. To have a biography as brilliant as Spurling's as well is a wonderful bonus.

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