Monday 6 March 2017

Ivy on the Shelf

'"My dear, good girls!" said Miles Mowbray. "My three dear daughters! To think I have ever felt dissatisfied with you and wished I had a son! I blush for the lack in me, that led me to such a feeling. I feel the blood mount to my face, as I think of it. I would not change one of you for all the sons in the world. I would not barter you for all its gold. And I am not much of a person for wealth and ease..."'
 My run of charity-shop good luck shows no sign of abating. The other day I found, sitting on the same spot on the same shelf in the same shop where I so recently found Loitering with Intent loitering with intent, not one but two Ivy Compton-Burnetts, side by side, both first editions in good condition, though without dust-wrappers. Not that it would make much difference to their market value if they were wrapped and in mint condition - nobody wants ICB nowadays, apart from the little band of devotees/addicts among whom I number myself. I'd been getting faint withdrawal symptoms, so was glad to find fresh supplies in the shape of two titles I hadn't read: The Mighty and Their Fall (1961) and A Father and His Fate (1957), from which the inviting opening words are quoted above.
 It might be a while before I read them, as I have a bit of a queue of novels waiting to be read - and at present I'm engaged in rereading Shirley Hazzard's The Transit of Venus, which is not one to hurry through. On this second reading, I'm finding it every bit as impressive as before, if not more so. There is such depth in the characters, such skill in the unfolding of the complex, multilayered tale, such moral seriousness, such involving and moving verisimilitude - all the traditional virtues of the novel at its best, deployed with masterly skill. If there's one novel from the latter half of the 20th century that deserves to survive, this is probably it.
 But predicting the survival of any book or writer is a mug's game. Here, for example, are some contemporary assessments of Ivy Compton-Burnett: 'Of the two candidates for greatness among comic novelists of our time, Evelyn Waugh and Ivy Compton-Burnett, it is her prospect that looks the more secure...' [Norman Shrapnel]. 'It is always dangerous to prophesy immortality for any writer, but it is certain that Dame Ivy Compton-Burnett's novels will be discussed a century hence' [David Holloway].
'P.H. Newby's assertion that she is the only writer since Joyce who is likely to be read one hundred years from now is as safe a statement as any contemporary could risk.' [Frank Baldanza].

 And now you can find first editions of her works on the shelves of a charity shop, priced at £1.99. Which, oddly enough, was also the price I paid for another first edition by another wildly unfashionable novelist, Angus Wilson's Anglo-Saxon Attitudes. Come to think, it was in the same shop. 


  1. Yet to try ICB. Like you I have a large list of books I've already bought to read before I buy more (being rather puritanical about this) but I can only agree on Transit of Venus. It's the sheer fascination of the way she uses language (from the first paragraph) that I love. It's a kind of relishing akin to the enjoyment of poetry. Loved the denouement too.

  2. Absolutely, Guy - that's such an amazing opening scene, in fact the whole first chapter, so rich in every way, so many little time bombs planted and primed... Am looking forward to reaching the denouement - I remember it left me gasping last time.