Sunday 17 November 2019

Literary Grappa

My addiction to Ivy Compton-Burnett has kicked in again, and I'm back on the hard stuff – in this case, A Family and a Fortune (1939), which so far is showing every sign of being vintage Ivy. No doubt I shall be writing of it in due course, as I have written here of many of ICB's incomparable novels over the years.
Browsing just now in my files, I see that I also at some point wrote a short essay on Ivy's works – something I have only the very vaguest recollection of doing. I have no idea what audience I had in mind, nor if I ever tried it on any magazine. Most likely I just squirrelled it away and forgot about it; trying to 'sell' Ivy Compton-Burnett is pretty much bound to be a doomed project. However, here it is, for what it's worth. Someone might find it useful. It might even start a lifelong addiction...


The novels of Ivy Compton-Burnett are absolutely unlike anyone else’s. Dame Ivy – a highly distinguished literary figure from the mid-Twenties through to her death at the end of the Sixties – is nearly forgotten today, and most of her twenty-odd novels are out of print. However, it’s easy to find many of them online (praise be to Amazon) – and they are well worth finding, though Ivy is very much an acquired taste. If she were a drink, she would be Grappa, that formidable Italian digestif – fierce, harsh and bitter at first sip, but, once you’ve got the taste for the stuff, strangely alluring and moreish, even addictive.
  Ivy grew up in a large, complicated and troubled Edwardian family. Her father died when Ivy was 16 and grief turned her mother into a fearsome, emotionally manipulative domestic tyrant – a role that Ivy seems to have taken over after her mother’s death. Two favourite brothers died young – one of influenza and one in the Great War – and her two youngest sisters died 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 later summed up, with typical understatement.
 Then, apparently out of nowhere, came Pastors And Masters, the first of the stream of novels that were to make Compton-Burnett’s name. The tale of two talentless academics and a sorry act of plagiarism, Pastors And Masters set the template for all the subsequent novels (right down to the binary title). Like all of them – regardless of when they were written – it is set in the Edwardian period and in a social milieu some way north of middle-class. Like all of them, it depicts a small, airless, claustrophobic world – domestic or institutional or both - in which the characters talk endlessly in long, ultra-formal, finely nuanced conversations that teem with subtext, with unspoken motives and passions.
 Almost everything – the action, characterisation and character development, sudden twists and shocking revelations – is carried by dialogue alone; there is virtually nothing else in a typical Ivy Compton-Burnett, apart from unhelpful thumbnail sketches of the characters and rudimentary stage directions. Most of the rest you have to work out for yourself, reading that extraordinary dialogue with care and close attention to discover – gradually or, often, explosively – what is really going on. You have to be on your toes even to keep track of who is speaking, as these conversations often involve several people, sometimes talking over each other or aside. It’s rather like listening from outside a door – something Ivy’s characters frequenty do. (They also have a habit of suddenly appearing from nowhere, like Jeeves.)
 Yes, I know, all this sound like hard work, and no one would describe Ivy Compton-Burnett as an easy read – she herself once said that her novels were ‘hard not to put down’. However, once you have plunged in, you gradually begin to get your bearings, and then the fun begins. For these novels are – for all the seething tensions, vicious power struggles and murderous resentments – comedies. Comedies of the darkest hue – featuring all manner of dastardly deeds, up to and including murder – but comedies none the less. They might even make you laugh (they do me) – more with a shocked gasp than a hearty chuckle, but it’s laughter all the same.
 The comedy comes partly from the contrast between all that endlessly refined dialogue and the baseness and dark emotions that drive it, and partly from the author’s shameless use of creaky plot contrivances that could have been lifted straight out of popular Victorian fiction. But of course it’s pointless trying to analyse comedy – far better to dive in and read.
 Where to begin? In a sense, it hardly matters, as every Compton-Burnett is very much like every other (and very much unlike anything else), but her own two favourites were Manservant And Maidservant – a novel in which life ‘downstairs’ mirrors the emotional battleground ‘upstairs’ - and A House And Its Head, a devastating portrait of masculine domestic tyranny.
Ivy’s opening paragraphs are always, to put it mildly, arresting. Here’s how A House And Its Head begins:

‘”So the children are not down yet?” said Ellen Edgeworth.
 Her husband gave her a glance, and turned his eyes towards the window.
 “So the children are not down yet?” she said on a note of question.
 Mr Edgeworth put his finger down his collar, and settled his neck.
 “So you are down first, Duncan?” said his wife, as though putting her observation in a more acceptable form.
 Duncan returned his hand to his collar with a frown…’

And here are the opening exchanges of Manservant And Maidservant:

 ‘”Is that fire smoking?” said Horace Lamb.
 “Yes, it appears to be, my dear boy.”
 “I am not asking what it appears to be doing. I asked if it was smoking.”
 “Appearances are not held to be a clue to the truth,” said his cousin. “But we seem to have no other.”’
[The fire is indeed smoking – there’s a dead jackdaw in the flue.]

Now read on…
No, really – do.


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