Sunday 3 January 2021

Parents and Children

 Well, I've finished reading another book. This one was Parents and Children by Ivy Compton-Burnett – I think the only one of hers I've read this year, so my addiction must be under control. It's an unusual one too – unusually long, at 280-plus pages, and (by ICB standards) unusually mellow in tone; there's even something very like a happy ending. The cast of characters is also unusually long: there are Eleanor and Fulbert (great name) Sullivan; Fulbert's parents, Regan and Sir Jesse, in whose house Eleanor and Fulbert live; Eleanor and Fulbert's nine children, ranging in age from three-year-old to young adult; the nursery staff and tutor; the nearby family of the Cranmers (four adults); and the mysterious Marlowe siblings who live in genteel poverty on the fringe of the Sullivan estate. 
   With all those characters to bring to some kind of life, Ivy needs more space than usual, especially as she limits her fictional resources, as always, to dialogue and little else. Her great triumph is to fully characterise each of the Sullivan children, so that by the end we feel we know them as individuals. The youngest, Nevill – surely one of the most vividly drawn three-year-olds in literature – makes it easy for us by always referring to himself in the third person. Each of the others also has their own way of expressing themselves in words, and in the course of the novel we get to recognise each voice. Always an acute observer of children, ICB is at her best here. The characterisation of the adults is equally sure, and there are some fine comic scenes, with much less darkness apparent than in most of her novels. Parents and Children was published in 1941, at a low point in the war when Britain stood all but alone against the Nazis – but outside events, however large, seem never to have impinged on Ivy Compton-Burnett's perennially Edwardian fictional world. This might be one of the reasons why her novels were at their peak of popularity during the war.
   As for the plot of Parents and Children, it's the usual shamelessly rickety contraption. Fulbert has to go to South America on business and after a while is reported to be dead. But is he? Suffice to say that in his absence things move fast... The climax comes with a breakneck succession of confrontations and revelations that leave everyone reeling – or rather talking about it all at length. 
'"So the truth has escaped," said Daniel [one of the older children], "and with its accustomed dispatch."
"And we find that our feelings do not go beyond speech. And we are glad of that. The speech will be a relief. We are looking forward to it."'
Parents and Children is of course astringent, but never harsh. By its author's standards it is unusually readable and straightforward. Well, almost straightforward.

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