Thursday 5 August 2021

'Suddenly Ivy's face was on the screen...'

 'Write about what you know' is a bit of advice often handed out to would-be writers. This is probably not a great idea, as it is liable to get interpreted as 'write about yourself', and the results will be unfortunate. However, some very fine writers have lived by the precept – none more so, perhaps, than Ivy Compton-Burnett. She knew two things very well: the upper-middle-class milieu of late Victorian-Edwardian England, and the things that families do to each other. Having created a fictional world firmly based on these foundations, she never strayed from it into things she did not know – for example, the way most people lived in the modern world that had developed around her and from which she remained happily insulated. And yet she was insatiably curious about this strange world, reading and even approving of a good many contemporary novels (she even enjoyed Catcher in the Rye – 'Such a clever study of a boy') – and she read newspapers, though of course she never had a television. Ivy liked to steer the conversation towards such unlikely subjects as the price of refrigerators at the Army & Navy Stores, and she enjoyed interrogating her friends about various bewildering features of the modern world. 
  Thus is was that the last conversation (as it turned out) that her typist Cicely Greig had with Ivy [as recounted in Ivy Compton-Burnett: A Memoir] turned on the subject of labour-saving gadgets. She wanted details of any such things that Miss Greig had in her home.
Cicely described a wind-up oven timer, and 
'Ivy listened with great interest. "What else have you got?"
"Someone gave us a pressure cooker. That's marvellous if you want to cook something quickly." I told her about pressure cookers. 
Ivy said: "If these things are really so good, then why don't people have them?"
I said: "Some people do have them ... things like those alarm clocks that wake you up in the morning and make you a cup of tea at the same time."
Ivy was amused and wholly disbelieving...'
Then the subject of the electric mixer comes up. 
'"What does that do?" 
"It mixes," I said, disappointed that I couldn't make wilder claims for it. "You know, it saves you all that beating with a wooden spoon."
Ivy clearly didn't know, but she invited me to go on. Rotisseries, liquidisers, potato peelers... I was getting bored. But not Ivy.'
 Not quite the conversation you would want to remember a great writer by (albeit a slight improvement on the last words she spoke, which were to her devoted housekeeper, Mary, the night before she died: 'Leave me alone.').
Miss Greig found out that Ivy had died when 'some days later, I went to the television room at the club to hear the news, and suddenly Ivy's face was on the screen, and the announcer was telling us that she had died that morning.'

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