Sunday 1 August 2021

The Novelist, Her Typist and Her Critics

 Feeling my Ivy Compton-Burnett addiction stirring, and not having an unread novel at hand, I decided to read Ivy Compton-Burnett: A Memoir by Cicely Greig. Miss Greig was Ivy's typist from 1946 to 1969, typing each of her manuscripts as it came along and, in the process, becoming a friend as well as an admirer. 
  A typist's memoir – are there any others? – gives a unique perspective on a novelist's work, for the typist experiences it at close quarters, sentence by sentence, reiterating at one remove the work's creation. And Ivy was a great writer of sentences, composed with Ciceronian poise and surgical precision. Miss Greig analyses closely her technique of excising redundant words and dead phraseology – a technique of which, by virtue of her work, she had a close-up view. She and Ivy grew to understand each other in matters of style, both on the page and in life, where Miss Compton-Burnett's stern late-Victorian manner and very unmodern reticence put many off. Miss Greig saw through all that to the humorous and generous essence of Ivy, for whom friendship was the thing above all that made life liveable and worth living. 
  Miss Greig's (I can't bring myself to call her 'Greig') memoir is interesting also in the light it sheds on Ivy's relationship with the critics who reviewed her works. She was always curious to find out what they had to say, but never took any of it very seriously. Reading some of the reviews quoted by Miss Greig, it's easy enough to see why. For example, the reviews for Two Worlds and Their Ways included this from that humourless dullard C.P. Snow: 
'In order to read this novelist at all, much more to get the maximum out of her work, the reader has to perform a creative act himself; he has to supply the glue which sticks novels together, the ordinary commonplaces which make them real in terms of human sense. No novelist has ever asked so much of her readers; I think it is too much.' 
Two Worlds and Their Ways, writes Miss Greig, 'seems to have frightened Elizabeth Jenkins quite out of her wits. I never quite knew what the phrase meant until I read her review: 
"The work is frightening because it is in the true descent of English fiction – and this is what the family has come to. This dehydrated form of imaginative writing is one aspect of the Zeitgeist, of which artificial insemination and the atomic bomb are another."
Poor Ivy! And how we laughed over that one.'
Philip Toynbee, on the other hand, complained that Ivy's novels weren't frightening enough and didn't rise to the strenuous demands of the age (as defined by P. Toynbee). Her plots, he writes, 
'do not harrow or purge us, and we live in a sad age when not to be harrowed is not to be wholly won. We can only give full admiration where we have ourselves been given pain [!]. Nor is this demand as perverted as it might seem in this bare form. In so far as she fails to disturb us, Miss Compton-Burnett fails.'
  Well, there is plenty wrong with the fiction reviewers of today, but at least they don't write like that. We must be thankful. 

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