A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
I thought I had already written about how much I love Ivy Compton-Burnett here on Vulpes Libris, but it seems I have not – how extremely remiss of me; an oversight the great lady herself would probably not overlook. I hope to rectify it as much as possible.
Ivy Compton-Burnett is a big enough name that most readers will have heard of her (and when I say ‘readers’, you understand that I mean of avid variety) but not all that many have tried her out. She was given a leg up a few years ago, when Alan Bennett chose Dame Ivy as the first author the Queen tried in The Uncommon Reader, and so more people became aware of her – but authors fall out of fashion, and none seem to be more out of fashion than Ivy Compton-Burnett at present. Unbelievably, none of her books are in print in the UK – and this for an author that I would have no trouble nominating as one of the most unusual and important writers of the 20th century.
But, I must concede early on, this opinion is not widely popular. I would estimate that, out of every three people who try one of her books, two retreat puzzled and dismissive. That remaining one will become an ardent (and strident) fan – and can thank Heaven, fasting, because all of her books are pretty much the same, and the same level of quality.
There are always a lot of characters. It tends to be the late Victorian period, in a large house, with a sprawling family and equivalent numbers of servants (although my favourite bucks this trend; More Women Than Men, set in a girls’ school, although none of the pupils speak). The novels have vast amounts of dialogue, and none of it is naturalistic. Although the characters do have distinctive quirks, they talk as nobody has ever talked in life – expertly and vividly discussing and re-discussing every detail, allowing no minute detail to lie unexamined. Pages and pages will go as all concerned debate whether or not somebody is sat too close to the fire, or has incorrectly used a verb, or some equally unimportant detail – and then ICB will slip in something enormous. She (rightly) argued that her books are not plotless, and indeed they have the most scandalous plots – murder, incest, bigamy, and attempted patricide all come to mind – but these are somehow dealt with with extreme calm, with more focus given to the (to my mind, joyous) intricacies of dialogue.
These high-level exchanges include any children present, and also extend below stairs – particularly in Manservant and Maidservant (which is still in print in the US, in a lovely edition from NYRB Classics), as exemplified by this exchange:
“Do you take your tea strong or the reverse, Miss Buchanan?”
“Neither one nor the other,” said the guest, using her rather loud voice for the first time.
“That is my own preference,” said Bullivant.
“My bias is also towards the mean,” said Cook, with her eyes on the teapot. “I am not in favour of excess in any direction.”
“How do the young people like it?” said Miss Buchanan, both her utterance and its nature coming as a surprise.
“I am conversant with their preferences,” said Cook, with nothing in her tone to indicate that she would be influenced by these.
It’s not true to say that the novels are all dialogue, because those tags and narrative comments which glue the dialogue together are also extremely important – what joy I get from ‘with nothing in her tone to indicate that she would be influenced by these’! Nobody does dry like our Ivy. And this from Elders and Betters is just as brilliant: ‘Ethel tried not to smile and entirely succeeded.’ The reader is always a bit wrong-footed when experiencing one of her novels – everything is as far from cliché as is humanly possible.
The book of hers that I’ve just finished, and which inspired this post, is A Heritage and Its History (1959) is actually not one of my favourites. It’s still brilliant, but somehow doesn’t live up to her finest – perhaps because there aren’t enough characters. Ivy works best with a cast of dozens. But there are certainly manifold trademarks of Compton-Burnett – a large house, a complicated family with a domineering and arrogant man at the head of it (who announces a surprise marriage with the words ‘I will not say more than the one word now. I do not accept the idea of discussion or question.’) Adultery, secret parenthood, and near-incest all make an appearance. Perhaps most delightfully for me, the first line is “It is a pity you have not my charm, Simon.” If it is not her best, then it is at least in her style.
If you haven’t tried Ivy, please do. As I said, More Women Than Men is my favourite, but anything you can track down will give you a good indication of whether you’ll be a lifelong fan or repulsed. If you already hate her, then I know this post will have nothing to persuade you otherwise – but can I suggest you might enjoy reading about her life? She was a fascinating character – stuck in the Victorian period, and expecting the manners of it, but with a wicked sense of humour alongside; Cicely Greig’s biography is the best I’ve read (Greig was her typist and friend).
My one-man crusade to get ICB back into fashion continues apace…