Tuesday, 7 July 2009

Ivy and Stevie by Kay Dick

This little book contains Kay Dick's transcriptions of recorded conversations with Ivy Compton Burnett and Stevie Smith, and her reflections on both writers. Kay Dick was friendly with both; she was introduced to Compton Burnett initially for professional reasons, and had the chutzpah to arrive for tea having read no ICB novels at all; luckily for her, she was liked and became a regular visitor. Kay and Stevie Smith had worked for the same organisation, Newnes, where Stevie was a secretary to the senior managers, and Kay assistant editor at the magazine John O'London's. Both recordings were made during a single visit; no plans were made, the conversations seem to have simply evolved. The recordings were also made late in each writer's career. Ivy had just published what was to be her last novel, and Stevie died within a few months of the recording. The book itself was published in 1971, a couple of years after Ivy's death and very shortly after Stevie's.

Each transcription seems highly characteristic to me of the mythology that has built up around each writer. Ivy is rather snobbish, very confident (she describes herself as "quite perfect morally"), very definite and tending to deal in absolutes. Stevie is expansive, discursive, more ambiguous, with a tendency to drift away from the point and then return to it. Either both writers spoke in a very similar way to their construction of prose, or Kay Dick has, deliberately or not, edited and presented her text to reflect their prose style. Both are extremely funny. Neither engages with issues of lesbian sexuality, but perhaps that would have been a bit much for 1971.

The two short essays that accompany the transcriptions tell the story of Kay's friendship with each. Both are affectionate and clear-sighted, and funny in themselves, especially the final chapter in Ivy's story, in which her bequests to friends are distributed during a post-funeral tea party at her flat, and much lugging of objects down the stairs ensues. In her introduction, Kay regrets that some of the taller tales recounted in the transcripts have been repeated as biographical fact; Ivy Compton Burnett had a tendency to fib about her upbringing, making it more rural and less suburban. This puts the transcriptions into the context of each writer's created work, rather than presenting them as factual accounts - and stimulates the appetite for reading more.

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