Showing posts with label Ivy Compton-Burnett. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Ivy Compton-Burnett. Show all posts

Friday, 20 July 2012

Brothers and Sisters by Ivy Compton-Burnett

In common with most Ivy Compton-Burnett novels, this 1929 book revolves around the secrets, evasions and general awfulness of Edwardian family life.  In the first chapter, old Andrew Stace, head of the family, is discussing the disposal of his property with his daughter, Sophia, and his adopted son, Christian.  The two young people tell their father that they wish to marry; he forbids this, but after his death they marry anyway.  The scene jumps forward thirty years, and Sophia and Andrew are living with their adult children, Dinah, another Andrew, and Robin, in the family home.  Sophia dominates the household, seeking to control everything that happens within the family, demanding a perpetual tribute of attention and love from her children,  and enjoying the status of domestic martyr.  This is a typical Sophia outburst: "I don't know what things are coming to, when I can't claim a little attention in my own house.  How am I to get on with my work of organising everything, if I am to be left entirely without help?"

The atmosphere of the novel is claustrophobic from the outset; the narrow social group of the Staces does nothing to enlarge their world, since it is made up of other pairs of brothers and sisters.  Dinah and Andrew become engaged to one of these pairs, Gilbert and Caroline Lang, who have recently moved to the village.  However, these engagements are quickly broken off when it emerges that elderly Mrs Lang is the mother of the adopted Christian Stace, and Dinah and Andrew realise they are engaged to their own uncle and aunt.  Mrs Lang dies suddenly, Christian Stace even more suddenly, and the possibilities of escape for the Stace children open and close as more and more secrets are revealed.

There is a chilly frivolity about this novel, like a very bitter and cynical version of A Midsummer Night's Dream, as the pairs of brothers and sisters form and re-form into different pairings.  ICB's usual style persists; plot and character are developed mainly through dialogue, and we never step outside the Staces' village.  However, I enjoyed this a lot more than most of the other ICBs I have read; the Stace and the Lang children are sympathetic characters, and there is a lot of ironic humour in the characterisation of Sophia herself, monstrous though she is.  There are lots of other interesting themes within the novel, too, especially class and the position of servants - Miss Patmore, once the children's nurse and still living with the Staces, is a key character and a very interesting one in terms of how the family maintains its equilibrium.

Disappointingly, this one is out of print, although there are secondhand copies around.

Tuesday, 3 November 2009

Manservant and Maidservant by Ivy Compton-Burnett

I've read other ICBs before, but not this one, and was inspired to turn to it by Stuck-in-a-Book's group read. Compton-Burnett's novels are often accused of being all the same, and it's true that they revolve around similar themes, in similar settings and similar forms. ICB's themes are the cruelty family members practice on each other in familial hierarchies with fathers at the top and children at the bottom; how the oppressed internalise their own misery and oppress in their turn; the novels are usually set in an upper-middle-class home and vaguely Edwardian in period regardless of when they were written; and her distinctive style, in which plot and character are delivered almost entirely through dialogue, is given full rein in Manservant and Maidservant.

Reliance on dialogue allows the unsayable to be spoken in this novel's oppressive home, and the result is painful and sometimes embarrassing, as when Horace, the autocratic father, attempts to make peace with his browbeaten children on what he imagines to be his deathbed; he gets better, of course, but cannot take back his words or expect them to be forgotten. The dialogue reveals ICB's unquestionable skill as a writer; it conveys each character distinctly as well as progressing the plot, but never says too much: the unspoken is as important as the spoken. It also allows the introduction of some excellent jokes.

One of the interesting elements of this novel is that an important revelation of a secret is managed through a letter, which we never read, rather than dialogue; and that revelation is only possible because the letter has been sent to Miss Buchanan's shop, which she allows to be used as a correspondence address. Miss Buchanan is illiterate, and cannot tell that the letter has got into the wrong hands. The read and the unread in this novel are as significant as the spoken and unspoken. Miss Buchanan, interestingly, speaks relatively little and her responses are described by the narrator more than articulated by herself; because she would not be able to read these descriptions of her speech and actions, this seems a piquant way of allowing her to communicate, underlining the restrictions of her life. Miss Buchanan's story, in which she is rescued from illiteracy by the household servants, who have discovered her secret and propose to teach her to read, has a note of hope and redemption in it which I found unusual for Compton-Burnett; that the kitchen-maid Miriam, raised in an orphanage and now oppressed by Cook, is to be her teacher gives a touch of hope to Miriam's future, too.

However, reading this book reminded me why I find ICB more admirable than enjoyable. Her prose has a chiming quality to it which makes reading one of her novels like attending a five-day glockenspiel concert, or like being tapped on the forehead repeatedly with a teaspoon. Whatever I read next has to have a woodwind tone, I think.

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.