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A great novelist

In a remarkable way the trajectory of Ivy Compton-Burnett’s reputation after her death in 1967 parallels that of George Meredith’s in 1909.

14 December 2009

12:00 AM

14 December 2009

12:00 AM

Pastors and Masters Ivy Compton-Burnett

Hesperus, pp.100, 8.99

In a remarkable way the trajectory of Ivy Compton-Burnett’s reputation after her death in 1967 parallels that of George Meredith’s in 1909.

In a remarkable way the trajectory of Ivy Compton-Burnett’s reputation after her death in 1967 parallels that of George Meredith’s in 1909. A recipient of the OM and held in awe by such younger novelists as Henry James, Hardy and Stevenson, Meredith was generally regarded as one of the greatest writers of his time. But now, apart from his poetry — which he himself rightly thought superior to his prose — he is little read, even though every history of English Literature contains a lengthy entry for him.

Similarly, Ivy Compton-Burnett, who was awarded the DBE for having produced a novel of undeviating accomplishment every two years into her late eighties, was in her lifetime held in such high critical regard (‘Only Ivy is great’, Robert Liddell wrote to Olivia Manning, much to Manning’s fury) that she was reported to have kept Virginia Woolf awake with worry about their rivalry. Yet who reads her now? Occasionally —since I think that I am right in saying that, along with Julian Mitchell, I am now her only surviving close friend — I receive a letter from some young postgraduate thesis-writer, usually an American, with a request for an interview. But otherwise the people who can today be bothered with her books are almost always older readers who first fell in love with them when they themselves were young.


Does she still deserve to be read? My answer is an enthusiastic Yes, of course she does. But the problem is that, as she herself ruefully acknowledged, ‘My books are hard not to put down.’ In her introduction to this novel, Compton-Burnett’s second, Sue Townsend warns, ‘Some concentration is needed.’ A great deal, I should have said. Whenever I travel on a holiday abroad, I save space in my luggage by taking with me only one book, a Compton-Burnett novel, since I have long since learned that, such will be its denseness and complexity, it will keep me busy for at least a week, even though I may well have read it at least twice already.Hesperus is a small firm with the declared aim ‘of bringing near what is far’.

Any attempt at a rapprochement between a novelist so fine and a public so unresponsive can, of course, only be welcome. But some people may question whether the work selected for this purpose should have been the shortest, lightest and least typical novel, rather one of the far more substantial and often sombre works of her maturity — such as A Family and a Fortune, Elders and Betters, Parents and Children, and Manservant and Maidservant. But of course those masterpieces might well make on first-time readers demands so exigent that they would repel, rather than seduce them.

In his critical study of Compton-Burnett’s work Robert Liddell boldly asserts that her first novel Dolores is bad. This is unjust. But I concede that, though that novel constitutes an intelligent and readable debut, it is so unlike the books that followed it that it is has no place in the canon. It is in Pastors and Masters that we first come on a unique style that keeps all descriptions, except of characters’ physical appearances, to a minimum, and makes dialogue always the mainspring of the narrative. At one point in the book a university don remarks, ‘How good we all are at talking without ever saying what we think.’ But even in this early work Compton-Burnett has already perfected her skill in implying what her characters think, on those many occasions when neither they nor she openly reveal it.

Certain types recur in varying guises from book to book. In Pastors and Masters we have no less than three examples of the sort of tyrants who, though full of self-pity for themselves as long-suffering victims of circumstance, in fact brutally victimise all those around them. We also have two of those decent and loyal female slaves, who dedicate themselves to the usually unrewarding task of trying to keep happy their self-centred men folk and pert or demanding children. As in many of Compton-Burnett’s novels we have two men ‘who had meant love for each other in youth’ and a brother-sister relationship that verges on incest. It is astonishing that, while E. M. Forster was agonising over whether he could publish his homosexual novel Maurice, this seemingly prim little spinster should have already embarked on dealing with unconventional sexuality with such candour and aplomb.

Light-hearted, witty and lacking in those scenes of anguished drama that characterise its successors, Pastors and Masters has as its setting not the usual large house in the depths of the countryside but three separate establishments in a university town that one takes to be Cambridge — at which Compton-Burnett would happily visit her brother Noel and his friends. One of these establishments is a preparatory school for boys, owned by a self-indulgent and self-satisfied scholar and run by a hard-working, clammily sinister assistant who has never gained a degree. The second is the home of the two dons of ambivalent sexuality already mentioned, and the third that of a clergyman, his daughter and the two young sons by a late, second marriage whom he takes pleasure in harassing. The fault of the book is that an otherwise listless narrative line asserts itself only near the end, when some half-hearted skulduggery over a stolen manuscript occurs.

Compton-Burnett once made the surprising claim that her life had been an ‘unadventurous’ one. In fact, one beloved brother died young of pneumonia and another on the Somme; two sisters killed themselves in a suicide pact on Christmas Day; and on the death of her widow mother, a semi-demented autocrat, it was Compton-Burnett who had then been obliged to take over as head of household. Many a life might have been permanently wrecked by such a series of events. But Compton-Burnett survived them with uncomplaining stoicism.

This makes nonsense of Sue Townsend’s claim, at the close of her foreword, that ‘deep inside Ms Compton-Burnett’s indomitable black-clad figure was a wounded child longing for love and recognition.’ In fact, she was one of the strongest people I have ever met, with a serene confidence in her outstanding abilities as a novelist and therefore never seeing any need to jostle for a place in the literary hierarchy. Certainly, looked after a by a series of rough, outspoken, kindly Irish skivvies whose culinary abilities rarely extended beyond a roast and two veg and an apple pie, she would never be hesitant about asking a close friend to perform some practical task that would make life easier for her. But as far as emotional support was concerned, she was never in the least bit needy.

This frumpy little figure concealed an indomitable will and formidable powers of survival. She was the one who lavished emotional support, not the one who craved it. When my partner of 20 years died and she herself was terminally ill, she wrote me an extraordinary letter that at once convinced me that life was still worth the trudge. That was a long time ago; but in one’s old age the memories of such debts become miraculously vivid.


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