‘Who was she?’, a browser might ask on finding three re-issued novels by Ivy Compton-Burnett, and ‘Why should I read them?’ Dame Ivy Compton-Burnett (1884-1969) was one of 13 children of a Victorian physician. After his death, his widow wrapped herself in anger and subjected her children to cruel, neurotic tyranny. Their verbal laceration continued after her death in 1911, for Ivy took control of her siblings, and enforced a sadistic autocracy learnt from her mother. On Christmas Day 1917, the two youngest girls, ‘Topsy’ and 18-year-old ‘Baby’, for whom family life seethed with aggression, nerve storms and spite, locked themselves in a bedroom, and died in one another’s arms of overdoses of barbiturates. ‘Too much music in their lives,’ Ivy said in explanation of their suicides. Another brother killed himself in 1935 by leaping off a bridge; only two of the siblings married, and none had children to perpetuate the dynastic misery.
It was not until 1925 that Compton-Burnett published Pastors and Masters, the first of her novels about the atrocities of English upper-class domesticity. They are like no one else’s books. All but one have a stylised late Victorian or Edwardian setting. There are railways and telegrams, but neither motor cars nor telephones. Ivy had so little visual sense that in railway termini she could not see from which end trains would leave platforms. Accordingly, her protagonists inhabit featureless manor houses in smudged landscapes. Unlike other country gentry, they never sit in a rose garden, attend the races, hold picnics, play cards, perform charades, visit the London theatre. There are no sports or pets. Her families have inquisitive neighbours but no other visitors. The Gavestons in A Family and a Fortune ‘see no one and go nowhere’.
Compton-Burnett’s introverted households resemble torture chambers. Several generations of a large family are twisted on the rack by an arbitrary, sardonic despot. Each novel is comprised almost entirely of dialogue. The escalating talk is crisp, mordant, malign, stinging, acid and corrosive. In A Family and a Fortune the retorts that 15-year-old Aubrey Gaveston exchanges with 87-year-old Oliver Seaton are of such intensity and chill irony as to be fantastic. Yet, when the novel was published in 1939, Desmond Shawe-Taylor (reviewing it for The Spectator) hailed Aubrey’s characterisation as
the triumph of the book … the little boy at once precocious and backward, alternately petted, patronised, and spurned by the family; a wizened, sensitive and unhappy creature with no defence but his sharp tongue.
It shows Ivy’s brilliance, that such unreal dialogue can make the reader flinch with anguished recognition.
Aubrey Gaveston has a counterpart in Elders and Betters, the 13-year-old Reuben Donne, with
coltish, uncontrolled movements, a lively nervous face, defensive, dark eyes that were sadder than his feelings warranted, and a definite lameness resulting from an early accident.
These knowing, wounded children are the only protagonists whom Compton-Burnett treats with tenderness. Her servant characters, though, are triumphant creations: the affectionate banter between Cook and Ethel in Elders and Betters is a sly delight.
When James Lees-Milne went for tea with Compton-Burnett in 1946, she ate eight cakes. Greed is one of her ruling themes. Her novels are a reminder that until the 1960s scarcity, not abundance, was the common western experience — and will be again. Characters are kept on short rations, emotionally and materially, in her world. Frustration, not satisfaction, provides the keynote of existence. One of her stingy women even waters the children’s marmalade to make it go further. Privation and cheated hopes unite all Compton-Burnett characters. Longevity in her world is iniquitous. ‘I have been kept out of my inheritance too long,’ says Dudley Gaveston when on the brink of old age he inherits £50,000 from his 96-year-old godfather. ‘I might have been saved by now, and then I should not have had so little. But I must conquer any bitterness.’
Thwarted ambition and envious malice are crippling forces in Compton-Burnett’s universe. ‘Imagine,’ she told someone who asked about the quandary of her protagonists, ‘a Winston Churchill, untaught and untrained’, who was ‘immured in an isolated life in a narrow community, and think what might have happened to his power.’ The viperish Matilda Seaton who, despite being a poor relation, tyrannises the Gavestons, and Anna Donne, the avaricious conspirator in Elders and Betters, are power-hungry Churchills locked in a provincial oubliette.
Francis King wrote that Compton-Burnett’s novels were perfect to take on holiday when one does not want to pack many books. They have to be read slowly, with lynx-like vigilance. Skip a few lines, as every reader is tempted to do, and one can miss an act of infanticide (murders are as important to her fiction as marriages are to Jane Austen’s). The clergyman who once congratulated her on the ‘essential cleanliness’ of her novels had been skipping. Incest is the theme that she can never leave alone: her handling of it has a haughty magnificence. Her novels brim with sexual predators, adulterous sneaks, illicit passion and emotional cannibalism. Wickedness is often detected but never punished. Toadies, parasites and hypocrites flourish. The intrigues, bastardy, usurped heirs and dead baronets come at a giddying pace in A Heritage and its History.
Some readers protest that Compton-Burnett’s novels are absurd or ‘unreal’. In fact, she wrote in parables intended to show truths about the worst human desires and animosities, which are impossible to put into plain language. Angus Wilson said that in the epoch of concentration camps, ‘no writer did more to illumine the springs of human cruelty, suffering and bravery’. She devised a unique idiom for expressing envious rage. She divined the baffled misery of people caught in the clutches of egotists who have the power to satisfy their hopes but prefer to frustrate them.
Compton-Burnett’s most grievous victims belong in a category that other novelists seldom notice: the self-doubting late middle-aged, demoralised by their material dependence and emotional subordination to greedy, selfish, cheating parents. Despite their urbane and dazzling repartee, her characters resemble chained circus beasts flailed by the lash of a pitiless circus-master.
A Family and a Fortune, Elders and Betters and A Heritage and its History are published by Bloomsbury at £6.99 each.