Ivy Compton-Burnett has no wide range of style or subject in her twenty novels. Like Jane Austen, she limits her characters to a few well-to-do families in the country. The action takes place in the late Victorian era, though there are few indications of any time period. Scenery is almost nonexistent, and no heavy Victorian furnishings clutter the scene.
Compton-Burnett concentrates entirely on her characters, not in describing them but in having them reveal (and sometimes betray) themselves in what they do and do not say. Her novels demand more of the ear than of the eye. They have been likened to plays in their spareness of description, narration, andexposition and their concentration on talk. Dialogue indeed is the reason Compton-Burnett’s novels draw readers and is her chief contribution to the art of the novel. Each chapter contains one event, which is discussed in detail by one family and then perhaps another, or by the masters in the house and then the servants. Although Compton-Burnett as an omniscient author does not comment on or analyze her characters or their motives, her chorus of servants, children, neighbors, and schoolmistresses do so incessantly. In this way, she achieves many points of view instead of only one.
Compton-Burnett’s novels do have plots—melodramatic and sometimes implausible ones with murders, incest, infidelity, and perversions of justice. At times, she drops enough clues for the reader to know what will happen; at other times, events occur arbitrarily. Characters lost in shipwrecks often reappear; documents are stolen or concealed only to turn up later. Eavesdroppers populate her novels. Several characters, for example, coincidentally walk into rooms where they are being slandered. Although the events themselves are often too coincidental, the highly crafted conversations about them prove Compton-Burnett’s talent as a writer. These witty and ironic conversations insist on the revelation of truth and on the precise use of language, making Compton-Burnett’s novels memorable. Language insulates people against the primitive forces, the unmentionable deeds of which they are capable. Compton-Burnett’s witty dialogue tends to anesthetize the reader’s response (and the characters’ as well) to horrendous crimes of passion.
In her novels, Compton-Burnett explores all the tensions of family life—between strong and weak, between generations, between classes. Power is her chief subject, with love, money, and death as constant attendants. Her main foes are complacency, tyranny, and hypocrisy. Compton-Burnett deplores sloppy thinking and dishonesty, whether with oneself or with others. Her novels clearly indicate her view of human nature. She believes that wickedness is often not punished and that is why it is prevalent. When wickedness is likely to be punished, most people, she thinks, are intelligent enough to avoid it. She also sees very few people as darkly evil; many people, when subjected to strong and sudden temptations without the risk of being found out, yield to such urges. Even her bad characters have some good in them. Although the good points of the tyrants can be recognized, their cruelty can never be forgiven. Ironically, however, their cruelty often produces good results. The victims build up bravery, loyalty, and affection as defenses against the wicked and cruel. Compton-Burnett’s novels, above all, elicit concern for human suffering.
Though she does believe in economic and hereditary forces, Compton-Burnett also believes in free will. She is one of the rare novelists whose good-hearted characters are credible as well as likable. The good and innocent characters in her novels, particularly the children, are not corrupted and usually remain unharmed. They conquer by truth, affection, and, most important, by intelligence. Compton-Burnett shows the great resilience of the human spirit; her characters survive atrocities and then settle down to resume their everyday lives. In her novels, the greatest crimes are not crimes of violence but crimes against the human spirit: one person beating down, wounding, or enslaving another’s spirit. Her novels do not end with a feeling of despair, however; rather, they end with a feeling of understanding. The good characters see the faults of the tyrants yet continue to love them and gallantly pick them up when they have fallen. The good characters realize that evil and good are inextricably joined.
Compton-Burnett’s strengths and weaknesses as a novelist are both suggested by the fact that she has no masterpiece, no best or greatest novel. Her oeuvre has a remarkable consistency, the product of an unswerving artistic intelligence yet also evidence of a certain narrowness and rigidity. By general consensus, her strongest works are those of her middle period, including Brothers and Sisters, More Women than Men, A Family and a Fortune, and Bullivant and the Lambs.
Brothers and Sisters
Brothers and Sisters, Compton-Burnett’s third novel, is distinguished by the appearance of the first of many tyrannical women in her oeuvre. Sophia Stace (who, like the later tyrants, is a tragic figure as well) wants attention and affection, but she is never willing to give in return. She never sees beyond herself or acts for anyone but herself. Her daughter Dinah succinctly comments: “Power has never been any advantage to Sophia.It has her worn out, and everyone who would have served her.”
Sophia’s self-absorption leads to disaster. Thinking her father’s instructions, which are locked in a desk, will cut her and her adopted brother out of his will, Sophia leaves them there unread, marries her adopted brother (who is really her half brother), and bears three children. Her husband dies of a heart attack after finding out the truth about his and Sophia’s parentage, and Sophia reacts to his death by imprisoning herself in her home. Intending to draw attention to herself, Sophia dramatizes her grief. When her children attempt to resume life as usual, she moans that they feel no affection for her: “I don’t know whether you like sitting there, having your dinner, with your mother eating nothing?” Like other Compton-Burnett tyrants, she turns mealtime into domestic inquisition.
The only one who can control Sophia, modeled on Compton-Burnett’s mother Katharine, is Miss Patmore, modeled on Compton-Burnett’s own nurse Minnie. The children love and respect “Patty” as a mother since their own is incapable of giving love. When Sophia herself finds out the truth, she has no feeling for what the revelation will do to her children. They meet the tragedy with characteristic wittiness to cover the pain: “Well if we are equal to this occasion, no other in our lives can find us at a loss. We may look forward to all emergencies without misgiving.” The children, though they have been Sophia’s victims, are able to realize after her death that she, more than anyone else, has been her own victim: “The survey of Sophia’s life flashed on them, the years of ruthlessness and tragedy, power and grief. Happiness, of which she held to have had so much, had never been real to Sophia. They saw it now.” Power thus eats away at the powerful while their victims rise to a higher moral plane of understanding.
Brothers and Sisters has many of the standard Compton-Burnett plot ingredients: incest, illegitimacy, domestic torture, and the family secret that becomes public knowledge. What gives the novel added strength is the subplot of Peter Bateman and his children, another example of a parent who blithely torments his children. Socially gauche, Peter’s vicious stupidity inflicts painful embarrassment on his skulking son Latimer and his self-effacing daughter Tilly. He determinedly pigeonholes his children into demeaning positions.
While the bond between parents and children in the novel is a brutal one, the bond between brothers and sisters becomes a saving one. Sophia’s children, Andrew, Robin, and Dinah, support one another, and they are not the only brothers and sisters in the novel to do so. There are three other sets of brothers and sisters: Edward and Judith, Julian and Sarah, and Gilbert and Caroline, all friends of the Stace children. At various points in the novel, Andrew and Dinah are engaged to Caroline and Gilbert, then to Judith and Edward, and finally Julian proposes to Dinah but is rejected. The Stace children and their friends change romantic partners as if they were merely changing partners at a dance, partly in reaction to the tragic secrets that are revealed, and partly because Compton-Burnett has little faith in marriage or in romantic love. Her marriages are matters of convenience, timing, and location; none of her husbands and wives grow together in a fulfilling relationship. The strongest love bond is always the fraternal...
(The entire section is 3635 words.)