Herself the product of a large Victorian family, Ivy Compton-Burnett became one of that institution’s foremost critics. A pioneer in the analysis of the dysfunctional family, she specialized in exposing the ways in which parents tyrannize their children. For example, in Mother and Son, Miranda Hume, although intensely interested in Rosebery, uses him to serve her own ends. Twisted emotional attachments such as that between Miranda and Rosebery are the rule rather than the exception in Mother and Son. Such a bleak and uncompromising view of family relationships is a useful counterweight to sentimental bromides about Victorian family values. Sensitive to the needs and interests of children, Compton-Burnett was ahead of her time in championing their rights and the rights of the individual.

Her novels present her autocratic characters in terms of their potential as figures of jest and ridicule. Such a vision produces an exhilarating sense of liberation from narrow and rigid prejudices and preconceptions, creating space for dissent and critical thought. This farcical examination of authoritarian families is disconcerting, but Compton-Burnett’s ability to present something known to be tragic with an air of high comedy is one of her most original achievements. This is not to say that her novels are simple comedies; comedy and tragedy are mingled in her work. Her satiric wit and plots that oscillate precariously between farce and melodrama address serious problems.

Another original aspect of Compton-Burnett’s work is her dialogue. Not simply conversation, it is in fact a brilliant deployment of modern stream-of-consciousness techniques, indicating thoughts that are usually left unspoken. The dialogue is filled with subtleties, nuances, and aphorisms, requiring close attention...

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