(Masterpieces of British Fiction)

Encompassing more time than any other Ivy Compton-Burnett novel, A HERITAGE AND ITS HISTORY is, in a sense, the most representative of all her novels, although it is not quite her best. The heritage, as Compton-Burnett’s readers and those who have studied their ancestors’ lives will recognize, is the complex genetic and social inheritance of what man calls good and evil tendencies. It is the virtues and the sins of the fathers that are visited upon all generations; although the current generation lives in its own day, what it does has been done by all of its forebears, as Rhoda and Sir Edwin say and as parts of the Bible imply. In its encompassment of universalized and eternalized human activity in three generations, as in its inclusion of the wise butler and the excessively precocious children as commentators upon the sensational and usual events the dialogue of the novel advances, A HERITAGE AND ITS HISTORY is Compton-Burnett at her most representative. Because in presenting more characters and times than usual, she leaves even the alert reader occasionally baffled, the novel, though excellent, is inferior to its immediate predecessor, A FATHER AND HIS FATE, and its two successors, THE MIGHTY AND THEIR FALL and A GOD AND HIS GIFTS.

It is not, as indeed it is not usually, of the utmost importance to give the intriguing complexity of the plot, which as one critic once said of another of her novels, combines complexities that might have arisen had Sardou and Sophocles collaborated. Of course, things are not what they seem. The apparently healthy Sir Edwin precedes in death his dying brother. The proper son of Hamish, Simon, has children by both the Graham sister he marries and the older one he does not, and he becomes, at the close of the novel, Sir Simon. The erratic son, Walter, who did not finish Oxford and who is a poet, leads a proper life. Behind the scenes, as in the Greek tragedies it resembles and, like them, interrupted by comic and satirical interludes, events of plausible sensationalism occur: sudden death, adultery, near incest, a conflict of parents and children, of brother and brother. The story is, therefore, the stuff of human nature told factually, palatably, wittily, and bearably, as it is in all but the first of Compton-Burnett’s novels, the stuff of human nature in action.

Under its Victorian trappings, A HERITAGE AND ITS HISTORY retells the ancient dynastic story of the cuckolded king, the dispossessed heir, and usurper; but in this case the heir, Simon Challoner, brings about his own undoing. All the Challoners live in a large family house over which Sir Edwin Challoner, a bachelor, presides. For years, however, the job of running the estate has been entrusted to his younger brother Hamish. Julia, Hamish’s wife, has been the mistress of the household ever since her marriage, and Simon, her older son, is Sir Edwin’s heir. Because his uncle is more than sixty years old, Simon seems unlikely to have a long wait before he comes into his expectations. Walter, the younger son, is an impractical, frustrated poet. Then Hamish Challoner dies. Sir Edwin, lonely after his brother’s death, marries Rhoda Graham, a young neighbor less than half his age. Because of his uncle’s advanced years, there is no chance that Simon’s prospects will be changed by this marriage. Then Simon, ironically, cuts himself off from his inheritance by fathering a child to Rhoda. To avoid scandal, Sir Edwin claims Hamish as his son and heir after swearing Simon and Walter to secrecy.

Forced to yield his place to his own son, Simon marries Fanny, Rhoda’s sister, and Julia goes to live with them in the small house that had belonged to Rhoda and Fanny. Simon continues to help his uncle in administering the estate, but as the years pass and...

(The entire section is 1556 words.)