Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1556
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 his family grows, he becomes more and more a disappointed, embittered man. By the time his sons and daughter are grown, he has driven them almost to distraction—certainly to the point of detesting him—by complaining gloomily that his family lives only one step away from the workhouse.
Guilt concealed, however, cannot remain hidden. The secret of Hamish’s birth must be revealed to all when he falls in love with Simon’s daughter Naomi and the young people tell their parents of their desire to marry. Simon accepts the burden of the story that must be told.
This family situation is further complicated when Hamish marries Marcia after Sir Edwin’s death at the age of ninety-four. He dies childless, however, and the estate and title pass to Simon. At the end, his children are discussing his change of fortunes. Is he actually noble or merely deceiving himself and the others? A combination of both is the answer.
Counterpointing the Challoners in this grim comedy of possession and dispossession is the figure of Deakin, the butler. His true loyalty is not to the different masters and mistresses he serves but to the house itself, which is a symbol of history, of life in the stream of time. The others are like the creeping vine that grows outside the house, shadowing the rooms within; if they were to be exposed to the light, they would be startled.
The plot is not the main element but merely an unfolding of events that carries forward the revelation of life the characters enact or put in action. The characters are not the main element, either, in the individualized sense in which they would be in a novel by William Faulkner or Joyce Cary. Here, as in many of Compton-Burnett’s novels, it would be possible to transpose some of the characters without causing the reader, unless he is constantly alert, to notice the difference. This statement does not mean that Compton-Burnett’s characters are indistinguishable types any more than Hemingway’s early characters, who were clarified almost exclusively by dialogue. It does mean that they represent all kinds of people in whom the likeness to ourselves and to the friends we know deeply is more marked than individuality.
Aesthetically speaking, the dialogue is the point at which, more in each novel it seems, Compton-Burnett’s originality manifests itself most clearly. As in Congreve, Etherege, Hemingway, and Henry Green, to cite disparate aesthetic cousins, the dialogue is the thing wherein the consciousness of the human predicament and how it may be endured, sometimes with joy, sometimes with anguish, is forwarded and revealed. It is bared to the essential bone, increasingly without conventional props. The characters, never identified by more than a few sentences of description and their age, speak it condensedly and wittily. If the reader is not the cooperator in the aesthetic enterprise Compton-Burnett expects, alert as if it were poetry he is reading, the reader is likely to miss the plot, lost in a mesh of unidentified time and characters unknown. If the reader attends well, his reward is the aesthetic delight the most harrowing events, well-told, bring.
What occurs in A HERITAGE AND ITS HISTORY is united in tone by the controlled chorus of butler and children, all of whom keep readers aware, as Deakin the butler puts it, that life is not adapted to man and that it is up to man to conform as cheerfully as he can to its conditions if he is permitted to know them. To know all that the main characters and the commenting choruses say about themselves and others is to understand and forgive the facts of human nature as Compton-Burnett recognizes them.
This divine lack of reproof—even more apparent in THE MIGHTY AND THEIR FALL and A GOD AND HIS FATE—has been increasing since Compton-Burnett published MR. BULLIVANT AND HIS LAMBS in 1947. Evidently this development has burgeoned from both a growing reconciliation to the worst that may happen to all of mankind and a slight brightening of her worldview, so that it now approaches what may be called cheerful stoicism or uncritical, nearly omniscient, factualism. All of her novels deserve attention, the earliest for what they expose, the latest for what they show of how people may dispose themselves before what must be exposed. “If way to the Better there be,” Thomas Hardy said, “it exacts a full look at the Worst.” The early novels show the worst. The later suggest, with diffident hopefulness and no lack of clarity about the Worst one must face, how one may best aim toward the Better.
The kind, hard look the novels give on life and death and her unusual technique that requires a cooperative reader rather than one accustomed to the pap-feeding of popular fiction have kept Compton-Burnett from popularity in the United States. To a lesser extent, this has been true of the public even in England, where she has been honored by royalty, critics, and the awarders of prizes. Not to read Compton-Burnett is to deprive oneself of a depth of vision comparable with what one finds in Aeschylus, Shakespeare, Tolstoy, and other acclaimed writers. Not to read her is to deprive oneself of pleasure also, for Compton-Burnett’s somewhat hopeful stoicism is always leavened by humor and wit. In her work and within the necessary human limit of fallibility, style and wisdom conjoin beautifully to delight.
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