Compton-Burnett, Ivy (Vol. 15)
Compton-Burnett, Ivy 1892–1969
A prolific British novelist who wrote exclusively of the late-Victorian upper middle class, Compton-Burnett is numbered among the best English women writers of her generation. Her work consists of psychological novels that deal with murder, incest, and forgery, and avoids the melodramatic or sentimental. Rather, she exposes, with cool, cynical wit, the cruelty and complexities of families and the tyranny of personal relationships. Though concerned with moral values, she allows wickedness to go unpunished and the good to suffer. Description is minimal in Compton-Burnett's novels, with plot revealed almost entirely through lengthy dialogue. In 1967 she was made a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 3, 11, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.; obituary, Vols. 25-28, rev. ed.)
The world that [Miss Compton-Burnett and Jane Austen] depict is normally a limited one, the families at the big house, the rectory, and one or two other houses in an English village….
Why has [Miss Compton-Burnett] chosen this world, and why has she dated the action of her books some time between 1888 and 1902?
Not out of a desire to imitate—Jane Austen is inimitable, and Miss Compton-Burnett has a very original mind. Nor has she acted out of nostalgia for a quiet, old-fashioned world: there is nothing quaint about her work, any more than there is about Miss Austen's—no period properties and no local colour.
She herself claims that she is accepting her limitations: 'I do not feel that I have any real or organic knowledge of life later than about 1910. I should not write of later times with enough grasp or confidence…. When an age is ended, you see it as it is. And I have a dislike, which I cannot explain, of dealing with modern machinery and inventions. When war casts its shadow, I find that I recoil.'
Such a recognition of her range is in itself admirable, but it is impossible not to see more than that in the limitations within which she works. She is writing the pure novel, as Jane Austen did, concentrating upon human beings and their mutual reactions. So rare is such concentration in the English novel that any writer who conscientiously practises it is almost sure to be accused of 'imitating Jane Austen' whether their minds are alike or not…. (p. 147)
The isolation of her characters … brings them into clearer relief, and enables their creator to do her real business, the study and revelation of human nature, with greater freedom. This isolation of the characters, and their lack of interest in social conditions outside the family, or in economic problems apart from those of the family fortunes, is made more credible by isolating them in time as well as in place—situating them in a period when the impact of public events on private individuals was less immediate and crushing than at present. Therefore she has chosen the end of Queen Victoria's reign. A few years earlier, and she would have been obliged to weight down her books with the trappings of the historical novel: as it is, she has obtained a liberating absence of contemporaneity at the small cost of substituting carriages for cars….
Miss Compton-Burnett has freed herself from all irrelevances in order to write the pure novel. And like Miss Austen she has a dislike for merely descriptive writing, which she uses with even greater economy. The village which is to be the scene of action is undescribed and, except for Moreton Edge in Brothers and Sisters, is not even named. Characters are often tersely but completely described, in terms which do not remain in the memory, and it is necessary to turn back if we wish to remind ourselves of their appearance. (p. 148)
Dialogue, to which in Emma Jane Austen had begun to give a far more important place, is the staple of this writer's work. It is a dialogue of a power and brilliance unmatched in English prose fiction. In her early and immature book, Dolores, the machine creaked audibly at times, but already functioned with precision. The style of that book is crude, bare and rather alarming. It is not like real English: it is like the language of translation. It reminds one of English translations of Russian novels and of Greek tragedy, and one may conjecture that both of them had formed an important part of her reading. Such a style is uneuphonious and harsh, but conscientiously renders a meaning—and that is what, like a translator, Miss Compton-Burnett already did, with a remarkable exactitude.
This ungainly, but precise language was later evolved into a dialogue, more dramatic than narrative, which, whether in longer speeches, or in the nearest equivalent in English to Greek tragic stichomythia, is an unrealistic but extraordinarily intense vehicle for the characters' thoughts and emotions, and enables their creator to differentiate them sharply, and, whenever she wishes, to condemn them out of their own mouths….
[She] excels particularly at the revelation of insincerity on all its levels: from that of characters who tell flat lies, to that of characters who have deceived themselves into believing what they say. (p. 149)
Her idiom sometimes approximates to what one might actually say if one were in the character's skin and situation, but also to what one might think and conceal; to what one might think of saying and bite back; to what one might afterwards wish one had said; to what one would like other people to think; and to what one would like to think oneself. (pp. 149-50)
A resemblance to Jane Austen may be noted in the use of stilted or unmeaning language to indicate a bad or insincere character….
A speech of Dulcia Bode in A House and Its Head contains many of the worst horrors pilloried by Fowler in Modern English Usage. Fowler shows that such faults are not merely faults of expression, but generally spring from real faults in feeling and character; they are not merely due to faulty taste, but to moral faults—insincerity, vanity, cowardice, and more….
Many other characters betray themselves by their speech, and some in ways too subtle to be illustrated by a brief citation. This feature of her style, alone, would make Miss Compton-Burnett a most remarkable writer. (p. 150)
Since the short study Pastors and Masters, published in 1925 after a fourteen years' silence, Miss Compton-Burnett has been completely mistress of her unique style, which she has used in increasing perfection in the novels that have followed. The texture is so close and dramatic that quotation of isolated passages is almost impossible without leaving a misleading impression. The detachment by reviewers of some of her comic passages, which are the most easily quotable, has perhaps tended to give the impression that she is only a humorous writer, and to obscure the fact, intensely humorous though she often is, that her ironic view of family life is also serious, and...
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The family…. The disintegrating effect of two wars has tended to drive novelists away from the direct treatment of this subject. For Miss Compton-Burnett it is not only the source of her ideas—and therefore of her plots—but also the focus of all other relationships. Her characters are in the first place (as the titles of her novels imply) sons, daughters, wives, brothers, etc., and only in the second place separate individuals with lives of their own. Like the Greek dramatists, with whom she has sometimes been compared, Miss Compton-Burnett finds in the family the central meeting-place of love and hate; so that in the working out of her books tragedy takes the form of a tightening of the family tie, comedy that of a loosening of the same tie, when those who have enough courage escape into the world. (We never follow them into that world, the advantages of which are taken for granted.) … [In Daughters and Sons, Miss Marcon states that]:
families can seldom be explained, and they make better gossip without any explanation. To know all is to forgive all, and that would spoil everything.
In the end of these novels we do know all, and forgive all, and everything is spoilt, in the sense that nothing—absolutely nothing—further remains to be said. The material is exhausted and our satisfaction with the work of art is complete. (pp. 79-80)
So much [of what is in a character's mind is] said in these novels, which are nine-tenths dialogue, that the suppressed idea or emotion assumes the importance that in other novelists requires a whole scene, or sequence of scenes, to build up. One of the advantages of Miss Compton-Burnett's exquisite conversation is that any direct statement of feeling or intention has the force of a violent gesture. The 'cast' is always assembled in such a way that there is one character, and one only, who by making such statements carries the plot a step forward. Like flying bombs, these stories proceed by jet propulsion, and the explosion, when at last it occurs, hits those who were least prepared for it.
A society, the members of which are so highly conscious of their interdependence, creates its own destiny; and the flying bomb becomes a boomerang. If they could, they would leave stones unturned; but their circumstances make this impossible. To them, all life is one long process of more or less painful discovery…. [The] degree of articulateness displayed by everyone—from servants and children to the tyrant of the household (an invariable figure)—seems alleged, until it is realised that this is a stylistic convention such as every artist has the right to adopt. That everyone in these novels employs the same tone and the same large and scholarly vocabulary does not, strangely enough, impair the vigour of the characterisation, except in a few instances where the dimness of the outline is due to other causes as well. Indeed, Miss Compton-Burnett's signal triumph in this field seems to me quite sufficient to justify repudiation of the modern insistence on naturalistic dialogue. In Manservant and Maidservant, for example—a story in which the convention is carried to its furthest extreme—the characters whose idiom is least natural are precisely those who emerge as most real and pathetic. (pp. 80-1)
Murder, incest, suicide, theft, immolation …: the worst of which human nature is capable is examined on the level of a solecism, between the dropping of a teacup and the entrance of a parlour-maid to collect the fragments. Apart from physical violence and starvation, there is no feature of the totalitarian regime which has not its counterpart in the atrocious families depicted in these books. That this is not immediately obvious is due partly to the Cranfordian background…. These people live too intensely to have time for enjoying their material world…. Money is always important to them, but only in so far as it affects their relationships…. Perfect urbanity is the first rule of their intercourse. In these embowered, rook-enchanted concentration camps (the landscape is evoked, hardly ever described) the horrors are made acceptable, but not blunted, by Politeness and Wit. That is, after all, what manners are for; without them, men and women are incomplete. Self-control is rarely lost in these novels, but where it is lost the result is proportionately upsetting to everyone, the reader included. Anger, despair, exasperation, increase the loftiness of the speech, so that the characters seem to exult in the...
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I think it's the natural way for me to write, the way I write naturally, but I think in some of the books, especially in some of the earlier ones, there is a certain amount of writing that isn't dialogue. But, my books seem to me to be something between a novel and a play. (p. 165)
[But the form of the novels] isn't exactly the structure of a play. It's longer than a play, isn't it, and gives me more scope than a play would. I think I should find the actual performance of a play, a play that has to be acted on the stage, too short. Though my books are short compared with some books, if you don't put any descriptive writing in, the book must be short as regards the number of words, but I think I...
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One of I. Compton-Burnett's richest novels, Manservant and Maidservant (1947), opens with this brief dialogue:
"Is that fire smoking?" said Horace Lamb.
"Yes, it appears to be, my dear boy."
"I am not asking what it appears to be doing. I asked if it was smoking."
"Appearances are not held to be a clue to the truth," said his cousin. "But we seem to have no other."
It is a typical beginning. The subject of conversation is ordinary in the extreme, the language is colorless, indeed the exchange seems pointless and a little dull…. [The] mild little observation about the...
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The novels of Ivy Compton-Burnett present intriguing problems of content and structure. They are distinctly not popular novels; yet, like many popular novels, they are written according to a few simple, undistinguished formulae. Scenes that are almost identical occur in several of the novels. The characters in one novel are often almost indistinguishable from those in another, and the crises that these characters encounter are often very similar and handled in the same ways. The locales of the novels might as well be the same, since they are usually described only specifically enough to be recognizably rural, English, and late Victorian.
Despite what may sound like the repetitious, monotonous, and...
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