Although it was subtitled diffidently “A Study” when it appeared first, PASTORS AND MASTERS, Ivy Compton-Burnett’s first characteristic novel, reveals in small ways the attitudes, preoccupations, and techniques that she has modified and improved in the novels that have followed. It is as different from her first novel, DOLORES, as night is from day. There is no touch here of the sentimental admiration for self-sacrificing, or doing good, in any conventional sense of these moral words. Compton-Burnett records, largely by means of dialogue, the frequently enlightened, sometimes bumbling, search for self-satisfaction. The “good” are no more rewarded or punished than the “bad” in Compton-Burnett’s cool look on life and death. Aesthetic punishment or reward seems to fall here, as elsewhere, on those who would be witty or selfish and bungle it; aesthetic reward comes to those who are intelligent, witty, and able to cope with uprises and downfalls equally well. No moral judgment is passed; people are like that, Compton-Burnett appears to feel. Who can complain sensibly about the way the universe is constructed?
Typically, PASTORS AND MASTERS begins with a long speech by Mr. Merry, the master who does the work Mr. Herrick abhors. Mr. Merry chides the students for not poking the fire, for putting too much coal on it, for degrading him, a middle-aged man doing honest work, for not respecting him. He continues with typical unrealism (than later becomes more charming than realism) to talk of how hard he works to support his family, how surprised he is by their bad human laziness (although of course he is not), by their dressing poorly, being half asleep at seven, being ungentlemanly—as he and all the characters are judged by Cardinal Newman’s famous definition of gentlemanliness as empathizing with and being considerate of others.
The speech is followed by a brief description and judgment upon Mr. Merry. He is tall, thin, pale, about fifty years old; he has screwed-up eyes which he can make kind. The author reveals that he feels affection, disgust, pride, and despair as he surveys the pupils. There are few or no characters in Compton-Burnett’s novels who do not feel and show all of these attitudes.
If they have not read a good many of the novels that followed, many sophisticated readers would find much to complain of in this beginning. No one would talk like Mr. Merry, really. The expository part about his being middle-aged and supporting a family certainly is not in the modern mode. The expository description of Mr. Merry, the school, the pupils, comes too fast for most aesthetic palates. One can hear, almost, impatient readers weaned on Joyce, Forster, and Woolf say, “This is like a bad play, with the stage directions following the too long speeches they should precede.”
Nevertheless, any reasonably sensitive reader who reads the rest of PASTORS AND MASTERS would change his mind. Like the rest of her novels, this work is more like a play than any contemporary fiction apart from Henry Green’s; but it is like a very good drama. Compton-Burnett is as exact and economical a writer as one can find in modern...
(The entire section is 1308 words.)