Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1308
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 times. She expects her readers to be alert, to cooperate intelligently in the making of her book a work of art. He who runs will misread her; he who reads her novels with the attentiveness one more usually gives to poetry will find great pleasure and great enlightenment.
In the beginning passage, for example, he may discover that the school is very casually run, that the boys are not at all well disciplined, that Mr. Merry is not sure of himself, and that this is the reason why he imparts an air of alluring kindness even while he barks more loudly than he will bite. The passage is necessary preparation for the presentation of the atmosphere of the school—watered marmalade, inattentive, not unhappy boys unrigorously schooled—and of the minor characters who are necessary to the reader’s understanding of the major ones: Mrs. Merry, mild and grievedly faced; Miss Basden, dutiful, respectful, incompetent; Mr. Burgess, who comes late to breakfast and simulates absorbed attention to his “elders and betters.” Only one of the major characters. Mr. Herrick, appears in the first chapter and then very briefly. He does the ten-minute scripture reading that constitutes his day’s work but readers get no real insight into him.
The major characters, Herrick and his sister, reveal themselves with engaging abruptness in the second chapter. He remarks sharply that it is good to be back with his half sister; he is caustic about Merry’s doing his duty. His sister, franker still, says that the sight of duty makes her shiver and to do it would kill her. Their speeches instantly give a good idea of what to expect from Nicholas and Emily Herrick. The sight of duty makes Nicholas shiver. Emily not only agrees; she unhesitatingly and wittily expresses what a more ordinary person would veil with hypocrisy. She continues to do this throughout PASTORS AND MASTERS, for she is not only herself but the author’s eye. Her conversation often approximates what one might say under certain circumstances, but more often it is spoken revelation of that which may be thought and felt but hidden from the world. The outspoken statement of the usually concealed applies to all Compton-Burnett’s characters; they are wits rather than witwouds. The conversation that carries the plot forward is not, fortunately, at all like what people actually say to one another. It resembles the beautifully unnatural language found in Restoration comedy and Greek tragedy. Consequently, readers must be alert while reading Compton-Burnett. Either one comprehends or one misses her meanings entirely.
What the reader who comprehends uncovers in PASTORS AND MASTERS is very worthwhile. Nicholas is one of Compton-Burnett’s more amiable exploiters. By assembling his group of incompetent and barely competent masters, he is left free to do what he wills. Until the time the novel begins, this has been writing criticism, “unkindness” to the work of others. Early in the novel, at the deathbed of Crabbe, a ninety-year-old don who has been his friend, he is presumed to have discovered the material for a short novel. This comforts him, for he has the egotism of one who admits God’s equal importance reluctantly and has hitherto lived disappointed that he had written only criticism and has not even created a miniature fictional universe. As the reader discovers when he is about to read his novel to a small writers’ group, he has stolen the manuscript from the dead Crabbe, who had been given it to read by its actual author. To complicate matters further, the actual author, Bumpus, also intends to read it to the group. What happens at this private reading is good comedy and penetrating criticism of the pretensions of human beings. Nicholas does not think one should overlook his selfishness himself or reveal it to others, and he continues his egocentric course, discovered only by his sister. She prefers not to tell because she has learned that she prefers his wicked intelligence to the naivete of those whom Nicholas gulls and exploits. By the end of the novel, all the characters except Emily Herrick, the honest and witty observer, stand implicitly condemned. As one thinks back over the book, the reader gets the uncomfortable feeling that he resembles the other characters more closely than he does Emily.
Perhaps it is because of her disturbing insights rather than because of her unusual technique that Compton-Burnett has not become a widely popular novelist. It is a pity that this circumstance prevails, for her novels can bring delight even when they are about the undelightful and the truths she compels readers to face about themselves are as important as they are disconcerting.
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