Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 797
Pastors and Masters signals the reemergence of a talent that had lain dormant for fourteen years. Stunned by the tragedies that beset her family, including the suicide of two sisters, the death of two brothers in World War I, and the fragmentation of her large Victorian family, Ivy Compton-Burnett underwent a period of recuperation and reassessment that brought about a transformation of her style and values. Pastors and Masters liberated her from her major precursor, George Eliot, whose earnest Victorian values influenced Compton-Burnett’s first novel Dolores (1911). Pastors and Masters, however, reaches back for inspiration to the lively and comic approach of Jane Austen, who is singled out for tribute during one of Pastors and Masters’ many conversations. The novel’s interest in authorship and in those who copy or repeat the past suggests that, on one level, Compton-Burnett was asserting her own claims to originality. Although Austen is an important influence on her work, Compton-Burnett’s work is her own. Pastors and Masters is the first of her unique “dialogue” novels, which feature virtually disembodied voices whose talk constitutes the narrative. Because there is little exposition, the reader must draw his or her own inferences, much as Emily does when she silently observes the behavior and the talk of her brother and his friends. Although this novel remains more of a sketch than her other novels do, it contains within its slender plot all of her important themes and narrative strategies.
The title Pastros and Masters reflects the novel’s theme—masculine authority. In short order, Compton-Burnett questions the masculine power structure in religion, education, and the family. The pastors of the title are portrayed as intensely conservative men whose God is a father-figure with several serious character flaws. Emily describes him as not only arrogant, vindictive, and overindulgent but also, in one of the book’s memorable lines, as “one of the best drawn characters in fiction.” The values of Christian charity which the men espouse seem to turn women into martyrs whose lives are spent serving the selfish interests of others.
The Victorian institution of the family is similarly questioned. The representative father in the novel, Henry Bentley, is the first in a series of domineering and destructive parents in the work of Compton-Burnett. The men who supply the intellectual backbone of this educational world, the university-educated masters, are exposed as essentially incompetent. Richard Bumpus appears to have written the same book all of his life. Nicholas Herrick is unable to write a book at all, and he simply plagiarizes the work of his old tutor. The reader sees, along with Emily, that Richard and Nicholas are more concerned with their own prestige and power than with devoting themselves to good work or the welfare of others. When one learns that Nicholas will allow himself to take credit for work done by someone else, one comes to understand the depths of his self-aggrandizing nature.
Pastors and Masters also introduces the reader to Compton-Burnett’s moral philosophy, an original deployment of her father’s pioneering work in homeopathic medicine. Just as homeopathic medicine intertwines health and illness as a therapeutic strategy, so Compton-Burnett suggests that people’s moral and psychological lives are at their healthiest when they understand the dark side of human nature. Emily describes this, in a witty metaphor, as a process by which virtue “condenses” vice. Good cannot purify itself of evil but instead must cope with its constant presence. This reflects Emily’s new sophistication with regard to the moral character of her brother Nicholas. Although she still loves Nicholas, she sees that he is not divine, but all too human; he has within him the potential for wrongdoing. The propensity for criminal-ity within erstwhile respectable families becomes one of Compton-Burnett’s great themes in subsequent novels.
All the men in the novel are engaged in a holding action against the disempowered members of their society—the women, servants, and children who are beginning to question their authority. It is significant that this is the only novel written by Compton-Burnett that is set after World War I. This novel strongly reflects both the devastation of the war and the social changes created in its wake. Compton-Burnett carefully darkened the texture of her last chapter by referring to the loss of the two Fletcher sons in the war. Her questioning of her society’s leadership comes as a consequence of the war, which disillusioned an entire generation. Compton-Burnett’s satiric novel reflects this loss of faith in leaders who seemed less like trusted elders than impervious old men. Although her other novels are set at the turn of the century, all of them take their cue from the detached and critical spirit of modernity that Ivy Compton-Burnett establishes in Pastors and Masters.
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