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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 594

Pastors and Masters is the first of Ivy Compton-Burnett’s novels to establish her characteristic style and subject matter. This novel introduces her distinctive use of dialogue and her satiric depiction of Victorian institutions. Her heroine, Emily Herrick, is singled out for her perspicacity, which brings with it a loss of innocence and trust.

One of the goals of this slender novel is to satirize the institutions of church, school, and family. The novel begins in a school for boys run by Mr. Merry, who manages to both bully and neglect the forty boys in his charge. These boys are largely nameless, faceless victims of incompetence and arbitrary power. The questioning of masculine authority in the person of Mr. Merry is broadened to include Henry Bentley, father of two of the schoolboys and domestic tyrant. The church is also depicted as an imperfect and narrowly patriarchal institution. The values of the Reverend Fletcher and his family ratify masculine authority and require endless sacrifice on the part of their women.

The main purpose and plot of the novel, however, concerns the raising of Emily Herrick’s consciousness. This aspect of the novel leads the reader to her brother Nicholas, who is the absentee owner of the school run by Mr. Merry. Nicholas and his friends Richard Bumpus and William Masson shared a tutor in college referred to as old Crabbe. Nicholas has told his two friends, who are now dons at the university, that, at the age of seventy, he has at last produced the book that will cap his career as an educator. At the same time, Richard announces that he has finally completed a book on which he has been working for many years. Before Nicholas begins to read his book aloud, Richard mentions that the original version of his book was accidentally left at the deathbed of old Crabbe. Nicholas at once undergoes a change of heart and elects not to read his manuscript. In fact, he declares that he will not publish it at all. It is the observant Emily who puts all this cross talk together. She sees that Nicholas, thinking it was his moribund tutor’s, has stolen Richard’s manuscript and has claimed it for his own. As the conversation continues, it is also apparent that Richard’s new book is little different from the one left with old Crabbe; he has essentially been writing the same book his entire life. Neither of the men sees through the other’s deception. It is only Emily who detects not only their pompous duplicity but also their lack of innovation—there is only one old manuscript, and neither of them has written anything new. The arrogance and hypocrisy of her brother and his friends come as a revelation to Emily. She sees that their need for recognition and prestige is greater than their ability to do any meaningful work. They take credit where credit is not due. Emily’s new knowledge shocks her into a sudden maturity; her fifty-first birthday is used as a symbol for this new level of consciousness. It is almost a rebirth for her, as she sees her life in a new and truer way. Nevertheless, Emily, like the other women in the novel, continues to support men; Mr. Merry will continue to dominate the school-boys; and the husbands and fathers will continue to wield their heavy-handed authority. Yet the women in the novel, and Emily in particular, have begun to assimilate a deep knowledge of their situation that reflects a more modern and liberated perspective.


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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 372

The “Woman Question” is central to Pastors and Masters. The novel’s title, which refers to male authority, suggests the systematic exclusion of women from society’s power structures. In spite of this exclusion, however, the reader sees that the various reverends and teachers in the novel are in the process of being challenged by the women and children around them. Within the narrow context of a small boys’ school, Compton-Burnett is tracking the liberalizing process of modernity, through which women and other disenfranchised groups have gained recognition. In Pastors and Masters, women are portrayed as equaling or surpassing men in matters of both mind and heart. Compton-Burnett extends Emily’s capacity for insight to a sisterhood that includes her confidante Theresa and the schoolteacher Miss Basden. Together, they conclude the novel with a lively disquisition on the situation of women. Miss Basden speaks for Compton-Burnett when she notes that until their recent enfranchisement as voters, the women in her society were classed with paupers, idiots, and children, and that as a result they are still required to establish their credentials as competent adults. Miss Basden also takes issue with the Victorian idea of putting women on a pedestal, holding the very contemporary view that the sentimental exaltation of women is in reality a form of contempt. Emily is particularly scathing when it comes to women and marriage. Objecting to a society in which women are confined within the institution of marriage and family, Emily prefers to assign value to women independent of their relationship to men. She suggests, however, that if a woman does not establish herself as a wife and mother, she is considered a liability, and that a patri-archal solution to women such as herself would be to expose them at birth. When the objection is made that one cannot tell which will be the single women when they are born, Emily slyly replies that all children are born single; that is, as individuals and not as part of a couple, a family, or a larger whole. The sanctity of the individual is at the heart of Compton-Burnett’s work, and she eventually extends her concern with the preservation of women’s singularity and individuality to humanity in general.


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Baldanza, Frank. Ivy Compton-Burnett. New York: Twayne, 1964. An excellent general introduction researched with the help of Ivy Compton-Burnett herself. Includes biographical material, a brief chronology up to 1964, a treatment of technique, and a survey of English, American, and French criticism.

Burkhart, Charles, ed. The Art of I. Compton-Burnett. London: Victor Gollancz, 1972. A compilation of critical essays and interviews, including an essay on Compton-Burnett’s dialogue by the French novelist Nathalie Sarraute.

Gentile, Kathy Justice. Ivy Compton-Burnett. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1991. Part of a series on women writers, this study establishes Compton-Burnett as a feminist and adds new and important perspectives to her work. Has an excellent bibliography.

Greenfield, Stanley. “Pastors and Masters: The Spoils of Genius.” Criticism 2, no. 1 (Winter, 1960): 66-80. Seminal analysis of Pastors and Masters. A detailed discussion of the novel that perceives the depth of what appears to be a slender novel.

Liddell, Robert. The Novles of Ivy Compton-Burnett. London: Victor Gollancz, 1955. The first important interpretation of Compton-Burnett, this work remains the standard critical book. Includes a detailed and appreciative analysis of each work, with particular reference to the theme of “domestic tyranny.”

Nevius, Blake. Ivy Compton-Burnett. New York: Columbia University Press, 1970. A short, general discussion of the work of Compton-Burnett. Serves as a lively introduction for those who find her work difficult and inaccessible.

Spurling, Hilary. Ivy: The Life of I. Compton-Burnett. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1984. This definitive and indispensable biography of Compton-Burnett includes much useful information about her crucial early years. Details also her later, happy, highly creative years with her companion, author Margaret Jourdain.

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