A neighbour gave me two large hothouse-grown strawberries. It is still winter here and the strawberries, predictably, were watery and sour, but I sprinkled on some sugar and ate them, thinking of summer fruit.
Went off to bed early last night with a slight headache and a copy of Ivy Compton-Burnett’s A House and Its Head. A book I have read and reread at least eight times.
About two decades ago, I first discovered the strange magnificent novels of ICB. Wildly enthused, I lent her books to friends, gave her books as birthday and Christmas gifts, urged other friends to borrow her novels from the library. It took me a while to grasp that I had joined the smallest author’s fan club in the world. My friends almost unanimously told me that the Edwardian novels of Dame Ivy Compton-Burnett were unreadable, all the characters sounded the same, the long stretches of witty subtle dialogue drove them crazy, the dramatic events sounded improbable — well, the novels were unwanted and many were returned to me unread.
By chance I came across another blogger who praises and defends ICB, Simon of Stuck in a Book and I have decided to read through the novels again, spurred on by my irrational passionately hopeful belief that there will be a Compton-Burnett revival and thousands of reluctant ICB avoiders will suddenly realise what they have been missing!
If you want a fictional challenge, this might be the place to start. For me, the experience is not unlike coming across starkly beautiful, austere and bleak Greek tragedy in a crowded family dining room circa 1904. I read Compton-Burnett novels for years and wasn’t sure what I was reading. All the same, I’m very patient with experimental fiction so on I plodded and puzzled. Then I found Hilary Spurling’s biography of Ivy Compton Burnett in a crumbling and dusty secondhand bookshop, the second volume entitled Secrets of a Woman’s Heart, and within a weekend of unstoppably gluttonous reading I was enlightened, rushed back to the fiction and began rereading, memorising, teasing out strands and themes and quotations.
Families interest me greatly and as I have looked back at genealogical researches, the Victorian families of my ancestors, those eccentric and repressed Scottish or colonial kinship clans, I have wondered about inheritances, sibling rivalries and parental tyrannies. The madwomen in the attic, the cold draughty houses and underpaid servants, the invisible lives of women and children, the boys going off to war or to study for the bar.
Ivy Compton-Burnett was born in 1884 to a homeopathic physician in Hove, Britain. Her father married twice and his second wife as a reluctant and prejudiced stepmother may have been the model for the outrageous cruel bullies portrayed in the novels. She sent her disliked step-daughters away to boarding school and would allow no criticism of any of her whims or prejudices.
In later years, Ivy would insist that her early life was too uneventful to talk about. In reality, it was both eventful and tragic: her favourite brother Guy died of pneumonia, another brother died on the Somme and her youngest sisters killed themselves with a veronal overdose on Christmas Day, 1917. Ivy’s struggles to control the family after her mother’s death brought out her own fiercely tyrannical shortcomings. After the end of World War i, Ivy was desperately ill with what was called Spanish flu, a worldwide epidemic. She began writing fiction in her 20s.
Not one of the twelve children born into that family would ever marry or have children themselves, and Ivy would go on to explore the ruthless savagery of family tyranny with tremendous insight and sympathy, in 19 novels that are masterpieces. At the heart of these powerful complex families there is the nexus of power and money: the plots revolve around wills and beneficiaries, dependants, the disinherited, the unmarried daughters, the watchful governesses, the terrorised but resilient children, the dying and the desperate. The death of a parent may mean freedom for a son or daughter who gains not just economic security but the ability to leave the imprisoning family home or marry someone not approved by the parent. The power that parents had over their adult children then was absolute, in a way we can’t understand in our very different economies with choices of varied employment or social opportunities
On 28 November 1928, her late father’s birthday, Virginia Woolf wrote an entry in her diary wondering what would have happened if her father had not died when he did, “His life would have entirely ended mine. What would have happened? No writing, no books;–inconceivable.” It is an astute and chilling comment from a daughter who loved and admired her father, but could only live as a free woman and a writer once he was dead and his money shared between herself and her sister. Woolf never underestimates the importance of money to help women secure independence, the need for women to be financially independent of husbands, older brothers, fathers.
Many people have not known families like those described by Compton-Burnett and that may be why her books make little sense to them. I grew up with a father who would threaten us as he himself had been threatened. If we did not behave better, he would not pay for us to go to university and we could go and work in a typist’s pool. As A-level examinations drew closer, I would stay up late at night studying by torchlight in order to earn scholarships so that my father would not be able to stop me from going to university because education was for me, as for many other women, the only way we could get better jobs and a chance to have careers. And it was a great relief to me that I did not have ask my father for any money, that I could pay my own way through to a post-graduate degree and then work to settle student debts myself. If I had been born in 1884, 1904 or even 1954, it might have been a very different story.
What is remarkable though, is that the tyrants described by Ivy Compton-Burnett are so human and even lovable. They are gifted and passionate men and women in whom the drive to power has been over-indulged, warped or twisted. They remain capable of generosity and repentance, but they are damaged and dangerous characters who demand utter blind loyalty and even servitude from those they claim to love. There are mothers who cannot relinquish their adult sons, desperate younger daughters who will stop at nothing to ensure an inheritance, brilliant but flawed schemers and bullies who cannot seem to stop themselves from destroying those they love or treating usurping step-children with extreme cruelty and unfairness. The times may have changed, but the dynamics if human nature are timeless viewed through an unsparing eye.
“There is probably nothing like living together for blinding people to one another”