Gotham Diary:
Exiguous
20 June 2012

The other night, waiting for dinner, I embarked on a reading of Ivy Compton-Burnett’s fiction by opening her 1935 novel, A House and Its Head. This has recently been republished, with an afterword by Francine Prose, by NYRB. I wanted to start with something that I hadn’t read before, not that I’ve read very much. I’d like to rediscover her, if that’s possible, in light of Elizabeth Taylor’s enthusiasm.

I made my way through the first chapter without two much effort. We are introduced to the Edgeworths, in a fashion that strikes me (in my limited knowledge) as typical of Compton-Burnett, at the beginning of a meal, in this case breakfast on Christmas Day, 1885. Duncan is the irritating paterfamilias; I can’t tell yet how much of a tyrant he is, even if he does toss someone’s present, a book whose atheistical subject-matter offends him, onto the fire. Ellen, vaguely, is his wife. Two daughters, each on the other side of twenty, are Nance and Sibyl. Nance demonstrates a certain outspokenness. Their cousin, Grant, is their father’s heir, so far as the estate’s entail go; I believe that he is something of a reprobate.

It is not until the second chapter (which I didn’t finish) that we meet the butler, a woman called Bethia. Her position is explained in a paragraph of one sentence: “The family income had lessened with the depression of the land, and the house was run on women servants.” Bethia’s appearance is preceded by a plethora of new characters, who gather outside the church after morning service. i think that I’m going to need a diagram. There is Oscar, the (unbelieving) vicar, his mother, Gretchen Jeckyll (did ICB know Gertrude Jeckyll?), his sister, Cassandra, who is still governess to the Edgeworth girls and who still lives in their house, although she must have spirited out for the holiday in order to miss breakfast in the first chapter. There is the local doctor, Fabian Smollett, and his “cousin and wife,” Florence. Then there’s the Burtenshaw contingent: Alexander, his daughter, Rosamund (a provider of religious tracts), and his niece, Beatrice Fellowes, who is “more generally seen as cousin to his daughter.” Finally, Mr and Mrs Bode, and their children Almeric and Dulcia. Almeric and Dulcia! What is Compton-Burnett thinking? You have to work out who everyone is — I wouldn’t swear to it that Florence is the doctor’s wife — and in the end the novelist’s descriptions of each new face have melted into a puddle of not very helpful terms. Take Rosamund’s “high, set colour.” What’s that supposed to mean?

And the things they all say: platitudes and commonplaces with razor-sharp frankness.

Dulcia entered this room in a hearty manner.

“We are fortunate to have something to fill up Christmas afternoon. It is an occasion which seems to partake of the nature of an anticlimax. We know it will anyhow not do that today.”

“I believe we have offered ourselves,” muttered Almeric.

You must be fiendishly attentive. If you miss “this room” and read it as “the room” instead, you’ll miss that the scene has changed from the dining room to the schoolroom, and you’ll wonder why Duncan, who shortly before Dulcia’s arrival (in the schoolroom) made a trenchant remark, is suddenly complaining, from the next room, about the noise being made by the young people.

It all reads like A rebours, as reconceived by Edward Gorey in The Curious Sofa.

I read on through the fourth chapter. Nothing happens; Ellen dies. That’s one of Compton-Burnett’s tricks, to make non-events of things like death. It seems that Ellen has been wasting away, and that no one in the family has noticed. (Duncan’s disregard for Ellen is marked from the very beginning.) I suppose that you imperceivably waste away in 1885; certainly nobody expects Dr Smollett to do much of anything, beyond officiating, as if death were a ritual to be overseen by a medical man instead of a priest. Duncan is ghastly, grudging his wife her illness and then simpering with self-condolence. (He will remarry soon, doubtless with a view to displacing Grant as his heir — and solipsistically unaware of running the risk that Grant might displace him.) The other thing that happens, sort of, is the round of Miss Fellowes’s proselytizing visits. The tedium of these occasions is amply demonstrated without, however, burdening the reader with much in the way of Miss Fellowes’s actual message.

That’s another one of Compton-Burnett’s tricks: she conjures the densely dull atmosphere of late-Victorian gentility, not, as you might expect, out of an excess of verbiage, but rather from its opposite, an insufficiency of supply. It is our straining to follow her exiguous clues to the narrative that makes us feel as oppressed as her characters. That’s the essence of her sly modernism, set entirely as it is in the puce twilight of a century that was tired of its own ambition. You’re both alienated from her people, and unable to escape them.

Of course, you could always put the book down, but for another trick: even without a pulse, Ivy Compton-Burnett’s fiction is electrifying.

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