Sunday, August 8, 2010

Ivy Compton-Burnett

Just a few of my friends are serious readers, lovers of good literature.  One of these is John Waters.  In his recent book Role Models he highly commends the novels of Ivy Compton-Burnett.  He writes that she "looked exactly like the illustration on the Old Maid card, never had sex even once, and wrote twenty dark, hilarious, evil little novels between the years 1911 and 1969."  Waters warns that they are difficult; he backs this up with a quote from Compton-Burnett herself:  "Once you pick up a Compton-Burnett it's hard not to put them down again."

I had heard the name forever but knew nothing about her.  I decided to start with Hillary Spurling's biography, gathering a good number of gems from it:

A friend of Ivy's, Dorothy Beresford, was "quick, sensitive, acutely observant, widely read but otherwise uneducated save for what she'd picked up from her father."  "She held out against 'the urge to write' with a determination for which she took credit, 'feeling all round me the fearful tyranny of the over-full ink-pot and the unwanted word'"  "Dorothy," writes Spurling, "was one of those people -- all too familiar in the novels of I. Compton-Burnett -- who have brains but no training and cannot for the life of them see why writers make such a fuss about writing."   She "had the advantage in looks and was Ivy's equal in wit (she told T.S. Eliot that the three tall, pale, long-fingered Sitwells put her in mind of 'a stained glass window, hands joined in admiration of one another'"
Ivy and her companion/housemate Margaret Jourdain had a friend named Frankie Birrell.  When he came to dinner he "disgraced himself ... by falling asleep ... and smashing the arm of his chair."  Birrell himself wrote self-deprecatingly of the incident:  "I can quite clearly remember the soup ... then, I suppose, we must have had fish, because when I woke up there was a plate of fish, uneaten, in front of me.  As a matter of fact, my left hand was in it, covered with sauce.  I was alone in the dining room; the lights were burning, and when I looked at my watch I saw that it was past midnight.  The ladies seemed to have gone to bed."
In Ivy's 1931 novel, Men and Wives, a character named Rachel says, "Well, a selfish life is lovely, darling.  It is awful to be of use."
Margaret Jourdain wrote books on decorating, and consulted clients on such matters.  One of her patrons, Nelly Levy, was "a prodigal source ... of gossip, company, entertainment, splendid parties and no less splendid stories like the one of her saying, when someone admired her necklace in the garden at Buxted Park, 'My dear, these are my gardening pearls.'"
"'I can't do collar work,' Margaret would say (meaning the work collar worn by plough or dray horses)."  Margaret, whose work in decorating did not earn her a good living, eventually obtained a position as a secondary sales room correspondent, "a post not unfairly summed up, in Ivy's phrase, as choosing 'to behave in an undignified manner for a pittance"

"That is the best definition of work I have heard," says a character named Felix Bacon in Ivy Compton-Burnett's novel More Women Than Men.
Mockery had early provided relief from a harsh and demanding home life for Margaret ... whose revolt against the moral opportunism of [her] vicarage upbringing made [her] despise religion as unequivocally as Ivy and her own two brothers [despised religion].

"'No good can come of it,' said Ivy long afterwards, discussing Christianity with the novelist Elizabeth Taylor.  'Its foundations are laid in fostering guilt in people -- well, that obviously makes it easier for our Pastors and Masters when we are young.'"  Ivy said that when Margaret was just a little girl she said to her governess, "I don't want to hear any more about that poor man [Jesus]," and walked out of the room."
Margaret's sister, Eleanor, wrote, with a Miss Moberly, a bestseller called An Adventure which was a suspicious account "describing their encounter with Marie Antoinette and her ghostly court at Versailles in 1901.'  Margaret referred to the book as 'My sister's folly.'"

Eleanor was also Principal of St. Hugh's at Oxford, a position which ended in trouble when there was "a public scandal that terminated her regime at St. Hugh's in 1924.  She had dismissed a young history tutor ... on charges of disloyalty which boiled down to the fact that the two had never got on, whereupon half the college council resigned, together with a number of dons.  Accusations of lying, spying, victimization and emotional blackmail were freely bandied about ... the matter was adjudicated by the Chancellor, Lord Curzon, who exonerated [the tutor].

"A friendly don, coming to warn Eleanor Jourdain of the news, is said to have been greeted with the words: 'We've won, haven't we?'

Not quite!  "Eleanor died of heart failure six days later.  It was 'maintained that she had been murdered and the Oxford Magazine reported her death with the tag from Tacitus, 'Felix opportunitate mortis' (which might be roughly translated: 'Lucky for her she is dead.'"
A homosexual friend of Ivy and Margaret's, one Herman Schrijver, was 'the mounting block' for Ivy's character Felix in More Men Than Women.  His "flippancy, shallowness and affectation, his vanity and showing off ... his fascination with his own and his friends' appearance, age, tastes and dress' were characteristics which Ivy and Margaret delighted in.  

"Shall we have a gossip about your staff?" Felix says to his friend Josephine. "No!" says the latter.  "When you have known me a little longer, you will know that my mistresses, in their presence and in their absence, are safe with me.  I hope I could say that of all my friends."

Felix's retort is priceless:  "I hoped you could not.  But it is interesting that they would not be safe, if we had the gossip ...."

"Felix," writes Spurling, "reproduces many of Herman's turns of phrase and mannerisms, his dancing gait, green eyes and penchants for formal Savile Row suits.  Herman also gave his gregariousness, social poise and sunny temper, his gallantry to older women (almost a professional qualification in the decorator's trade), the relaxed, teasing, flattering approach that goes so far to disarm Josephine, calming her inner turmoil as effectively as it thaws her external constraint by making her laugh, and let him off small things like going home to dress for dinner:

"'Stay by all means.  Your clothes to not matter at all.'

"'I noticed that you thought that about clothes; and I see that your clothes did not matter; but I don't think mine can be dismissed like that.'"
"Felix is less an individual portrait ('People are too flat in life to go straight into a book,' said Ivy) than a distillation of all that Herman, and people like him, stood for in Ivy's life by way of diversion, consolation, sympathy and understanding.  [Ivy] prized especially their captivating frankness, and the corresponding skill at side-stepping emotional entanglements .... he represents perhaps more directly than any other single character in Ivy's books the discreetly homosexual element among her friends and Margaret's, the shrewd, uncharitable, high camp contingent always to the fore among connoisseurs and collectors, dealers and decorators, people who attach the utmost importance to style and artifice.

"I never thing about people's age," said Josephine.

"I often think about it," said Felix; "and hope they show it more often than I do, and wonder if they can guess mine."
Ivy consistently believed that she had been treated badly by her various publishers: cheated on royalties; cheated by poor advertising campaigns for each of her twenty books.  Long after she'd left the publisher Heinemann, she "was accosted at a publisher's party by a man from Heinemann's who claimed that his firm had once had the honour of publishing her:  'Honour? said Ivy.  'No one would have known it at the time.'"
Another of Ivy's friends was Willie King, who was associated with the British Museum.  "He walked to work every day from Thurloe Square via Piccadilly Circus to Bloomsbury."  When a friend "proposed an alternative route" King responded:  "'Walk across Hyde Park?  My dear Soame, I hate the country.'"
Ivy, says Spurling "wore her delicate, Georgian diamond brooch and ear-rings with simplicity and distinction."  Robin Fedden, a friend, describing his first tea with Ivy in 1946, wrote: 'Her jewellery managed never to look like jewellery but, on her, seemed hieratic insignia.  I do not recall seeing her out of black.  She wore it like a uniform, with care but with the disregard for mode proper to uniform.  A sense positively of the Services attached to a black tricorne, vaguely reminiscent of an eighteenth-century quarter-deck.  There was also the long black umbrella.  This she would carry to dinner a mere two hundred yards from [Ivy's home] on a halcyon evening . . . for me, the physical impression was recurrently of a Roman head, a soldier-emperor, perhaps Galba.  The rolled hair and the ribbon sometimes seemed like a laurel wreath."

Fedden's "moral impression [of Compton-Burnett] was of sanity and principle.  Level-headed, in the best sense of the word, was an adjective that she evoked.  If I have met a human being whose values were not blurred, it was Miss Compton-Burnett."
Ivy's 1951 novel, Darkness and Day, has "a secondary theme of old age, infirmity and death.

"Could anyone be older than Grandma?" asks a grandchild.

"Yes, of course,' said Rose.  'She is only seventy-eight.  People can be ninety and a hundred."

"But their days are but labour and sorrow.  Are her days like that?"

"No, I shouldn't think so.  Other people's may be, when they are with her."
In 1957, T.S. Eliot, with his new wife, moved into a house around the corner from Ivy's home.  They seem to have enjoyed running into one another in the neighborhood.  "I don't see very much of him," Ivy said, "but I like to know he's there."  Their surface friendliness did not stop Ivy from speculating on his relationship with his wife; she said to that fellow British novelist Elizabeth Taylor:  "Apparently she's always adored him, although she was his secretary for years.  I am sure if I had been his secretary for a fortnight I should have wanted to poison him, not marry him."

Eliot and Ivy talked about trivial things -- "cake shops, fishmongers, greengrocers ... and where to go for the best fillet steak."  Of one meeting with Eliot Ivy said "there was a great deal of talk about" Eliot's previous flatmate, John Hayward.  Then she added, "No, I don't think there was really much talk.  I think I just asked a lot of impertinent questions.  People say that if you don't ask, you get told more, but I have never found that to be true.  I have found that one gets told nothing at all."
John Waters ends his mini-essay on Compton-Burnett:  "I have all twenty of her novels and I've read nineteen.  If I read the one that is left there will be no more Ivy Compton-Burnett for me and I will probably have to die myself."

As for me I have the thrill of thinking that any or all of the twenty await me -- even if it is almost a certainty that I won't get through all twenty before my own death.  I am, after all, slower than molasses.  Not a slow reader but slow at getting to things.

1 comment:

  1. Why do you think Susan Sontag declared Ivy a Camp novelist? do you agree? I have read only Manservant and Maidservant and do not feel I can say yet