The chair she sat on

J.I.M. Stewart

  • Secrets of a Woman’s Heart: The Later Life of Ivy Compton-Burnett 1920-1969 by Hilary Spurling
    Hodder, 336 pp, £14.95, June 1984, ISBN 0 340 26241 9

This is the second and final volume of Hilary Spurling’s biography of I. Compton-Burnett, and it comes to us ten years after the first. During this interval has Mrs Spurling been attending to other things? So abundant, so heavily pendulous upon the bough, are the fruits of research now offered to us (so very thick, we may say, has grown the ivy elegantly disposed on the present dust-jacket as on the last) that nothing of the kind need be supposed. Mrs Spurling must surely have been at work from the dawn of life, determined to know as much as God himself about Ivy’s ancestors, parents, siblings, enemies, rivals, friends, acquaintances, servants, mentors and (above all) sources and channels of inspiration, and to hand us on everything we are prepared to take. I find myself prepared to take a great deal. Enthusiasm and pertinacity are by no means Mrs Spurling’s sole endowments. Endlessly curious as she ought to be, she brings sound judgment and taste to bear upon almost everything she finds, and her conclusions are embodied in an admirable expository prose. The two volumes together make a notable contribution to modern literary biography.

In matters of plain record Ivy Compton-Burnett was an uncommunicative and even unreliable person. Thus it was widely assumed even by those who knew her well that her roots lay among a landed gentry such as she wrote of in her novels, and this persuasion she did nothing to controvert – so that when her ardent admirer and close friend Robert Liddell engaged in a somewhat demeaning rummage in Burke and Crockford in search of distinguished Compton-Burnetts whether living or dead and gone, he was astonished to discover none at all. Both Burnetts and Comptons had in fact been farm labourers not many generations back, and Mrs Spurling thinks that Ivy must have been about thirty before seeing the inside of an English country house.

In addition to letting misconception flourish, Ivy seems to have been prone to a little active romancing as well. She declared that her father, a powerful personality who had risen from conducting a provincial medical practice on homeopathic lines to the position of a fashionable and prosperous London consultant, had studied under Freud in Vienna, although at the relevant date Freud can have been no more than nine years old. And when feeling ashamed of Dolores, the uncharacteristic novel she had published 14 years before publishing anything else, she attributed its unsatisfactoriness to its having been messed up by her brother Noel – who had adored her and been adored by her – a few years before what was to her the utter and absolute tragedy of his death on the Somme. We are afforded cogent arguments against the probability of Noel’s having had any hand in Dolores. How trustworthy is Ivy in what little she has to say about her life’s relationship to her work? To what extent, and where in detail, do the novels draw upon her own family life and her own later circumstances and friendships?

One cardinal fact is not in doubt. Ivy believed her life to have been blighted by early exposure to the extreme horrors of the Victorian domestic ethos, and there is hard evidence that both here and in her attitude to religion much in the writings of Samuel Butler came to her with the force of self-revelation. But on the subject of her family and what it may have given the novels Mrs Spurling, when writing her first volume, had largely to depend on conversations with Ivy’s two surviving sisters, old ladies who for long had scarcely met their celebrated relative from one year’s end to the other, but who had some acquaintance with the books and were perhaps not unnaturally prone to hear in them echoes from a distant past. For the present volume the situation has been different but again difficult. Through several decades the later Ivy enjoyed the society of a large circle of friends – many of them fellow novelists and so presumably of inventive mind. From this cloud of witnesses came numerous lively impressions of Miss Compton-Burnett which, not surprisingly, don’t quite add up. These friends, moreover, were inclined to detect each other in the novels, and even seem to have made something of a game of it. We learn that in Manservant and Maidservant ‘humorous, hopeless’ Mortimer Lamb was ‘variously interpreted by Ivy’s friends as Elliott Felkin and/or Ernest Thesiger, mixed on a base supplied by Goldsworthy Lowes Dickinson and topped off perhaps with an astringent dash of Roger Hinks’. Mrs Spurling’s own dealings with these conjectural parenthoods and genealogies are more circumspect, and do – or so I judge – often sensitively illuminate the traffic of the creative imagination with fugitive memories drawn from hiding-places many years deep. But it is a kind of inquiry that can readily be taken too far to carry much conviction, and it may even lead to research in a circle. The character of Robin Stace in Brothers and Sisters shows ‘borrowings’ from that of Noel Compton-Burnett, and therefore other aspects of the fictitious character may tell us things about the real man which we might otherwise be less sure of. (For this instance of unwary speculation, however, I have had to turn back to the first volume.)

Ivy herself was indisposed to lend countenance to conjecture of this sort. In 1944, during a conversation very much designed to go on record, she said: ‘I think that actual life supplies a writer with characters much less than is thought ... People in life hardly seem to be definite enough to appear in print. They are not good or bad enough, or clever or stupid enough, or comic or pitiful enough.’ When I meet children, she added, ‘they are open to the same objection, and fail to afford me assistance.’ In an interview on a later occasion she made what is no more than a small concession: ‘Sometimes one takes a real person for a mounting block. Only for a mounting block, that is all.’ And again: ‘I do not claim that the children in my books, any more than their elders, resemble the actual creatures of real life.’ Nor, we have to add, do they much resemble the children and elders in other novels. The Cambridge dons in Pastors and Masters are distinctly unlike those conjured up by C.P. Snow; and the young Lambs, Staces, Clares and Sullivans wouldn’t readily hit it off with the Swallows, Amazons and Coots. In her novels this sort of realism has been virtually scrapped in the interest of perceptions and compulsions which are at once highly idiosyncratic and deeply penetrative into the incredible hinterlands of conventional human persuasion. This transfiguration (as it virtually is) seems to me to militate against there being much illumination, or even interest, in digging for, in lining up for review, such actual brothers, sisters, elders, betters and so on as may be glimpsed in a tenuous relationship to characters in the books.

If there be some doubt concerning the manner and extent to which the life informs the works, what of the manner and extent to which the works inform the life – or, if not exactly the life, the legend that Mrs Spurling has gone here and there to assemble? The picture offered is that of a woman who, in her mid-forties, passes with dramatic suddenness from obscurity to celebrity. She has been living in a mouse-like fashion with a brilliant and domineering friend, Margaret Jourdain, who expects her to do the housekeeping and for long characterises her writing as ‘twaddle’. Nobody knows anything about Dolores. Ivy publishes Pastors and Masters at her own expense, and the exploit is regarded as outrageously absurd; she still receives ‘less attention’ – except in the shape of ridicule – ‘than the chair she sat on’. She publishes Brothers and Sisters, and all is transformed. Raymond Mortimer pronounces her to be a genius – and as a genius, not unjustly, she is to remain in the regard of a cultivated minority to the end of her days. Simultaneously, Mortimer sets another ball rolling: the genius is ‘always more like the governess than the governess’s employer’. The impression is one which Ivy thereafter ‘took pains to produce’, contriving a ‘skilled impersonation of a governess of the old school’. This enhances over a long period a completely Compton-Burnett-like transformation or revelation. The learned, downright and magisterial Miss Jourdain is slowly discovered to be essentially a trivial person: an authority on old furniture surrounded by young men who are mini-authorities on old furniture and the higher regions of interior decoration. It is now to meet Ivy and not Margaret that awed and terrified juniors strive to be taken to tea in Braemar Mansions. Thus the whirligig of time etc. And this is not quite all. As they approached old age, the relationship between the two women deteriorated. They bickered publicly over which should fetch the jam. But they outlived this disharmony much as, in Manservant and Maidservant, the mutual devotion of the cousins Horace and Mortimer Lamb survives the latter’s attempt to seduce the former’s wife. When Margaret died Ivy was shattered. But she survived, and her last years were cheerful and serene. With comparative strangers she still put on one or another of her turns, informing Edward Sackville-West that you get excellent teas in Manchester, or conversing freezingly about refrigerators with T.S. Eliot. But even here gaiety broke in and was posthumously triumphant. To a number of her literary friends and admirers she bequeathed looking-glasses.

Raisley Moorsom, described in one place by Mrs Spurling as having known Margaret and Ivy ‘almost from the start of their association’ and in another ‘before they ever set eyes on each other’, maintained that the idiosyncratic manner in which Ivy’s creations converse was Margaret’s manner – the characters, in fact, learning to talk from Miss Jourdain, and then Ivy from the characters: ‘In the end she learnt to talk like one of her own characters.’ This bizarre progression, if true, would be a startling instance of the life drawing upon the work, and at least it brings us to the prime peculiarity of the books: their being written almost entirely in dialogue. Everything goes down before this, and the peculiarity is exhibited from the start in Pastors and Masters. The skeleton in this particular cupboard (for every book has such a cupboard) is plagiarism. In an oddly improbable fashion two of the characters agree successively to read aloud to the others a short work of fiction which they claim to have written. Whereupon:

   ‘Why, Bumpus,’ said Herrick, looking at Bumpus’s papers over his shoulder; ‘your beginning sentence is the same as mine!’

It seems extremely neat, and that the truth is about to emerge. But it fails to do so. So insistently do all the characters continue to chatter (and, above all, so concerned is their creator that skulduggery should escape its penalty) that the true facts of the case are anybody’s guess. Pamela Hansford Johnson (in a British Council pamphlet) says one thing, and Robert Liddell (in The Novels of I. Compton-Burnett) says she is quite wrong. Close study suggests that Liddell is right.

Or consider again Manservant and Maidservant, said to be Ivy’s favourite among the novels. We are told almost nothing about the topography of the story. But suddenly a bridge bobs up, a chasm yawns. The bridge has treacherously broken, and to step on it is death. The insufferable Horace Lamb takes a walk which plainly leads him to this fate. But of late, and in what may well be a temporary way, he has ceased being insufferable and turned quite nice. His two elder boys are aware of his danger, but for what may be fatal minutes refrain from warning him of it, reflecting that it may be advantageous to him to meet his Maker while in a state of grace. The catastrophe doesn’t happen, but the incident becomes generally known and is discussed a great deal. Regularly in the novels the skeletons, in themselves often implausible and of perfunctory articulation, have a function like this, triggering off probing and thrusting debate upon the anatomy of the human mind as exhibited in the interpersonal relationships within (in the main) a restricted area of society. And always it is the fate of these people (as of Shaw’s Jack Tanner) to go on talking.

The novels are as original as anything since Peacock or even Tristram Shandy. Does English literary history suggest derivations or affiliations of any substance? Wilde would have liked to say some things said in the novels: for example, that God is ‘one of the best drawn characters in fiction’. But Wilde doesn’t take us far. Mrs Spurling tells us that reviewers invoked, among others, Congreve; and this may prompt us to turn to Samuel Johnson, who said of Congreve that he ‘formed a peculiar idea of comick excellence, which he supposed to consist in gay remarks and unexpected answers; but that which he endeavoured, he seldom failed of performing. His scenes exhibit not much of humour, imagery, or passion; his persons are a kind of intellectual gladiators; every sentence is to ward or strike; the contest of smartness is never intermitted; his wit is a meteor playing to and fro with alternate coruscations. His comedies have therefore, in some degree, the operation of tragedies: they surprise rather than divert, and raise admiration oftener than merriment.’ The cap fits – only not quite. Mrs Spurling suggests that I. Compton-Burnett’s novels met an inter-war need for the ‘light, malicious and high-spirited’, and that what succeeded upon Dolores, at least for a time, was ‘exquisitely frivolous lucidity’. Although there is an element of perceptiveness in this (as there is in almost everything Mrs Spurling offers) it obscures the novelist’s seriousness and weight as a writer of comical satire. Any affinity perhaps lies less with Congreve than with Ben Jonson.