The Books of My Numberless Dreams

Sunday Salon: Seasonal Reads II

Posted on: December 16, 2007

A House and Its Head by Ivy Compton-Burnett suits the season a bit better since her novels are focused on families and this opening scene is on Christmas Day. I attempted this novel once or twice without success until Maud Newton pointed me to Levi Stahl’s observation that Compton-Burnett’s totalitarian families are the perfect companion for the holiday season. That opened the novel for me and I am now busily reading along.

A House and Its Head shares many basic elements with Manservant and Maidservant, so many that I initially worried whether I would find the book lazily repetitious. It has the late 19th century genteel family terrorized by its psychologically abusive father and husband. He is a self-righteous, near malicious miser who relishes insult, manipulation and self-pity. Servants, wife, children and dependants depend on him for everything and he is dedicated to making their positions painfully felt. The wife is perceptive but usually timid and subservient, willing to make excuses. The children are frighteningly intelligent, resigned to their life in some ways, but are not fully cowed. There is a relative in the role of dependent, male and of age, who because of his position is both a little more wry, more obviously critical in the thorny family conversations, and comes off even more passive as the more emboldened tone highlights his weakened position.

What Compton-Burnett has managed to do is to show how that template’s details and dynamics can significantly change when applied to different faces in different communities. It may evoke a groan or two but I couldn’t help but think of Anna Karenina‘s opening sentence.

Duncan, cherished father and husband, has a superficially softer, maybe milder way about him, than Horace (Manservant and Maidservant). He is as willingly to have to his wife scrounge and suffer on meagre allowances and placed in embarrassing positions such as pretending not to know that she did not have enough to buy Christmas presents for the servant. He leaves her the purse so she can hand out some change. Ellen, his wife, is more distant from the proceedings. She displays as much concern as she can but after a while must retreat in order to preserve her mental and physical health.

The biggest difference is their offspring. Duncan refers to them as “children”, not much on its own, and treats the smallest disobedience as rank insubordination eg. being a bit late for Christmas morning breakfast. I was then surprised to learn that Nance, his elder daughter, was 24, and that Sybil was 18. Grant, his nephew and heir, was 25. Sybil displays a certain simplicity in her transparent eagerness to please her father, reminiscent of the younger children in M & M. Nance’s and Grant’s ages give a more charged, more complex aspect. There isn’t the awe and pity I had for Horace’s inmate’s hard earned bitter precocity; it was now a less endearing or immediately pitiable cynicism. They are old enough, I think, to be autonomous and by their mere presence complicit somehow in maintaining the family’s brutal character. There may be some truth to that but it is more likely that such a prison is not so easily escaped, for all sorts of reason. It’s clear that Nance, at least, is the only buffer between her mother and other hostile elements.

Compton-Burnett’s writing style is unavoidable. As I’ve said before, the bulk of the story is told in dialogue with very little scene description or narrative commentary. Her “adverbial phrases“, as Stahl pointed out, act as stage directions, primarily telling tone rather than movement. There is always an unspoken aspect of the dialogues that is running along side the words on the page, and if I don’t immediately discern them I reread until I do, because their absence is felt. It makes me wonder what their eyes would reveal if such details were mentioned — I figure something had to leak through at some point and was probably ignored.

Life may seem unbearable for the characters but there are many grim, ironic, humorous moments for readers that, along with Compton-Burnett’s brilliant write style and structure, make her books events worth experiencing. The following scene involves some of the neighbourhood citizenry who reveal some of their own follies and a peek into their family life. They are taking after Ellen’s funeral, still by the cemetery, I think. It’s one of the lightest moments in the book so far — typically Compton-Burnett’s sense of humour makes me want to laugh and cry in despair at the same time.

“Dr. Smollett,” said Dulcia in a straight manner, “I hope I did not do the wrong thing in thanking you for your service to Mrs. Edgeworth? I can guess how a reference to a lost case must strike a doctor; how sensitive a nerve must be touched by the lightest allusion. I hope I have not committed the unpardonable sin?”

“Hope springs eternal—-” muttered Almeric, as Fabian bowed towards his sister.

“Ellen was in the last stage of her illness, when my husband was called in,” said Florence.

“And I have said the wrong thing, and established myself as a blunderbuss.”

“You are saying the right thing now,” said Almeric in a consoling tne.

“How soon do you think we may go to see the Edgeworths?” said Mrs. Bode.

“We are going to them later in the day,” said Florence.

“Well, Mother dear, naturally Dr. and Mrs. Smollett take precedence of us in the line of approach. We must be content, as we are content, to follow in their wake.”

“I think it is good for them to see their friends. If I did not, I should not go.”

“Mrs. Smollett, I can see you going, heedless of the pain to yourself in sensing the blank in the house. One person here is alive to the truth of the intention.”

“I would rather see Ellen’s family than no one to do with her. The blank is all that is left.”

“Ellen’s family! What a beautiful and intimate sound! That is how I shall think of them. I shall not feel it presumptuous, kept to the confines of my own mind.”

“It will be narrowly restricted,” agreed her brother.


2 Responses to "Sunday Salon: Seasonal Reads II"

It doesn’t do your fine post justice to comment on this but

“Compton-Burnett’s totalitarian families are the perfect companion for the holiday season.”

made me laugh

I rarely begrudge that kind of response to any of my posts. 😉

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