Monday 24 October 2022

Ivy Compton-Burnett, pronounced Cumpton Burnitt,

Ivy Compton-Burnett, pronounced Cumpton-Burnitt, was a contemporary of Virginia Woolf, one of twelve children to a homeopath by two different wives. None of the twelve children had issue. As if each generation were a set of library books kept within family walls. 

Ivy Compton-Burnett's novels are almost entirely dialogue. Such as you might get in a large family, divided down the middle by two senior wives in the early years of the twentieth century. The youngest, in The Mighty and their Fall, are about twelve, plus a girl aged 14, then a pair of older siblings aged about twenty, their father, Ninian, his mother Selina, daughter Lavinia, a nebulous Uncle Hugo, absent Uncle Ransom, plus Cook, and Ainger. This was the era of servants, and doors at which to listen to the flow of dialogue. This was the era of names like Hengist and Egbert. And Lavinia. Ninian. Selina, his mother.

Did Ivy C-B contribute to the dialogue in her own family, or are her novels projections of the way large families might work if people talked directly out of their inner lives? The truth coming out in dribs and drabs and almost immediately degrading nearly everyone in the house. Are these the conversations, the turns of reflection that Ivy knew from experience or is she filling in silences? She claims her life was uninteresting. So she writes to set it humming. She brings out in unlikely but compelling dialogue the process of a family. This is fiction, but wouldn't you like to have been in on the conversation?

"Well, that is her offer," said Selina." So you may have what is left."

"It has its own quality," said Lavinia. "She has little to give, and so offered little. She does not evade the truth."

"It seems a shadow of a letter, Father. It somehow has no substance."

"It means what it does, as you have said."

Everyone talks the same way in her books, age four or fourteen or fifty or eighty, the way people talk when you imagine them, when you project them into your own experience, out of your age-old reality into something with multiple manoeuvres and a last page. 

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