Tuesday, 22 April 2014

A Family and a Fortune by Ivy Compton-Burnett

The envy of Virginia Woolf is always a good indication of quality. Ivy Compton-Burnett gave her many a sleepless night during which she composed elaborate disparagement. She did the same for Arnold Bennett and James Joyce and anyone who came within her range I imagine. A Family and a Fortune was published in 1939 and the Penguin edition of 1962 I found has the excellent Robin Jacques drawing of a group in Edwardian clothes. Any drawing representing the characters of an Ivy Compton-Burnett would be interchangeable. The scene is generally a country house, a large family, relations and comedic servants who are imperfectly acquainted with their place. The language is on a higher nobler plane and as her books are largely dialogue, conversation seems too low a term for the lofty and withal venomous speech of the dramatic personae. There are three brothers and a daughter. One of them,Clement,brings in the donnish element of precision. He is to be a scholar at Oxford. There is Mark the eldest son who is to take over the running of the estate in due course from his father Edgar. The mother is Blanche, by name and nature washed out, and the daughter Justine as the eldest at 30 is given to the mot juste and summations both high toned and judiciously recriminatory. Aubrey the youngest lad about 12 is at home privately tutored with the intimation that his oddness forbids normal schooling.

Does that seem familiar? Manservant and Maidservant which I previously wrote about here has the same lineup virtually with the one difference of a brother Dudley for Edgar instead of a first cousin. His standing in the house and place in the action is similar, a professionless dependent and a steady beacon of righteousness. Are we sitting comfortably? The fortune in the title is what comes to this Dudley and is the cause of several perturbations on the genteel Richter Scale of this country house which can be shook to its foundations without getting past 1.

The other element of upset is Aunt Matty who comes to live in the gate lodge. She is a marvellous character that is credible as a remote cause of world war. Sometimes irrealism is more than real. She is Blanche’s elder sister and her companion Miss Griffin is a sympathetic portrait of the put upon and undervalued. Their elderly father Oliver is also living in the lodge. The era is Edwardian as if era entered into the classic family dramas that Ivy Compton-Burnett (pronounced ‘cumpton burnit’) issued regularly. Classic is the correct term for these works of genius which surely must come to be republished in this era of factious if not specious prizes that oddly fit a demographic that is unmined.

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