Saturday, 30 June 2018

Daughters and Sons by Ivy Compton-Burnett


Let me offer a theory about matriarchy probably one which you’ve seen before but I wouldn’t know, I don’t keep up. It is the natural rule of large families with property, status, and longevity that most precious hoarding which gathers up the jetsam of the predeceased. Mrs. Sabine Ponsonby aged 84, born 1810,is such a one with her own special chair in every room. And she sits at the head of the table. The family of her son an author widower is quartered on her. They comprise Clare, France(s), Chilton, Victor, Muriel and their ages range from 26 to 11 with large difference in age due to infant deaths. There is a governess called Miss Bunyan appointed to educate Murial who is introduced to us as ‘gapy-mouth’, a yawn or involuntary dismay at her position as an object of notice. Chilton (18) mocks Victor (17). Clare (26) wants to escape and France (26) is herself a writer who has just completed her first novel. This is to be adapted as a play for the village. As in all Compton-Burnett books there is almost nothing but dialogue. You must fill in the country house ambience yourself, the gravel drive, the aspidistra, brown architrave, high gravy coloured skirting and a library with uniform volumes.

"Frances does see him rather as the Almighty,” said Clare.

“The Almighty never had a daughter,” said her sister, “ He did not risk feminine insight. I see Father as a toiling companionable man, oppressed by Grandma,” .

“We all share that bond,”.

Father is a moderately successful author who lives up in London with his sister Hetta a spinster who acts as his secretary and general manager. There are at least three unmarried women who live with their brothers or uncles or if without resources become governesses. Families were more extended then and the secrets better kept.

....... It is always the fault of men that the other people in the world are women. But he does want to know the family secrets; he has a morbid curiosity about them. Though I don’t know why curiosity is often morbid. I expect this is ordinary curiosity....

Don’t think for a moment that the atmosphere of this novel is a fog of repression. There are rifts of hilarity. It’s a very funny book, Wildean in its paradoxes and inversions. Further analysis would leave me open to the charge of misplaced seriousness. The story is not the point, don’t expect scaffolding with frequent narrative putlocks. It’s flimsy and risky and only genius could manage it.

Miss Charity Marcon a neighbour of the Ponsonbys lives with her twin brother Stephen. He is unmarried and Sabine’s doctor. She is a writer of biographies:

She began to speak in her deep, dry monotone.

“I have been up in London to get the book I am writing, out of the British Museum. I have got a lot of it out, and I shall go again presently to get some more; and when I have got it all, there will be another book.” She slung a strap of notebooks off her arm, and advanced to the fire with the smooth, unswaying motion of a figure drawn on wheels. “So many people were there getting out their books. It doesn’t seem to matter everything’s being in books already: I don’t mind it at all. There are attendants there on purpose to bring it to you. This is how books are made, and it is difficult to think of any other way. I mean the kind called serious: light books are different. Mine ought to be quite a success. It will be just like the ones I am getting it out of, and they are standard books. I put things from several into another, and then it is called a biography. What have you done today?"

Compton-Burnett’s books are one offs.

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