Saturday, August 8, 2009

Ivy Compton-Burnett, A House and Its Head (1935)

A House and Its Head, like most of Ivy Compton-Burnett’s too-little-read novels, is what I would call a modernist gothic comedy. If those three terms don’t seem to go together, then you obviously haven’t been properly introduced to Dame Ivy.

The story of a Victorian patriarch who gets married repeatedly, his ruthlessly dominated daughters and orphaned nephew, and their busybody neighbors, the novel is simultaneously a vicious skewering of the horrors of the traditional nuclear family, a satire of both masculine self-absorption and feminine self-importance masquerading as piety, and an oddly philosophical examination of the imprecisions and hidden subtexts of the spoken word.

That this novel belongs on the same shelf with modernist experimentors like James Joyce and Virginia Woolf is clear from Compton-Burnett’s completely unique and strategic reliance on dialogue to convey virtually every twist and turn of the plot. Characters are sketched out in a sentence or two upon their first appearance in the text, after which only brief descriptions of movements or intonations supplement their spoken words. Moreover, this dialogue is not anywhere close to realistic, even for the “historical novel” A House and Its Head might at first glance appear to be. It is ridiculously, stupendously formalized, veiling meaning as much as revealing it, or else obsessively dwelling on precise subtleties of meaning nearly to the point of madness. For example, early in the novel, Duncan questions his nephew Grant as to why he was late for breakfast, to which Grant replies, “I felt a disinclination to rise, Uncle, so strong that it overcame me” (8).

Or, later, when Duncan’s second wife has run off with Almeric, a neighbor’s son, Almeric’s family arrives at Duncan’s house and Dulcia, Almeric’s sister, makes the following plea:

“Mr. Edgeworth, we are here in humility and nothingness, to acknowledge the enlistment of one of our own house amongst those beyond the pale! We ask you to see that our conscience is clear as your own, our connection with the unspeakable an involuntary as yours.” (176)

The novel abounds with such dialogue, often fraught with hilarity for the reader even as the characters proceed with great earnestness or pomposity.

In other cases, where many characters converse together, keeping the speaker’s straight is a challenge—particularly when multiple dialogues occur simultaneously, as here, in a scene that follows the birth of a son to Duncan’s young, beautiful, and lustful second wife, Alison, whom Duncan has married almost immediately after his first wife’s death:

[Dulcia:] “I defy anyone not to look at Alison, so lovely as she is, moving about in her pride of motherhood. I can’t keep my eyes from her myself.”

[Sibyl:] “There are other feelings in Alison than those of a mother.”

[Dulcia:] “Well, there could hardly not be. Many other feelings, I daresay. I defy anyone with her endowment not to have them, and any young man not to have them more strongly. My dear, we must take the world as it is.”

“Well, Nance,” said Mrs. Bode, “I remember you the heroine of a like occasion, as if it were yesterday.”

“People who remember things, always remember them as if they were yesterday,” said Cassie. “I remember it as if it were twenty-six years ago.”

“Miss Jekyll’s simple unflinchingness!” said Beatrice, with a smile.

“Yesterday!” said Alison. “That is putting the chapters close, hard though they did follow on each other.”

“Alison,” said Duncan, in a harsh whisper, “this is not a time for folly.” (155-156)

Seven characters speak here in less than half a page. It seems clear that Dulcia and Sibyl are speaking to one another only, but it’s entirely uncertain whether everyone hears Cassie’s sarcastic reply to Mrs. Bode’s comment, or whether she is privately joking with Beatrice (or someone else). Is Alison therefore replying to Mrs. Bode or to Beatrice, and is Duncan’s scolding of Alison heard by the others or not? It’s impossible to tell, and perhaps not very important anyway, but what is important is the effect. The reader is placed—in a novel centrally concerned with gossip and the insidiousness of “small talk”—in precisely the position of a gossip, listening in to all the conversations as if at a keyhole, and with all the same obscurity of detail. The reader must engage in the same kind of of reading between the lines—or reading meaning into the lines—that produces devastating effects for the novel’s characters.

This stylistic strategy does take some getting used to, and perhaps explains why Compton-Burnett was never exactly a “New York Times bestselling author,” but once in the flow of things, the reader may find that Dame Ivy’s vicious, claustrophobic domestic world is as vivid and compelling—not to mention as riotously funny—as any literary atmosphere has ever been.

The “gothic” tone of the novel is provided by all the elements of the traditional Victorian novels Comptom-Burnett is updating. There are women in dire straits or driven to desperate acts, heirs threatened with poverty by the birth of a child, tyrannical fathers, and neighbor girls gossiping relentlessly while maintaining a guise of compassion and neighborly support. Not to mention incest, adultery, infanticide, and the constant veiled discussion of and covering up of all of the above.

As for the “comedy,” well, it may be true that you either “get” Dame Ivy or you don’t. Some of the comedy comes from wordplay used as sarcasm or belittlement, as in this exchange between Duncan and his oldest daughter Nance shortly after his first wife’s death:

“You have not improved since your mother’s death,” said Duncan, looking with quiet appraisement at his daughter’s face.

“I believe I have not. The event has been fraught with no improvement.” (81)

And sometimes, Compton-Burnett manages to combine the ridiculousness of the things we say with the terrible ways we use language—or, in this case, the lack thereof—as a weapon with which to degrade or devalue others. Try to imagine another writer with the audacity to begin a novel with the following repetitive, funny, but also heartbreaking passage:

“So the children are not down yet?” said Ellen Edgeworth.

Her husband gave her a glance, and turned his eyes towards the window.

“So the children are not down yet?” she said on a note of question.

Mr. Edgeworth put his finger down his collar, and settled his neck.

“So you are down first, Duncan?” said his wife, as though putting her observation in a more acceptable form.

Duncan returned his hand to his collar with a frown.

“So you are down first of all, Duncan,” said Ellen, employing a note of propitiation, as if it would serve its purpose.

Her husband implied by lifting his shoulders that he could hardly deny it.

“The children are late, are they not?” said Ellen, to whom speech clearly ranked above silence. (3-4)

And if this passage didn’t make explicit enough that one of the novel’s main concerns is with the unhappy position of women dominated by men, and the desperate and even self-destructive forms that any resistance to that domination must take (including, she suggests, the neighbor women’s superficial piety and eternal virginity, the always looking forward to a better world to come due in large part to the lack of any meaningful existence in this one), Ellen’s daughter Nance speaks one of the final statements of the novel, bemoaning the plight of wives and spinsters (not unlike Laura’s monologue at the end of Sylvia Townsend-Warner’s Lolly Willowes):

“We can’t be too thankful that Mother is dead,” said Nance, hurrying into another silence. “… How difficult it would be, if people did not die! Think of the numbers who die, and all the good that is done! They never seem to die, without doing something for someone. No wonder they hate so to do it, and plan to be immortal. It is a mercy that both Aunt Maria and Oscar’s mother are dead. And think what a bad thing for us Father’s life has been!”

“And ours for Father,” said her sister.

“I have been so ashamed of being alive and well, and having to be housed and clothed and fed and provided for. It really is not reasonable. No wonder phrases like ‘vile bodies’ arise. When people have to be provided for, death is the only thing.” (279)

If you’re looking to reinforce your ideal fantasies of the nuclear family or of “family values,” or seeking a cozy escapist fantasy, Ivy Compton-Burnett will probably be a disastrous and perhaps traumatic wrong turn. But for a dark, biting, and completely uncompromising skewering of familial and societal brutality, all in the guise of everyday love, compassion, and politeness, there may simply be no better writer to turn to.

Interested in checking out this title? Though most of her fiction is out of print, A House and Its Head has been republished by the wonderful New York Review Books Classics series and is readily available at Amazon.NYRB Classics also published her brilliant later novel Manservant and Maidservant. If you have a chance to read them, let me know what you think.


Ivy Compton-Burnett (1884-1969) may have drawn from her own childhood for her dark novels about familial life. Her father, a homeopathic doctor, had a total of twelve children; his first wife died during her fifth childbirth in less than eight years, his second marriage produced seven more children. Ivy was the oldest of this second batch, which also included her brothers Guy and Noel, to whom she was very close. Perhaps revealingly, neither Ivy nor any of her many siblings ever any children of their own, and none of the daughters were ever married.

Ivy’s father died in 1901 when Ivy was sixteen, and her mother’s passionate mourning darkened the mood of the (no doubt already overcrowded) household. The next two decades were, for Ivy, characterized by the loss of additional loved ones, as Guy died of pneumonia in 1905, her mother died in 1911, Noel was killed in 1916 in the battle of the Somme, and Ivy’s two youngest sisters suddenly and inexplicably committed suicide together at Christmas in 1917. Ivy herself nearly died in the worldwide influenza outbreak of 1918. Reportedly, soon after this, Compton-Burnett moved to London and began a fresh start, thereafter refusing to discuss any details of her life before the age of 33, though her obsessive scrutiny of the cruelties and resistances of domestic life suggest a powerful need to work through her earlier experiences. She herself acknowledged the repetitive themes of her novels, once joking, "My novels are hard not to put down." In London, Ivy moved into an apartment with journalist and furniture expert Margaret Jourdain, with whom she cohabited for 32 years.

Compton-Burnett is the author of twenty novels, including Dolores (1911), an early, autobiographical effort which she later vehemently disowned. She did not publish again until the appearance of Pastors and Masters in 1925, which initiated her “mature,” experimental style. Subsequent novels include Brothers and Sisters (1929), Men and Wives (1931), More Women Than Men (1933), A House and Its Head (1935), Daughters and Sons (1937), A Family and a Fortune (1939), Parents and Children (1941), Elders and Betters (1944), Manservant and Maidservant (1947), Two Worlds and Their Ways (1949), Darkness and Day (1951), The Present and the Past (1953), Mother and Son (1955), A Father and His Fate (1957), A Heritage and Its History (1959), The Mighty and Their Fall (1961), A God and His Gifts (1963), and The Last and the First (1971). Most of these works are out of print, but many are fairly readily available used in Penguin Modern Classics editions published in the 1980’s.

Compton-Burnett was made a Dame of the British Empire in 1967.


  1. Excellent introduction to this stupendously entertaining writer. It was only the third time I read House and its Head that I thoroughly enjoyed it . . . . this novelist rewards patience and perseverance.

  2. Here is a link to a radio play from 2002. It is called "A Household in Hove" and it is based on Ivy's early life. It is written by John Spurling and has comments from Hilary Spurling, Ivy's biographer.

  3. My link of 29 March 2018 does not work - apologies. The item can be found on Soundcloud. Type Ivy's name into the Soundcloud search.