A House and it Head – Ivy Compton-Burnett
Duncan is the head, or better, the despot of the Edgeworth family. Weak, rash, obtuse, and grumpy, spoiled by too many years of barking orders and getting his way, Duncan is the touchy volcano god all the cringing villagers seek to propitiate.
The novel opens on Christmas Day. Duncan not only burns nephew Grant’s copy of The Origin of Species (“inimical to the faith of the day”), but he treats his wife Ellen abominably.
“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.
ICB sets this Victorian family story either late in the nineteenth century or the early twentieth century; it’s hard to tell for sure because near the beginning she mentions “1885” and near the end she has a character refer to “the Victorians.”
With her usual masterful attention to dialogue, ICB narrates the saga in demanding and pungent interchanges between the members of the Edgeworth family themselves and between themselves and friends. ICB provides no imagery, blocking, or business to assist us, beyond a few lines of physical description of room or age, face, build, and manner. When she describes clothes, pay especial attention; when a character is verbose and fluent, your bushwah detector should flash yellow. Reading ICB’s conversations is like being a time traveler suddenly whisked into the past and dropped into an unfamiliar culture where we can but listen and learn, depending on what little we know and suspect about the speakers and knowing they use words to blur meaning.
Family life flows almost entirely within the country house, with the exception of the mandatory attendance to Sunday church. It is precisely on this occasion that the events of the family are the subject of comment by all the members of the village. Like a Greek chorus in a tragedy, they express all their judgments in more or less explicit allusions and snippy dialogues, in which opinions mingle and merge giving life to a spontaneous chatter that calls the mind the overlapping dialogue of Robert Altman.
Dulcia, Beatrice, Gretchen, and every other character are differentiated based on their way of deploying words to present a persona and their propensity to thrust themselves into the life and events of the Edgeworth family. Each of them seems to find an exquisite pleasure in gossip, although each then tries to hide their insatiable curiosity and essential maliciousness behind a mask of selfless interest and sincere closeness. The unspeakable Dulcia, however, immensely enjoys the discomfiture of other people and gets kicks by laughingly confronting people “You really do hate me, don’t you.”
In the life of the Edgeworth family, as in every family, there are marriages, births, and deaths, but, in all circumstances, the only feelings that matter are those of the head of the family. The responses of the two daughters, Nance and Sybil, and of the nephew, Grant, are always overshadowed by what Duncan thinks. As usual in an ICB novel, there’s the sense that the more things change, the more life just goes on in the old familiar grooves. Because human nature doesn’t change. People play their little power games. People gossip. People blackmail. People commit murder. And people shrug and move on.
I should mention here that this is the fifth novel by ICB I’ve read since summer 2021. I’ve found that ICB’s obscure, idiosyncratic style is difficult at first, but as an ICB character wisely if bleakly observes, “People can get used to anything.” I quit worrying about plumbing the depths of the more opaque lines and passages. I think ICB herself was assuming that nobody, even if they read her novels in the Downward Facing Tree Pose with a head full of mescaline, would get to the bottom of some of the conversations.
My approach to ICB’s novels is to read the story once in order to get the characters straight, identify everybody’s strengths and weaknesses. I need to get a bead on the lost characters and the harm they do. I get over the shivers and shudders that any normal reader feels when encountering depravity. ICB’s incidents are over the top but never unbelievable in the context of the internal and external pressures her characters have to deal with. Then, I read it again immediately to see clearly what I previously missed, in terms of clues to the motivation of thoughts, emotions and deeds, horrid and otherwise.
ICB is an engaging writer – as long as one is not looking for normally dysfunctional families as in Matilda by Roald Dahl or Portnoy’s Complaint by Philip Roth or The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky. I pull for characters that maintain even a little integrity against ICB’s tyrants but I don’t like them for their capitulation and ignoble patience. Though ICB is very funny in a dry ironic way, after I finish an ICB novel, a part of me wants to escape to Rebecca West's Aubrey family having fun with Mr. Morpurgo’s name.
Cheaper by the Dozen, here I come.
Reviews of novels by ICB