Saturday, December 8, 2007

A God and His Gifts by Ivy Compton-Burnett

Ivy Compton-Burnett was born in 1884 and her novels, even those written as late as A God and His Gifts, which was published in 1963, are Edwardian. She is the master of unconscious self revelation, one critic said, and has no parallel and no equal said another. Her novels are almost entirely in dialogue.

I mean it when I say that. There are not more than half a dozen paragraphs in this book that do not contain dialogue. The narrator says almost nothing except to move people into, out of, and across the drawing rooms in which all the "action" takes place. There is almost no physical action - it is all verbal. Her language is purposely stilted; reading her is like reading Restoration Comedy. Her work is as finely tuned and as scalpel sharp as the best of the 18th century.

The god of this book is Hereward Egerton (make what you will of his name), a man who is what we would now call a sociopath. The world's rules were not made for him. He himself and his work are the only things that matter to him. He is unconstrained by sexual mores, even the most basic - not just those in play during the Edwardian period but even those we respect today, few as they are.

Ivy Compton-Burnett is not outmoded. She is simply out of fashion at the moment. But I predict a Compton-Burnett Renaissance soon. I would rate this book about the cream of disfunctional families six on a scale of one to five. There is almost nothing better. Jane Austen's ascerbic wit is timid in comparison.

3 comments:

Imani said...

Yes! I had similar thoughts when I finished Manservant and Maidservant. I found it incredible that she had her work had ever fallen out from literary circles -- it seemed the sort of book that should be read in every classroom. "Canon" written all over it. Not sure what happened to stop it.

Geranium Cat said...

I suppose it's a world unfamiliar to a lot of readers now, and her very mannered characters (and their way of speaking) are unfashionable, and not quite "historical" enough to overcome that; there's a cut-off point somewhere - not sure where exactly, or how if gets decided - that makes Austen and Gaskell acceptable, whereas people like Compton-Burnett and Galsworthy are not. Seems to happen around 1900, and takes a huge quantity of excellent writing and good story-telling with it.

Imani said...

But the "artificiality" of her characters -- their mannerisms and phrasings -- are written intentionally so to create a certain effect. It's much like a play. I didn't think she was trying to evoke a certain historical period with those techniques.

I'm reading A House and its Head right now, which exhibits those qualities even more so than Manservant and Maidservant.