Torments of Pretense

Lesley Chamberlain is the author of the forthcoming "The Secret Artist: A Close Reading of Sigmund Freud."

The first time I read a novel by Ivy Compton-Burnett I scribbled an astonished note to myself: "Words can contain it all." The "it" was "the enclosed torments of family life," and the writer Penelope Lively, who used that phrase about Compton-Burnett's novels, once drew an apt parallel with Sartre--he of the "Hell is other people" saying. Uniquely, and par excellence in "Manservant and Maidservant" (1947), Compton-Burnett captures the violent emotion generated by people of unequal power who cannot escape one another. She captures it in extraordinary language, which both keeps a lid on passion and yet finds an elaborate, socially acceptable way to express it. Her 20 novels, written right up until her death in 1969, consist entirely of dialogue that is precise, classical and deadly.

My mother, a typical victim of a large Edwardian family, could have handed over her early life for reworking as a Compton-Burnett plot. Take a late-Victorian or Edwardian family of four or five children, with servants and other resident relatives besides the parents, and stir the uneasy peace with the promise of love or money. On the surface of things it's as simple as that. But the emotions seethe with Greek tragic intensity. The families, usually two juxtaposed to establish the drama, are upper-middle-class or gentry, well-to-do, proud of their long heritage, but usually hard up. Their main and perhaps only asset is the house they live in, situated in an unspecified English village where their humbler neighbors are well-placed to observe their goings-on. The houses are large, drafty places where fires are slow to draw, meals are protracted, and the inmates often feel physically uncomfortable. In Compton-Burnett's pairs of families, one is usually placed even lower, as with the Doubledays in "Manservant and Maidservant," and Aunt Matty and her father Oliver in "A Family and a Fortune" (1939).

Two factors stop this pageant of self-torture from fully revealing itself as a wasteland. The daily domestic routines religiously observed by cook, butler, footman and kitchen maid almost literally glue the divided souls of the household together. And there is language, which Compton-Burnett brilliantly manipulates to perform the same domestic function. In conversations which are often as inconclusive as they are never-ending, the characters alternately mask and reveal passions they are themselves not wholly aware of. The manner of speaking which Compton-Burnett gives her characters, from the smallest child of 7 to the nonagenarian grandparent, is arch and unreal. It's hard to see how it can appeal in a vernacular age like ours. But there's no greater tribute to English hypocrisy and the Freudian unconscious combined than Compton-Burnett's spiky periods, and no lover of English literature would want to miss them. Freud, of course, also derived his theories from watching the torments of pretense which bourgeois Vienna inflicted. Men and women who were supposed to honor their parents and find fulfillment in following convention fell sick with secret anxiety. It would be highly appropriate to label a study of Compton-Burnett's world, "The Psychopathology of English Everyday Life."

She was educated in classical tragedy, so the talk is usually of tyrants. There is at least one in every family, a dominator or dominatrix who reduces the hopes of fellow adults and frustrates the spiritual and even, somehow, the physical growth of children. In "A Family and a Fortune" youngest son Aubrey's inability to acquire a stature appropriate to his age, a precisely stated 15, directly relates to his father Edgar Gaveston's overbearing nature, which seems to squash him. Edgar's younger brother, Dudley, is placed at a similar disadvantage. A victim of the laws of primogeniture, Dudley is condemned by fate to live a moneyless life under his brother's roof. This impoverished state is perhaps the prime reason why he has never married. But he has also lost the ability to assert himself, after years of living in a family not his own. "Manservant and Maidservant" duplicates the same psychological constellation, with Horace Lamb as the tyrant and Mortimer Lamb as his resident and dependent cousin. But Mortimer and Horace's disappointed wife, Charlotte, are in love when the novel opens; whereas in "A Family and a Fortune," after Dudley has been left a legacy and Edgar's wife dies, the two men compete for the same woman from about the middle of the story. Things twist and turn, and the children and the servants and the village follow the events, now like members of a Greek chorus, and then directly as victims of the action. Compton-Burnett's is not a just world, least of all for the purposes of artistic form, and tyrants mainly prevail. On the other hand, such is her fascination with that quintessential late 19th century political topic, exploitation, that almost the entire range of her characters are shown exploiting what power they have. Age, money, social status, but also brains, dignity, beauty and charm: Something can be squeezed from all of them. The below-stairs world of the servants in the kitchen is a replica of the jostling for power which goes on in the dining room upstairs.

The servants' world within itself is usually kinder and less psychologically complicated. The servants belong to a world in which men and women know their place in a society not only dominated by the nuances of social class, but in which a devoutly worshiped God sanctions the traditional socioeconomic structure. Where disharmony enters is when these characters are exploited by their alleged and mainly accepted "social betters." The "below-stairs" plot in "Manservant and Maidservant" is exceptionally fine, neatly dovetailing with the story of the pain that Horace Lamb inflicts on his wife and children. It is almost unusual for Compton-Burnett that she allows us glimpses of the social conditions which predestine people to be servants. In a European novel of the same period the rebellious footman George, born and brought up in the workhouse, would have been a revolutionary. Only there are no public or historical events in Compton-Burnett's books and no isms. There is only the psychology of fitting in, or not; the miserable art of the possible.

At all levels her characters commit crimes to escape from the humiliating pressures of others and acquire the minimum power they need to live in self-respect. Charlotte and Mortimer toy with running away together. George commits theft and contemplates murder. Horace's sons, Jasper and Marcus, are also prepared to sanction a death. Compton-Burnett, who in real life tyrannized her own siblings, no doubt imagined what it might have been for them to retaliate. There is a whiff of divine justice about her novels, and she punishes some crimes more than others. She so often repeats the biblical saying that the last shall be first that it becomes the title of her last novel, "The Last and the First," published posthumously.

In "Manservant and Maidservant," little mercy is shown to the widow, Gertrude Doubleday; her unmarried, dominated daughter Magdalen; and her impoverished, passive son, Gideon, the Lambs' family tutor. Both Gertrude and Magdalen, who are comically man-hungry, fail to get what they want, the more so as they attempt to get their men respectively by force and subterfuge. Gertrude, who "loves herself more than her children," is thoroughly rebuffed, though Magdalen is thrown a few crumbs of compensation. Another woman who comes off badly is Aunt Matty in "A Family and a Fortune." Matty is a cripple after a horse-riding accident but still attractive and with a sexual appetite in middle age. She does not receive any offers even when the men are free, and the mixture of lack of attention and lack of fulfillment, compounded by a shortage of money, brings her to boiling point. The effects are felt by her dependent maidservant.

Most critics label Compton-Burnett's plots both terrible in the Greek tragic sense and comic, in that they play on English manners and show ridiculous weaknesses of character. She is both late-Victorian and startlingly modern. To gauge the comedy, think perhaps of the village novels of Mrs. Gaskell. But then try marrying the world of Gaskell's "Cranford" with the crazy mixture of tragedy and comedy in the Freudian unconscious. Freud's world of neurosis is about how we deceive ourselves and believe we are deceiving others. Freud, who was fascinated by detective stories, said that every neurosis leaves a trail, complete with red herrings, for the sleuth/analyst to pick up. Compton-Burnett writes that kind of tale. There is something about her plots, with their dropped letters and overheard conversations, which even recalls the village melodramas of Agatha Christie. But her heightened, unreal dramas and their bloody crimes happen in the head, where, as a character in another of her novels says, of course all that matters in life takes place. And again, that was exactly Freud's point in treating mental illness. "A Family and Its Thoughts." "A Life and Its Justifications." Compton-Burnettish titles trip off the tongue to describe her and Freud's shared preoccupations. Freud wanted to help those who had been dominated by one parent or another or who were driven to extremes of concealment out of fear of being caught by the "public" eye of the servants. His own traumas were of this kind and filled his melodramatic dreams.

None of this means that the modern reader should expect Ivy Compton-Burnett, who lived all her adult life with one woman, actually to mention the word sex or depict sexual activity in her plots. Her whole style turns on the Victorian circumlocution: polite, sparing, evasive and absurd. She wants her characters to "face up" to things. She wants their eyes to focus directly on the people they are talking to. If you put the text of "Manservant and Maidservant" through a computer you would come up with a high count for "facing up to" and "eyes" that rarely meet; as high a count as you would find, in another unexpected parallel, in the opening pages of Kafka's "The Castle." In Kafka, though, the reasons for concealment are unclear and politically menacing, whereas in Compton-Burnett they are clearly libidinous and suddenly become sexual symbols, of adultery, incest and even masturbation. For what else is Clement, the embittered second son up to, in "A Family and a Fortune," when the family suddenly burst into his bedroom and find him spilling gold on the floor? Money and sex are close in Compton-Burnett and everyone from adolescence on is short of both, while the children are still in the stages of forming their erotic natures, alas, on the basis of deprivation of money and love.

"Manservant and Maidservant," which is now reissued, is Compton-Burnett's masterpiece. The verbal counterpoint is razor-sharp and the characters memorable, particularly below stairs. Bullivant is the decent head of household, but who cannot resist making a little sport with his powers of understanding human nature, while from the village comes Miss Buchanan, whose whole life is built upon preventing others from knowing that she cannot read. Part of her strategy is to run a poste restante service for people who also have secrets. Ivy Compton-Burnett's social tapestry is at times so rich that, dramatically played out in mixed scenes of comedy and tragedy, against a background of family and power relationships, it is even reminiscent of Shakespeare. *

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