Parents and Children by Ivy Compton-Burnett

I wondered about reading Ivy Compton-Burnett for a very long time. I had heard that she was very good, but I had also heard that she was very difficult. And difficult is something I tend to shy away from. But she started to turn up everywhere:

  • On the Virago Modern Classics list, four books with cover art from Pablo Picasso’s cubist period. Now what did that mean?
  • Being read, and very much enjoyed, by the fictional Queen Elizabeth II in Alan Bennett’s ‘The Uncommon Reader’.
  • Borrowing books from the Boots Library in Nicola Beauman’s wonderful biography of ‘The Other Elizabeth Taylor’. Including Dorothy Whipple … though she kept those books hidden behind more worthy tomes …

Curiosity began to overtake caution. And so when I was having I clear out, when I discovered two copies of ‘Parents and Children’ I took a look at one before throwing it in the charity shop box. And I began to read …

And the reading felt completely natural. The majority was dialogue, but the voices rang true, I picked up what was going on very easily, and I was soon caught up.

Parents and Children dates from 1941 but is set some years earlier, among the monied classes of Edwardian England.

Eleanor is married to Fulbert Sullivan and they live with his parents. She would like to have her own household, but with nine children that was quite impossible. And so she drifted through life, believing herself to be at the centre of her children’s life while nannies, governesses and tutors actually kept her children’s lives on course. Fulbert, amiable but distant was probably closer to the children.

There were children everywhere – off at university, in the schoolroom, in the nursery – and they gave the book a much-needed heart. I was particularly taken with three year-old Nevill, who had the habit of talking of himself in the third person. And with his brother James, who simply wanted to be left in peace with his books. And with his sister Isabel, who was maybe the most clear-sighted of them all …

For the first half of the book I watched and listened to the family’s lives, and in the second half of the book the plot began to unfurl. Fulbert departed on a business trip to South America, reports of his death filtered back, Eleanor accepted a proposal of marriage from very close to home, and secrets emerged.

But this isn’t about the plot. It’s about family dynamics revealed with utter clarity. It’s about characters, so many characters, perfectly and distinctively drawn.

All of this is achieved by dialogue, with so much wit, so much intelligence. So many words, sometimes saying little and sometimes saying so much about the emotions, the weaknesses, that are suppressed as family members fight their verbal battles.

It wasn’t quite real, it was slightly skewed, and that made it so much more striking. A very subtle satire.

The Sullivan household was fascinating to watch, though I really wouldn’t want to visit.

But I will be visiting Ivy Compton-Burnett’s other novels, because I haven’t quite worked out exactly what it is that she does so well, and I really would like to.

8 responses

    • There’s been quite a bit of discussion of I C-B in the LibraryThing Virago group lately and she seems to be an author you’ll like or hate.Definitely worth a try.

  1. I’ve been intimidated by Ivy too, although I’ve read Frances Spalding’s excellent biography of her. Simon (Stuck in a Book) is a fan so eventually I thought I should try one & I’ve downloaded P&C as it’s just been reprinted by Bloomsbury Reader along with several other Ivys. Thanks for the review, I may get to it sooner rather than later now.

    • I was surprised at how easy this one was to read – i needed to concentrate but I was very happy to do so. I’ll look out for the Frances Spalding book, because I know her as a very good biographer.

  2. I’ve only read one of her novels, and I responded in much the same way you’ve described. Since then, I’ve never been quite sure which to pick up next;maybe I need to make a personal declaration to start at the beginning and just move along, because I tend to get the titles all confused (including the one which I did actually read) and then just set aside the idea again, and I would definitely like to read more. Do you know which you’ll be trying next?

    • LibraryThing tells me I have six of her novels, in Virago and old Penguin editions. Two Worlds and their Ways is calling loudest, as the emphasis seems to be on younger characters and it was the children I liked best in this book.

  3. I’ve wondered about I C-B since I heard that she is one of the favorite authors of the director John Waters. I like his quirkiness so was half-way tempted to try her based on his recommendation. Your favorable review has fully tempted me!

  4. I’m always so delighted with a new ICB convert, we are few and far between! I don’t find her writing remotely lifelike, but that’s why I love it (and why others hate it) – the expertly polished dialogue, sounding like people would if they rehearsed their conversations over and over again. It’s definitely stylised, but wonderfully so.

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