Monday 4 January 2010

Pastors and Masters

So far, bought nothing in 2010... but to be honest I haven't had any temptation, since I've spent most of the New Year in bed so far, while my research work stares at me from across the room. Still, not feeling too awful right now, and hopefully I'll be back on my feet before long. In fact, I feel well enough to try and catch up on reviewing some of the books I read in December...

First up is Pastors and Masters by Ivy Compton-Burnett, which Hesperus Press very kindly sent me. As you'll have spotted in my recent purchases, I have enough ICB to last me a while - but I had to support Hesperus as they're the only people keeping ICB in print in the UK. (Having said that, the New York Review of Books Classics series does have two in print, and they're stocked in some bookshops in England - like the Persephone Bookshop off Notting Hill Gate, for example). Pastors and Masters is ICB's first 'proper' novel, from 1925, and unlike the others I've read, doesn't take place in a big, sprawling family. Instead, we are in a boys' school, witnessing the interactions of teachers up and down a slightly bizarre hierarchy. Though there are also a lot of boys, they don't get much dialogue, and hence not much of the novel concerns them - for even in her first novel, ICB privileged dialogue over description, though not to the same extent as in her later works.

Mr. Merry, the central schoolmaster, is prone to the deliciously and infuriatingly sarcastic speechs which ICB scatters throughout her books:
'And get to your seats without upsetting everything on your way, will you please? Oh, who would be a schoolmaster? I should not be doing my duty to you all, if I did not warn you all against it. And I suppose it is a good thing to have the east wind from an east window blowing in upon forty people, thirty-nine of them growing boys, before their breakfast on a March morning? And... one, two, three, four, five, six, seven... it takes eleven boys to shut a window, does it? And I suppose I cannot make a few remarks, without having you all fidgeting and gaping and behaving like a set of clodhoppers instead of gentlemen? Get to your work at once, and don't look up again before the gong.'
Though he feels himself in charge, there are also junior masters and those who own the school and their wives and governors and parents and... I must confess I got a little confused as to who was whom (or whom was who, or something). ICB's character delineation matured in her later novels, I think. The plot running through this novel, aside from the everyday activities of the school, is that two of the teachers have written books, and intend to publish. I shan't spoil the storyline, but it is rather more cloak and dagger than some of ICB's later novels, and involves more Agatha Christie-esque guess-work - but alongside this, ICB's style is unmistakable, though not wholly developed. I would describe Pastors and Masters as ICB-lite, if you will. Recognisable enough to please the ICB fanatic, but also sufficiently like a more 'normal' novel for those who find her style affected. It's short, funny, and - though by no means her best work - I would recommend it to those who want to give ICB a go, and don't feel up to one of her longer novels. If you like this, there's a lot more to explore - if you don't, at least it has one of Hesperus' beautiful covers!


  1. I won a copy of this from Librarything. I look forward to it arriving and dipping my toes into ICB waters for the first time! The cover is lovely too. Hesperus is a very exciting publisher - I am coveting quite a few of their titles!

  2. Can you recommend a book that takes place in the 1920s at Cambridge Univeristy ?

  3. I do love Hersperus Press so! I am quite jealous you got sent this hahaha as I want to try ICB and cannot buy books thi year as you know. I have a few more Hersperus books coming up. I have a feeling I am spelling that wrong every time.

  4. Like Rachel, Librarything are also sending me a copy of this and I can't wait! I can handle an ICB-lite taster.
    Like everyone else I also love Hesperus press and own some pretty editions by them.

  5. Hope all you new ICB readers enjoy her!

    Paul - such an intriguing question, but I'm afraid I can't think of any books which take place at Cambridge at all, let alone in the 1920s... sorry! I'll wrack my brains...

  6. Dusty Answer by Rosamond Lehmann takes place at Cambridge University during the 1920s or 30s.

  7. A note of warning to those about to read this - take it slowly. Just because it's entirely comprised of dialogue, doesn't mean to say that it is an easy read. I'm completely bemused ....

  8. I look forward to your review, Lizzy!


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