Friday 3 July 2009

Parents and Children

Few authors inspire excessive amounts of love and hate as Ivy Compton-Burnett. I first swore my love for ICB on this blog a year ago, but I do space out my ICB novels (they do have a tendency to be similar) and whilst on holiday I read Parents and Children (1941).

And what a lot of children there are - nine of 'em. I've left the book in Somerset, so I can't remember all their names - actually, there's a challenge, how many can I recall... Honor, Gavin, Graham, Daniel, James,
Nevill [sic?]... and three others. They split neatly into three groups - three in the nursery, three in the schoolroom, three adults. As usual in ICB novels, not much happens - but when it does, it's pretty drastic. Life-changing events are encompassed by lengthy, facetious discussions - gently vicious and cruelly precise, always picking up on the things said by others. Calmness permeates even the most emotional responses, and ICB's writing is always astonishing in its use of dialogue. More or less all of it is dialogue, and though often sophistry, it is somehow also accurate about family dynamics.

Alongside the nine children, two parents and two grandparents are three governesses, various maids, a visiting family of three and a neighbouring family of three siblings. That makes at least 23 central characters - somehow each of them is individual, with their own distinct dialogue and personality. How she does this in fewer than 300 pages is astonishing.

As I said, giving plot would be a waste of time, especially since most of the major events happen in the last fifty pages or so. In fact, the blurb to my copy gave away more or less all the plot. What I will say is that any ICB fans will also love this one - I don't think it as good as Mother and Son or A House and Its Head, so I'd recommend ICB newbies should start with one of those. But any ICB novel is so unlike any other author's, and a real treat. Or, alternatively, a nightmare. Only one way for you to find out...


  1. I have never heard of Ivy Compton-Burnett before. I wonder which side of the fence I'd be on? This sort of thing really intrigues me. I'll keep an eye out for her now.

  2. I've just found a bargain omnibus with "Family and a Fortune", "Parents and Children",and "God and His Gifts" so I'll find out if I like her quite soon! Fingers crossed you've just led me to a great new author!

  3. Oh I do hope you like her! It really is love or hate, so fingers crossed for the 'love' side of things...

  4. And find out I shall!!
    I've never read her...but you have tempted me.

  5. I remembered ICB cropped up in Alan Bennett's The Uncommon Reader.
    The Queen returns one of her books to the travelling library and the librarian asks how she got on with it:
    "Dame Ivy? A little dry. And everybody talks the same, did you notice that?"
    Happily, Her Majesty goes for a Nancy Mitford next!

  6. I have to admit that never heard of Ivy Compton Burnett before but I shall have to give one of the books you have recommended by her a go if I can find her in any book dens.

  7. Hi Simon, thank you for visiting dgr this morning, lovely to hear from you. I think you might have missed this :-)

  8. I've been meaning to read Ivy for some time; there are a couple of Virago Modern Classics by her that I'm continually hunting for.
    I love your sketch!

  9. I grew up with the novels of ICB. I mean that in a rather literal manner as I think my parents had virtually all of them. I never read any but to this day I remember thinking that the titles were extremely unimaginative! Like Cornflower I noted that comment in the Uncommon Reader, which was lent to me by her namesake (real name!) with whom I work.

    I also note with interest that she was awarded the James Tait Black Memorial prize (still available today) which is from the alma mater of Cornflower and myself and to whose shortlisting reception I was lucky to be invited earlier this year.

  10. The titles are essentially all the same, you're right. Makes it very confusing when I find one in a bookshop - do I have it already or not? I wrote about the James Tait Memorial Prize earlier this year, I think it has a fantastic list of winners, much more my taste than the Booker.

  11. I had heard of ICB but never read her and after reading The Uncommon Reader bought (OK, downloaded) Parents and Children, which I am about 3/4 of the way through. It is like nothing I have read, and I can't even say why, but I am addicted to it. Yes, there is a meanness there, and also something Henry James-ish and indirect. While I want to read others, I will read some other authors first. One needs a break.

    1. Wonderful! So many people seemed to try ICB after reading Uncommon Reader, and then hating her - she is certainly unlike any other writer I've come across, but deliciously so. But I agree - one at a time is quite enough.


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