Tuesday 8 May 2012

More Women Than Men - Ivy Compton-Burnett

When I wrote about Pamela Hansford Johnson's pamphlet on Ivy Compton-Burnett, I mentioned that it had made me keen to read more of my beloved Dame Ivy's work soon.  It didn't take me long - at Easter I delved through my collection of Ivy Compton-Burnett novels to find one to fill a gap in A Century of Books, and opted (because I love its dryly prosaic title) for More Women Than Men (1933).

If I dared, I would try an Ivy Compton-Burnett Reading Week, but I don't think it work - partly because people often seem intimidated by her, but also because it's no secret that Ivy Compton-Burnett's novels are all similar in tone and title.  It's difficult to differentiate Mother and Son from Daughters and Sons; Parents and Children from Elders and BettersA Family and a Fortune from A Father and his Fate, etc. etc.  The previous owner of my copy of More Women Than Men obviously had the same issues, for she has noted down a little list on the first page:

Girls' school
Mrs Napier
Felix Bacon.

Well, anonymous (and probably deceased) owner of my book, you have organised my thoughts for me.  More Women Than Men does, indeed, take place in a girls' school - which is unusual for Ivy Compton-Burnett, who usually sets her novels in sprawling families with nine or so children.  I initially thought that she would just transfer this dynamic to the hierarchies and alliances of pupils and teachers, but in actual fact none of the girls say anything at all in the novel.  Rather, we watch the headmistress, Josephine Napier, rule over family and staff with a firmness which doesn't repress the verbal dalliances of those around her, but which does render them powerless in the face of her unflappable logic.  People love to chop logic in Ivy Compton-Burnett's novels - and I love reading them do it.  Truisms are interrogated; the polite shorthand tricks of conversation are exposed as evasions, and analysed to death.  None of it is very natural, it is definitely stylised - but deliciously so.
"I feel a little conscious of my appearance," said Felix, coming up to the group.  "Perhaps it is being one of the few people who can wear formal clothes."

His speech was met by incredulous mirth, his hearers keeping their eyes on his face, in case of further entertainment.

"Well, I hope that no one will be conscious of mine," said Josephine.  "It is not my habit to be aware of it; but when I am oblivious, it may be hitting other people in the eye.  I got into the garment in time, but I admit it does not add to the occasion."

"People always seem to think admission alter things," said Helen, "when it really rather helps to establish them."
I'm running ahead of myself, as usual, since I haven't explained who these people are.  Apologies if the following run-through is confusing - there are always a lot of characters in Ivy Compton-Burnett's novels, often with complex interrelations.  More Women Than Men starts with Josephine greeting her all-female staff back after the school holidays.  Helen is a new staff member, and the others are returning - none of these are pivotal to the plot, for the majority of the novel, but each is rather wonderful to read about.  Miss Munday is large, vapid, and doleful; Miss Luke is grateful and ignored; Mrs. Chattaway is one of the few who has been married (now widowed):
Mrs. Chattaway seldom referred to her wedded life, and her companions, in spite of their sincere deprecation of the married state, assigned her reticence to her sense of loss; whereas the truth was, as they might consistently have guessed, that the memory was uncongenial.
Josephine herself is married to Simon, who fades into the background - not so much browbeaten as so wholly in her shadow as to be rendered free of personality.  They have an adopted son, Gabriel, who is in fact Josephine's nephew - he is in his early twenties, but still living at home, rather uselessly.  Josephine's brother Jonathan (Gabriel's father) taught pupils independently, until the last one stayed with him for 22 years.  This last one is Felix Bacon, who (joining together disparate groups) becomes the drawing master at Josephine's school.  There are plenty of amusing conversations where Felix defends the idea of a man teaching girls to pupils' fathers who think the job beneath him.  (I should add that More Women Than Men, like maybe of Dame Ivy's novels, is set in a vaguely Edwardian period.)  And then there is the change of dynamic when a man is introduced to the all-female staff...
"You will find that not much gossip is done here," said Josephine, smiling as if in spite of herself.

"I suppose it hardly could be in a common room."

"Either there or elsewhere."

"And in a community of women!  I am glad I am seeing life for myself, as all the theories about it are untrue.  Now I see that you are dismissing me with a look.  Of course you are one of those people whose glance is obeyed."
Josephine initially appears to be the paragon of diligence and kindness - a rather dominant and detached paragon, one whose glance is indeed obeyed, but a paragon nonetheless.  It becomes apparent, however, that she is ruthlessly manipulative - and yet she is far more complex than those words suggest.  Her love for husband and adopted son is deeply genuine, but it is coupled with her immovable sense of justice, and the love she demands in return.  She puts up a great deal of resistance when Gabriel becomes engaged to Ruth, the daughter of Elizabeth, an old acquaintance of Josephine and Simon Napier whose reappearance causes quite a stir earlier in the novel.
"In that case you will be grateful to Ruth, Josephine," said Gabriel, coming nearer with a stumble, to avoid lifting his head.  "She is giving me a happiness greater than I had conceived."

"Then it must be on a generous scale indeed, indulged boy," said Josephine, her tone out of accordance with the change in her eyes.  "Let us hear about it before I resume my labours.  Come to the point, and enunciate some demand of youth."

"It is the demand that I was bound to make one day.  It is naturally often a demand of youth.  This breaking up of our life seemed to the best time to make it.  The lesser change must count less at the time of the greater.  I make the demand with confidence, having been taught, as you will say, to make demands.  I have said enough for you to understand me?"

"No," said Josephine, in a quiet, conversational tone; "I don't think so.  You have not said anything definite, have you?"
There are almost never histrionics in an Ivy Compton-Burnett novel.  Whatever their emotions may be, characters are far more likely to react by calmly picking apart their antagonist's sentence than hysterically screaming in their face.  These verbal gymnastics are not true to life, but they raise tension far more effectively (and originally) than a few outbursts could achieve.

did you really think that Sherpa wouldn't find her way into this post?

The interconnections, misalliances, grievances, dependencies and loyalties between characters in More Women Than Men would be impossible to explain in a mere blog post.  Although the dialogue is undeniably stylised, there are complex and believable relationships throughout the novel - an aspect of Ivy Compton-Burnett's writing which is seldom applauded.  A discussion of whether or not her novels are realistic would be fascinating - because 'realistic' has so many facets and definitions.  Would people talk like this?  No, definitely not.  Would people act like this?  Probably no.   But would people feel like these characters feel?  Yes - absolutely - and it is Ivy Compton-Burnett's genius that she can interweave the genuine and the bizarre.

It is not true, either, that nothing happens in Ivy Compton-Burnett novels.  In fact, More Women Than Men contains one of the most ingenious murders ever - done by exposing a ill person to a draught.  A spoiler, yes, but the reason that Compton-Burnett's novels have the reputation of nothing happening is that the plot, as such, doesn't really matter.  It's the way things happen, and the way she writes.  Oh! the way she writes!  I adore it.  Settling down to her aphorisms and linguistic somersaults is a joy - because they are not simply clever, but hilarious.

Of the six Ivy Compton-Burnett novels I've now read, this is perhaps my favourite.  Others have had sections where they dragged, but this one never did.  It's not the easiest of her novels to find, but definitely worth hunting down - I'm hoping that my enthusiasm will lead to one or two Ivy Compton-Burnett converts, or at least encourage some more readers to give her a go.  You'll love or loathe - and, if you love, you'll never look back.


  1. EllenB in NYC8 May 2012 at 02:58

    Some kind of Karma has been at work this week as one week ago I bought a 1983 British edition of this book in an American used book store. I love Dame Ivy and after your glowing review she moves to the top of the TBR pile. The second Karmic event is that I will be attending my 50th high school reunion in June at all-girls school which was run by the most ruthless nun ever. Will be reading More Women tomorrow. Thanks Simon

    1. What a strange coincidence! Have you finished yet - what did you think, if so??

  2. If these passages are anything to go by, then I suspect I'm going to be in the 'love' rather than 'loathe' camp of Dame Ivy readers. I love that exchange between Josephine and Gabriel. And when have I, the product of a girls' school, ever been able to resist a book set in one?

    Also, with just a few photos of Sherpa, I think you've destroyed all the work my mother put into conditioning me to hate cats. Look at that adorable white paw!

    1. My cup would overflow if you loved ICB as well as AAM, Claire! I do hope you get the chance to try this before too long. I think she's still in libraries, if not in bookshops.

      And hurrah for breaking down your resistance with Sherpa ;)

  3. Oh dear. I do wish I could share your enthusiasm. I don't even love the little bits you quote. What's wrong with me?

    1. Oh dear! Well, I feel the same about your enthusiasm for Elizabeth Bowen - I really wished I shared it.

  4. Oh Simon, you have reminded me I still haven't read the ICB book you bought me all that time ago, once my library has been built (I am not kidding there) and all my books are on show I will dig it out I promise.

    Loved the cat reading the book.

    1. I had forgotten that! Which did I give you? I do hope you love Dame Ivy when your library is built - what a fun image!

  5. Dear all,
    Thanks for this advice! My Grandmother (87) is a real big Dame Ivy fan. When I moved from the Netherlands to Ireland (2007) she asked me to look for it.
    Through the years I bought her 12 of the 20 Dame Ivy titles and it's getting harder to find the rare ones or even a review, so thanks again!

    Greats from the Netherlands.

  6. This is an old post, I found it through the "50 books you must read..." - list, but I feel I have to comment. This review really peaked my curiousity, I haven't heard of Ivy Compton-Burnett before, and I'm so pleased to discover that my local library has a copy of "More Women than Men"! (All the more so, since I live in Sweden). So go to the library and loan the book will be the first thing I do tomorrow! :)


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