I don’t quite know yet what to think about your writing style. Two Worlds and Their Ways was the first of your books that I read. I came to it by sheer chance, in one of my regular visits to my favourite bookstore. I was – as usual – browsing the shelves with nothing in mind except to look for the green spines of a good old Virago. I came upon your book and immediately grabbed it. As I was paying it, the bookseller (usually a quiet shy tongue-tied eyes-glued-to-a-page type of guy) approached me with shining eyes: “Have you ever read Ivy Compton-Burnett?” And then he began to tell me a bit about you and your books.
After such an unexpected manifestation of literary passion, I couldn’t do anything but immediately delve into the book. That I did. Or tried to do. And tried and tried. But the book seems to have remained somehow shut to me – even now, when I try to write you this letter, my impressions of your book are split. On the one hand, I really enjoyed the first half of it, where you set the stage (because, yes, dear, this book reads like a Greek play); on the other hand, though, I find the second part, where the plot itself unravels rather… anticlimactic. The social satire you meant to do is by no means trivial, but the plot itself may seem so at times. Am I missing something here, Ivy? Perhaps I am.
As to the characters, I find the Shelley’s household a perfect picture of the late-Victorian upper classes. You have a witty way of slowly revealing the family’s dysfunctional life patterns. I particularly love the larger class and gender clashes you manage to insert into the seemingly tiny domestic situations portrayed in the book. In the first scene, where Sir Roderick and his second wife, Maria, discuss about sending their children, Clemence and Sefton, away to separate boarding schools, the characters’ nuances and power relations become immediately clear: Maria, the mother, is a charming benign tyrant, who insists her children must excel at their studies; Sir Roderick, the father, on his turn is weakling, overprotective of the kids – and specially of Clemence.
The children in the book live in two separate worlds, both at home and later at school. While in the presence of the parents, they behave as expected of two upper class children; in the parents’ absence – and particularly in the absence of the mother figure – they drop out the mask of well behaved children, and – against their mother’s best wishes – cherish the company and teasing games of the servant Aldom and the nurse Adela. Their governess, Miss Petticott, on her turn, is well trained in the art of bridging this two worlds by diplomatic pretending to ignore the abyss between them.
Maria’s ambition regarding the future of her children is subtly connected to her fear that her high hopes may not be realised. And it is precisely the intuition of this fear, I suppose, that leads the children to adopt desperate (and deceptive) means to please their mother at any costs. I once was a child faced with a similar situation, and the preciseness with which you portrayed the complexity and intensity of such a seemingly invisible conflict struck a chord in me. Well done, Ivy, well done.
This wound beneath the surface of the Shelley’s family life was brilliantly exposed: the tyranny of parental love can be highly morally corrupting and self-indulgent. The children in the book learn to deceive in order to achieve the unattainable level urged by their mother, and they do so mirroring the cheating they observe among the adults: the existence of a bastard son, the theft of a valuable earring, all the lying that goes in between. Your plot is at once a tragedy and a comedy, and develops strangely into a sort of anti climactic climax that can seem dramatic in its triviality. The two worlds mentioned in the title encompass many possibilities: life at school and at home; children and adults; married and unmarried people; upper and low classes; female and male. I like the way you make these dualities mirror each other in your book.
You are definitely an outsider in the school of creative writing: your motto could well be “don’t show, tell.” And tell it through the characters’ own mouth: you display directly through staccato dialogue, in the characters voice, all the immediate (and intimate) reactions that lay hidden in the in between lines of everyday conversations. Everything is public, every subjectivity remains externalized. Some of your sentences sound like aphorisms that could well belong to some Oscar Wilde book. You take good care in polishing your sentences into two-bladed knives: sharp, precise, a tad stiff (stained with the solemnity of a Greek play). “It would be so awkward to come closer”, I suppose. And that’s what kept me in the awkward position of not knowing what I think of this book: I see the radical ideas, I see the impressive writing skill; but I’m nonetheless kept outside, scratching at this firmly closed door of yours.
I’ve not given up on you, though. I trust my bookseller’s shining eyes (hence why I still have three more of your books in my shelves). As awkward as it may seem (for me to try to come closer to a writing style that is good at keeping itself apart), do expect to hear from me soon, dear.
“‘Maria, you sail under false colours. You are as dangerous as anyone else. Well, let that be our safeguard. Let those hidden things lie between us and keep us apart. It would be so awkward to come closer’.” (Compton-Burnett, Two Worlds and Their Ways, Virago, 1990, p. 23. First published in 1949. 310 p.)
About the book
- Virago, 1990, 310 p.
- First published in 1949
- My rating: 3,5 stars