“It would be so awkward to come closer”

Ivy, dear,

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.

Yours truly,



Fairfield Porter. Portrait of Katherine (the artist’s daughter). 1952.

“‘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
  • Goodreads
  • My rating: 3,5 stars

3 thoughts on ““It would be so awkward to come closer”

  1. How right you are about Ivy. I found the novel to be a harsh assessment of a closed household, and all of the mad dysfunction that happens when you live a clastrophobic life without being aware of your miserable situation. Sir Roderick and Maria believe they’re virtous, but in fact
    they’ve created a dillusional world of deception and pretense. Maria Shelly is a silly self-deceptive simple minded woman who behaves like any over protective mother. Her obsessive concern for her children reveals her own neurotic pathologies. Reviewers find something comofring in her posturing of parental concern, I find her concern revealing her emotional and intellectual inadequacy. Ivy builds on this failing to create a picute of a woman who is overwhelmingly taedious.

    Sir Roderick her husband is equally stupid and lacks insight into the madness he’s created. The grandfather who is the father to the first Mrs. Shelly functions like a reminder of the past who senses the decreptitued of the family, but is so bloated with his own ego and the past that he floats through the narrative like some chain rattling ghost.

    The gay son Oliver wants to be honest and live accordingly but is so locked into his nauseatingly esthete posing that he is incapable of actually engaging in any menaingful relationship within the Shelly house. He minces through the book dropping bon mots that everyome ignores or dismisses as clever but useless. The one hopeful moment in the book is when his gay lover , also named Oliver, appears to rescue him from this abysmal closeted life but Oliver Shelly hasn’t the courage to see this as a possible escapre or at least a full recognition of how evil the household is. There is no indication that Oliver Shelly feels any real passion for the sexual liason he’s contracted. He views his lover as the mere extension of his own feelbe charachter.

    The horrors of the book are summed up in the final pages when Clemence makes the untoward comment that it’s useless to make friends with people who won’t remain your friends. The intellectually feeble mother and father agree, and the adolescent girl is congratulated on her enlightened assessment. This sentiment is laden with self serving ego and portends the personal misery that Ivy forshadows in complex interlocking speeches. The future of this wretched girl and her brother, Sefton can olny be imagined — will there be anyone to save them or help them escape from the shabby house? These children are so imprinted with the decptions of their parents their fate is to drag everyone they meet into a nighmare of tangled emotions and failed communication.

    Reviews I’ve read see this book as some kind of moral tale that ends like all good Greek trajedy in revealing all. I see something dark and sinister in every speech made by every charchter in the book. There is nothing redeeming are salvific in the book. Ivy has cleverly hidden future misery in the prose of present redemption. It’s a classic Sartrian dilemma of being locked in a room in hell with fellow condemned people.

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.