How good we all are at talking without ever saying what we think

Dear Ivy,

Ivy Compton-BurnettI guess I will never be completely at ease at being cast among those whom Barbara Pym would describe as ‘the sort of people who would read Ivy Compton-Burnett’. But I cannot deny that I have been there, done that. It may be something like an acquired taste, but my love for your writing remains strong, and Pastors and Masters (1925), my most recent read, is another of your odd gems.

The book centres on conversations between the staff of a boys’ school, their circumscribed circle of friends, and the members of a family of two of the school’s pupils. The headmaster, 70-year-old Nicholas Herrick, is a self-centred would-be scholar who lives with his spinster sister, Emily. He only nominally runs the school: the actual job is done by a man with no academic qualifications, Mr. Merry, whose sole gift is to be able to keep appearances in front of the pupils’ parents. He is helped by his ever-faithful, ever-bored wife, whom he bizarrely calls ‘Mother’. To complete the picture, we have teachers, Miss Basden, an unmarried middle-aged schoolmistress, and Mr. Burgess, a young and inexperienced college graduate; Nicholas’ old university cronies, William Masson and Richard Bumpus, who live as bachelors well into old age, and may or may not be lovers; Henry Bentley, father of two of the school’s pupils, and his daughter from a previous marriage; and, finally, Reverend Peter Fletcher, his wife Theresa, his spinster sister, Lydia, and his nephew Francis.

The novella is written in your signature style: a running dialogue with very minimal description – as if we were reading a play with very few stage directions. Everything that matters seems to be conveyed in-between the lines: the characters never really reveal what they think, and we have to assemble the story in fragments here and there, from what is implied in the conversation. The schoolboys barely make an appearance in the book – they are largely nameless and have no voice. Meanwhile, we follow their teachers’, parents’, and pastors’ empty li(v)es.

Nicholas spends most of his time with his old friends, and takes pride in never having to really do any work in the school to which he lends his name and his so-called academic prestige. The more Nicholas boasts of his intellectual achievements and tries to sell the image of the school as a place of academic excellence, the more he appears to us as a fraud. To make matters worse, he steals a manuscript from a dying friend’s house and tries to pass it off as his own, boasting to his cronies that he has finally finished the book that will top off his intellectual career. Meanwhile, his friend Bumpus also claims to have finished the book he has been working on for many decades. They are both lying, of course, but they will continue to stubbornly cling to (and believe in) their own lies, as long as no one takes the trouble of publicly uncovering them.

The novella is a mordant satire of the ‘masters’ and ‘pastors’, society foundational institutions: academia, family, and church. Yours is a picture of a world with no redeeming features: everyone is seeking some form of undeserved prestige, and prefers to keep up appearances instead of doing some kind of meaningful work. It’s academia, family, and church in the early twentieth century – but it could well be twenty-first century social media buzz. The façade is the message, even if all false. The façade sells.

I love the way you manage to imply many opposing stories at once without ever telling us much about any of them. “How good we all are at talking without ever saying what we think”, one of your characters remarks at some point. We have to solve the puzzle, connect the dots, and see through the characters’ hypocrisy, pomposity, parasitism, and (self-) deceptions. We have the story of what the characters say, the story of what they mean, the story of what others believe they mean, the story of what they believe others believe they mean – the list goes on. There is also the story of how each reader fills the gaps in the conversation, and the story of whether the characters mean anything at all. The story of how you are unveiling your characters by unveiling us; the story of uncovering the savage and the absurd behind the polite and the ordinary. And, somewhere in the blurred point where these stories clash and collapse, you make us laugh. It’s a hard laugh – crisp and bitter and mean – but a laugh, nonetheless.

Yours truly,

J.


Francesco Hayez Vengeance is Sworn (detail) 1851
Francesco Hayez Vengeance is Sworn (detail) 1851.

“’Real books coming out of our own heads!’ said Bumpus. ‘And not just printed unkindness to other people’s.’” – Ivy Compton-Burnett, Pastors and Masters

*

“The sight of duty does make one shiver,” said Miss Herrick. “The actual doing of it would kill one, I think.”- Ivy Compton-Burnett, Pastors and Masters


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