Ivy Compton-Burnett's novels have interested me for some time. They are unique - almost no description, no narrative, no stage directions. They consist almost entirely of dialog. It's up to the reader to figure out who is in the room, who has left, who has arrived, and anything else one might want to know about the scene one is reading and the people in it. Age, relationship to other characters, hopes, fears - all of it must be dug out by the reader.
They are full of quips. Cynical, satirical, malevolent, sometimes inexplicable. And as you read more than one or two of these slim novels you find certain typical characters in most of them: the tyrant who makes the lives of people around her (or him) miserable; the quiet, observant, non-interfering character; the victim of the tyrant; the refreshingly honest and outspoken woman, usually one of a pair of such women; the brother and sister who are devoted to one another and whose relationship is destined to crack apart. "A calm front, inner tumult, and a staggering lack of imagination on the part of those who accept the one without discerning the other beneath it, are constant themes through the work of I Compton-Burnett."
All of this conveyed by nearly pure dialog.
So when I happened on an inexpensive used copy of a 1974 biography of IC-B by Hilary Spurling I bought it. However, the book is 620 pages long and one doesn't embark on that sort of thing without packing a lunch and having one's mail held. I expected the biography to be tough to digest, considering those dialog drenched novels.
I was wrong. The biography is very readable, very interesting, in fact, fascinating, mesmerizing.
Someone suggested to IC-B that he should write a biography of her or that she should write her memoirs. Oh, no, said Ivy, my life has been so uneventful. There would be nothing to write about.
This from a woman who in her childhood was exceptionally close to her brothers, having no other friends at all. One of them died young of pneumonia. The other married, leaving Ivy feeling bereft. And then he died on the Somme. Two of her sisters died in a suicide pact. And her mother was by all accounts a raving tyrant who virtually ruined the lives of her children. And when the mother died, Ivy found herself evolving into a tyrant herself.
For most of her life, IC-B shared an apartment with Margaret Jourdain, a furniture expert with many friends and followers. Margaret was by all accounts the dominant character and Ivy shrank into the background and muttered about the cost of mutton and the difficulty of getting good help. This self-effacement went on until Margaret died, at which point Ivy gathered literary friends about her and became a public figure, her novels by then having become popular, if only among a small group of highbrow readers.
Never much like everybody else, she became increasingly eccentric in her old age. A friend "was most impertinent about my wine, said Ivy,dropping lumps of ice into her glass of sweet Graves overheated in front of the electric fire: I am not very wine-wise, you know."
There are many accounts of the consternation Ivy caused by hitching up her long dress far above her knee and splaying her legs as she sat down to table . . . or - most disconcerting of all to nervous subjects - rummaging around under her capacious skirts in a slow, methodical search for the handkerchief tucked in her knickers. . . . She shared with Margaret a trick of ducking her head to look down the front of her bodice, 'as though she had detected something surprising there, and not altogether pleasant.' . . . For all her insistence on propriety and manners, Ivy's conventionality was never more than skin deep. 'In her life as in her novels,' wrote [a friend], 'she used the framework of her Victorian-Edwardian background as a convenience to be discarded when it suited her'.
The story of her life, youth and family, education at Holloway College, self-sacrifice and self-effacement as demanded by her mother, and finally escape to London and a friendship with Margaret Jourdain that suited them both and enabled both to play the role they designed for themselves.
So I was engrossed in this biography and found it swift going. However, unless you are interested in IC-B's novels you might not find the book as entrancing as I did. If you are reading and enjoying her novels, this book is indispensable.