Friday, March 26, 2021

“My novels are hard not to put down”: IVY COMPTON-BURNETT, Men and Wives (1931)

I’m setting myself a bit of a challenge writing about Ivy Compton-Burnett, because Dame Ivy is a notoriously challenging author to write about (as well as to read). I love that she had the self-awareness to quip about her perpetual lack of mainstream popularity despite considerable critical acclaim (as quoted in the title of this post). And indeed, since her death in 1969, her books have continued to receive enthusiastic acclaim from the few while dodging any wider fanbase and peeping sporadically in and out of print.

Her original publisher, Gollancz, took the extraordinary step of releasing complete sets of her books in hardcover as late as 1984—something that happens with precious few modern authors and which reflects how seriously she was taken. Virago and Penguin Modern Classics published most of her novels in the 80s and 90s. The prestigious New York Review Books Classics have kept two of her titles, A House and Its Head (1935) and Manservant and Maidservant (1947), in print for a couple of decades now. In more recent years, Bloomsbury released e-books of most of her work (even including her disowned, autobiographical debut, Dolores (1911), the only one of her books not written in more or less the same unique, uncompromising style—primarily told via implausibly formal, philosophical dialogue and focused obsessively on the darker elements of nuclear family life in late Victorian years). Now, it appears that even those e-book versions have largely lapsed back out of print, so for her fans, few as they may be, it will be back to trolling second-hand shops and academic libraries to get hold of her.

Speaking of which, I must have discovered Dame Ivy when NYRB Classics released their two titles in about 2001. I loved both of them and went trolling second-hand shops for more. At a (now long defunct) bookstore on Irving Street in San Francisco, as I happily seized on and purchased a couple of her out-of-print titles, I remember being told by the owner that I would have had a wider selection to choose from but only a few days before, film director John Waters had been in the store and stocked up on Compton-Burnett himself. “You’re in good company,” she told me. Certainly interesting company, at least (whether John Waters would appreciate being called “good company” might be in some doubt), and I was sure I was on to something.

During my Dame Ivy kick of 2001-2002, I read six of her novels, and in the years since I’ve read a couple more, so Men and Wives makes my ninth in all, and my first since 2013. Though I always think of her as a favorite and even an “important” author, both generally and in my reading life, my sporadic indulgence in her work hardly suggests ardent passion, does it? And yet, when I noticed that, rather surprisingly, the San Francisco Public Library had five of her less well-known titles, I spontaneously put in holds for all five, and as soon as I glanced at the opening pages of Men and Wives, I fell headlong into it, shunting aside the other books I was already reading.

There’s usually a monster in Dame Ivy’s tales—often an egomaniacal, dictatorial parent. Here, that’s clearly Lady Harriet Haslam, a self-absorbed malingerer who whines and moans and stifles her three sons and one daughter as well as her dithering husband, Sir Godfrey. As with most of many members of this coveted character category (especially, it seems, in novels by women in this time period), Lady Harriet lavishes affection only with strings attached, and laces her devotions with scolds and mockery and devaluations:

“I am a torment to you all, and a burden on your hours that you never escape! But I am as much of a burden on my own, ten thousand times more of a burden. Griselda, my darling, don’t look distressed; don’t waste a thought on your harrowing old mother. Don’t think of me. Be happy.”

Ah, how many characters in novels by authors ranging from Barbara Pym to Richmal Crompton and from Elizabeth Eliot to D. E. Stevenson might have uttered those very same words! (And how they bring back memories of my own mother…)

But Lady Harriet has apparently behaved in this way for too long and her power has somewhat abated. Her children are grown, though still unmarried, and are no longer so easily cowed, and they and Sir Godfrey seem to share a subtle, mutually understood resistance to her, even while Sir Godfrey spouts his adoration and respect with every breath. Harriet is driven to more extreme measures, which I won't detail here, but even in her defeat (if that’s what it is) we see her influences passed on and her claws scratching at those around her.

There’s far too much here to unpack and summarize. There’s Bellamy the rector, whose wife has left him and set her sights first on the local doctor and then on Harriet’s oldest son. There’s Mr. Spong, a neighbor, who loses his wife and attaches himself, rather depressingly, to the Haslam family during their ups and downs. There’s a household of widowed and unmarried sisters, always available to comment on the misfortunes of others. And there’s the impassive butler Buttermere, before whom all censor their discussions, though he clearly couldn’t care less about any of them.

It will all sound familiar to anyone who has read one or more of Dame Ivy’s books. They’re all very much the same, though some are livelier than others, some more outright funny in their pitch black sort of way. To a large extent, they’re interchangeable (even to their titles, which are always conjunctive—Daughters and Sons, Parents and Children, The Mighty and Their Fall, The Present and the Past, etc.). And yet, there truly is something about them. I found myself thinking of Greek tragedy while reading Men and Wives—Aeschylus domesticated for the nuclear family but retaining many of the rudiments—passions, malice, vengeance, hubris, domination, jealousy—similarly stylized and formal, and always featuring a chorus of subsidiary characters to comment on the mayhem.

These novels are hard not to put down (at about the halfway point of Men and Wives, I found myself considering starting a different book, for a break if nothing else—the intensity, even leavened by dark humor, does take it out of one), but I resisted the urge, and ultimately, at the end of it all, I did—as I have eight times before—feel I’d experienced something rather awesome.

And now, there’s four more of Dame Ivy’s books on my shelves. Do I feel like another awesome experience right away?

Tuesday, March 23, 2021

Tweet tweet?

I remembered just in the past couple of days that March 10th was officially the eighth anniversary of my blog. Though I have sometimes been an abysmally bad blogger, or a mysteriously absent blogger, there are some of you who might have actually been reading the blog for eight years now (and a big thank you for that, as well as to those who found me more recently).

A few years ago, not long after I started working as a co-publisher of Furrowed Middlebrow books with Dean Street Press (our first books were released in 2016, which also seems impossible--time really does fly!), Rupert at Dean Street suggested it might be a good idea for me to have a Twitter presence. Four and a half years later, I've decided to follow his suggestion. (You see what Rupert has to put up with working with me--it takes a while for an idea to sink in.)

Yep, believe it or not, there is now a Furrowed Middlebrow Twitter account, @FurrowedMiddle, and I've now issued my first profound tweets. For those who know nothing about Twitter (i.e. me, about two weeks ago), there's a maximum length of 15 characters for a Twitter handle, "FurrowedMiddlebrow" is 18 characters, you do the math. Andy and I brainstormed for abbreviations, clever variants, etc., but they were all either too distant from the blog name or even more lame, so @FurrowedMiddle it is.

I have to explain what finally seduced me into becoming a twit (surely there should be an umbrella term for folks who tweet, and that's the obvious one). A couple of weeks ago, Rupert emailed and said (paraphrasing), "I know you're not into Twitter, but you might want to have a look, as Lissa Evans [television producer/director and author of novels including Their Finest Hour and a Half and Crooked Heart] and Lucy Mangan [Guardian journalist and author of bestselling non-fiction including most recently Bookworm: A Memoir of Childhood Reading] have been tweeting about our books." Good heavens! This in addition to a mention at the Washington Post here, thanks to commenter "kate208"…

So I figured out the password to the personal account I hadn't used since 2014, logged in, was suitably impressed and appreciative to be getting such kind and wondrous attention, and then ... got completely sucked in and starting reading tweets from everyone I could think of (authors, fellow bloggers, publishers, maybe just a quick glance at Cher's--whew she's intense!), decided this was pretty cool, discovered that Hermione Lee's next bio is of Anita Brookner which sounds like a dream come true, discovered Francesca Wade's next book will be about Gertrude Stein which, ditto, and now I'm hooked.

I'm hoping that Twitter will provide a way to share some of the author quotations, contemporary reviews, miscellaneous reading, random thoughts, and stray tidbits that I come across and think "I really should do something with this for the blog," but never get round to compiling into a post. Twitter is a bit more "ready aim fire" than a blog is. So I hope it will be entertaining for you in its own way, if you choose to follow. I'll also link to new blog posts, of course, so you can keep up with the blog that way as well.

I would also like to ask for help and suggestions from those of you who are also on Twitter. I'll be feeling my way for a time, so please don't hesitate to comment here or email me with ideas, tips, critiques, and cautionary tales.

Only a few days into my vacation and already getting into trouble...

Wednesday, March 17, 2021

Coming back to life with D. E. Stevenson

Well now. This has been considerably more of a blog break than I originally planned. Apologies for that, and for depriving myself of the lovely feedback, support and inspiration I get from your comments.

I think I mentioned that right in the midst of my planned break of a couple of months, my colleague went out unexpectedly on what turned into a three and a half month medical leave. As our team (dealing with the legal side of child dependency cases) was not only deemed essential, but sadly saw a considerable increase in cases in the past year due to the added stress of covid and its related lockdowns, financial impacts, school closures, etc., this made for a quite intense few months for me. I was generally working from home three days a week, fortunately, which made all the extra work a bit more manageable (no commute time really does make quite a difference), but though I actually did quite a lot of reading, I was largely reading for sanity and survival and had no bandwidth left for sharing my thoughts (not that they would have tended to be worth sharing under the circumstances), nor did the idea of sitting at a computer to write blog posts seem enticing after spending far too much time every day in front of a computer anyway. The best I could do many nights was to sit with Andy watching TV or a movie, and then pass into a coma by 10:00 at the latest.

I wrote a very little bit about the reading I did late last year in my FM Dozen post after Christmas, but it wasn’t until a bit after that that I found myself, after too long an absence, once more reading that most revivifying of all authors—D. E. Stevenson, of course—and felt just the beginnings of an urge to rejoin the outside world. Around the same time, I started puttering with research on the 300+ new authors I’ve come across for my list since my last update there 30 or 40 years ago (or perhaps not quite that long, but it feels like it). Progress is slow, but that anything at all has been happening is encouraging, and I’ve already come across a couple of intriguing authors to explore (and added a couple of new books to my TBR shelves), which is always a source of inspiration to keep going with it…

But back to DES. Somehow I had reached the faulty conclusion that I had already read most of her best work, and what remained was only to be resorted to in case of dire need. There are the marvelous Miss Buncle books, of course, and the four Mrs Tim diaries, and other highlights like Spring Magic, The English Air, The Baker’s Daughter, and the Vittoria Cottage trilogy. Other quite good titles too. But I had been assuming that most of the rest were DES in “romance” or melodrama mode (or worse, in sci-fi or spy novel mode—though it's true that all of those efforts have their defenders, and in a pinch I’ll take any of them). Most importantly, I feared that they would lack her irresistible humor and playful charm.

A comment to that effect in an email to Jerri Chase—one of the world’s leading experts on DES—led to her setting me straight. (And whether or not that particular correspondence with Jerri had anything to do with any possibility that Dean Street Press might publish some of the remaining out-of-print DES titles is something I of course couldn’t possibly comment on at this juncture…) Ahem. But since Jerri was the one who had urged me to read Spring Magic when it was still languishing out of print and unappreciated, and since that book immediately became one of my favorites (and a popular reprint for DSP), I tend to listen to her recommendations…

My "little splurge"

So, I had a little splurge on Abe Books (using the term “little” quite loosely). DES’s books, especially the ones still out-of-print, are not cheap, and I’m really not a fan of the cheap Fontana or Collins paperback editions with their (often) ghastly, inappropriate covers. Factor in that some of these (and even some later hardcover editions) are abridged or otherwise edited from DES’s intent (see here for the definitive site by Susan Daly, another of the world experts on DES, with anything you could possibly want to know about her books, including the mistreatment they’ve received at the hands of other publishers), not to mention my fondness for intact dustjackets, and it was a foregone conclusion that I’d be finishing up my Christmas gift cards (and then some) in no time.

I began my DES renaissance with Young Mrs Savage, a 1949 title which combines immediate postwar concerns with a holiday story perfectly calibrated to soothe my COVID-deprived wanderlust. Dinah Savage is a young widowed mother of four who steadfastly rejects all offers of sympathy for her state but is nevertheless having trouble making ends meet, is tired all the time (aren’t we all these days?), and remains haunted by unresolved issues from her troubled marriage. Although I can’t claim that my distinctly benign winter stresses compare to those of Dinah’s, they were sufficient for me to be living vicariously through her when her twin brother Dan returns from the military, decides she simply must have a holiday (again, why does no one ever decide this about me?), and sends her to stay with their unflappable Nannie at Craigie Lodge, in a beautiful coastal town in Scotland.

No one who knows D. E. Stevenson’s work will have trouble fleshing out the events of the novel—old friends, new acquaintances, awkward misunderstandings, and perhaps the tentative beginnings of a new lease on life. But that makes it no less delightful to read, and DES has real insight into how one can overcome past unhappiness to make a fresh start. It was just what I needed at a challenging time, and it’s one to hold in store for a re-read when I again need some uplift.

From there, I moved to what I feared was dangerously late in DES's career (her final novels not being, by most counts, among her best). The Musgraves was published in 1960, and I feared melodrama or tormented love, but instead got an absolutely irresistible family story—set in the Cotswolds, no less, so just as satisfying, wanderlust-wise, as coastal Scotland.

Following the death of her beloved husband, Esther Musgrave believes she will never be happy again. But soon, her "natural buoyancy" and the problems and adventures of her three daughters—difficult, unmarried Delia, cheerful and practical Margaret, and young Kate just out of school—bring her pleasure and purpose anew. DES clearly has a liking for widows as heroines, and Esther, like Diana Savage, provides her with ample opportunity to show a woman (this time approaching middle age) beginning to re-embrace life after loss. There's the local Dramatic Club's troubled new production, the arrival of an attractive widow with a hint of scandal about her, and the return of Esther's long-estranged stepson.

Plus, although I didn't know it yet while reading, there's also a character here who recurs from The Tall Stranger, published three years earlier, a character readers may not be exactly happy to meet again, but whose appearance certainly adds some zest. (No spoilers!)

The story rollicks along in classic DES style, and I ate it up like candy. You know how much I love village stories, and this turned out to be an excellent one. Before moving on, though, I have to introduce the Bloggses, local residents, and provide a glimpse of their unique way of generously sharing their newest acquisition: 

Soon after the arrival of Puggy the Bloggses bought a 'telly'; (it was essential to have one, because all their neighbours had 'tellies') but none of them liked it much. The fact was they were all great talkers and they found it more interesting to exchange news of their daily doings and the gossip of Shepherdsford than to look at and listen to the daily doings of the outside world, and they soon discovered that it was more comfortable to sit and talk quietly than to shout and bellow at each other with the 'telly' turned on full blast. Of course they turned it on full blast when a neighbour dropped in to see them because that was the right thing to do, but neighbours often brought news—interesting news about other neighbours—which the Bloggses wanted to hear. 

"I dunno why we got the danged thing," declared Mr. Bloggs one evening when the 'telly' had been particularly troublesome. "I couldn't scarcely 'ear a word Danks was saying. It's just a nuisance, that's what." 

"I couldn't 'ear Mrs. Danks neither," said Mrs. Bloggs with a sigh. 

"We can turn it off now they've gone," said Flo, suiting the action to the word.

The Bloggses provided me a much-needed chuckle in all the craziness.

Immediately after, it happened that I turned to The Tall Stranger, not realizing the connection with The Musgraves. No need at all to read the two novels in any order--there is merely an overlap of one fairly significant character and mentions of a few others.

In The Tall Stranger (1957), we are introduced to Barbie France, who, following a sort of breakdown and a dreadful time in hospital in London, comes home to Underwoods, the lovely house in the Cotswolds where she grew up. Barbie's kind Aunt Amalie, her indomitable companion Miss Penney, and the beauties of nature aid her rapid recovery, only dampened by a troubled romance with Amalie's stepson Edward, a childhood friend Barbie hasn't seen in years and whose character seems to have changed in the intervening time.

When Barbie eventually returns to her successful career as a decorator, new challenges and pleasures await, include a delightful trip to a castle in Scotland, which bears fruit both professional and private, though difficulties with Edward have a way of persisting. Naturally, all works out for the best, and I couldn't stop reading this one either. It has very nearly the sparkle and spirit of a Miss Buncle or Spring Magic, and will certainly belong on a re-read list, too, whenever I need some inspiration or just a fantasy trip to the Cotswolds and Scotland!

I didn't take good notes on any of these, because I was only treading water at the time and my thoughts might not have borne repeating, but suffice it to say I loved all three of these "lesser-known" DES novels, and I owe a debt of gratitude (yet again) to the glorious D. E. Stevenson for providing some much needed literary therapy and making me feel like part of the real world again. Thanks also to Jerri for recommending these titles. And as you can see from the photo above, I have quite a few more to getting on with…

I should mention that my work colleague returned to work at the beginning of March, which is why I'm reasonably coherent and capable of writing this post. Not only that, but I'm taking a vacation next week to stay at home, read books, do research, get some exercise, and indulge in a couple of afternoon naps. So you might actually start hearing from me again more than every three months!

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