Filmmaker John Waters, in his memoir of sorts Role Models, writes that he has all of Ivy Compton-Burnett’s novels but has kept one unread – because when he reads it ‘there will be no more Ivy Compton-Burnett for me and I will probably have to die myself’.
When I read this a few years ago, I wasn’t familiar with the ‘adorably sour’ Compton-Burnett, but Waters painted a picture of her as fiercely exacting about words:
According to the great biography Ivy, by Hilary Spurling, an old friend came to visit Ivy and she woke from a catnap and snapped, “I’m not tired, I’m sleepy. They are different things. And I’m surprised that you should say tired when you mean sleepy.” That Ivy! She was a real laff-riot.
Now, having read A House and Its Head recently, I know what Waters meant. It’s a vicious black comedy about a wealthy family in Victorian England infighting mercilessly over power. It is written almost entirely in dialogue. Slight spoilers follow.
The exchange quoted below gives a flavour of the book’s distinctive style, and also showcases the author’s semantic and logical pedantry. Duncan is the domineering, eponymous head of the house, Nance and Sybil his daughters, Grant his nephew, Ellen his late wife:
One morning Duncan’s silence had a new quality. He seemed to be waiting for someone to speak, and at last spoke himself.
‘Does anyone notice a difference in the room?’
‘The portrait of Aunt Ellen is over the sideboard. I saw it when I came in.’
‘Then why did you not speak of it?’
‘I don’t know, Uncle. No one else did,’ said Grant, not acknowledging the shyness attendant on mention of the dead.
‘Did you take it from the landing, Father?’
‘My dear Sibyl, from where should I take it, when it was on the landing that it hung?’
‘It is nice to have it in here,’ said Nance.
‘Nice?’ said her father, contracting his forehead. ‘What an odd word!’
‘Well, what word would you use?’
‘I shall find it a support to have her portrait before my eyes.’
‘That is certainly expanding the phrase.’
‘It is not a joke, Nance.’
‘Of course it is not, Father.’
Historically, nice has a chameleonic character. But Duncan’s description of it as ‘odd’ is specific to the context: it’s not a word he would have used to refer to the change in the room. It is an unsatisfactory usage, and in A House and Its Head nothing unsatisfactory is left alone: it must be picked at, as a means of picking at the person responsible.
With characters so quick to tussle over niceties, every word counts, and so it was for Compton-Burnett.