16 AUGUST 1957, Page 19

BOOKS Op. xv


IT is more than thirty years since Miss Compton- Burnett published her first novel and revealed to the world her brilliant and peculiar talent. If InY memory serves the revelation was gradual. No prominent critic trumpeted his 'discovery' of her. There was no dizzy succession of reprints. Her renown spread in intimate, fastidious circles as each reader sought to communicate and share his delight. I who lived (and live) rather far from fastidious circles was not drawn into the almost secret society of her admirers until the publication of Brothers and Sisters in 1929. Since then I have remained steadfastly devoted, but because of the impact of first love Brothers and Sisters has for me a unique eminence and I tend to regard it as quintessential of her art. Not that there has been any great change in her matter or manner. She has established her own enclosed garden in which in due season her flowers unfold, each perfectly true to type and almost identical. I have never got on with Professor Tolkien's 'Hobbits.' Those who do, I presume, enjoy something of the same experience as the readers of Miss Compton- Burnett, the entry into a timeless Wonderland directed by its own interior logic, not distorting, because not reflecting, the material world. Miss Compton-Burnett's readers have now, I think, greatly multiplied. I wonder whom they comprise. Her fellow-writers certainly, for her technical skill is masterly. In the Thirties a num- ber of English novelists, reacting perhaps against the vogue for Proust, sought to tell their stories as much as possible in dialogue. Mr. Henry Green ts one of the most notable of these but he quite often allows himself the luxury of rich and poetic descriptive passages. Miss Compton-Burnett austerely restricts herself to the minimum of bare stage directions. She is the least sensuous of writers. There is no flavour of food or wine, no scene-painting of landscape or architecture, no costume, no visual image even of the characters; ages are stated; height, bulk, strength or infirmity gently suggested; sometimes a moustache or a beard is mentioned, but there is never anything approaching a portrait. In her latest novel, A Father and his Fate,* one character only is given a line or two of physical description and that because she is a newcomer and therefore remark- able in the close family circle.

The family is the theme of all Miss Compton- Burnett's creation, men and women who have grown up together knowing one another, and no one else, so intimately that huge assumptions are accepted unexpressed and the continuous con- versation is allusive. 'No one can speak in this house without meaning too much,' says one of the characters in her latest book. The reader must

* A AND HIS FATE. By 1. Compton-Burnett. (Gollancz, 13s. 6d.)

guess what statements are frank, what are ironical. Most are ironical. These families live in an un- specified era before the invention of motor-cars and telephones. Sometimes they are bourgeois, more often gentry. All live in the country in substantial houses, with plenty of servants and governesses and 'companions.' Domination is the theme; the subservience of those born to be paid to those born to pay—`You could not have had a better mistress."No, sir, as I am called to a posi- tion that entails one.'—the subservience of women to men, of poor relations to their benefactors; the subservience of all to one imposing matriarch or patriarch. Nothing that happens outside the household has any real existence. Miss Compton- Burnett's usual plot is an intrusion from the outer world which threatens the stability of the family.

The plot of A Father and his Fate runs true. The father, in the big house, has three daughters; his brother's widow in the dower-house has three sons, the eldest of whom, Malcolm, is his heir. Enter a disruptive orphan. Malcolm becomes engaged to her. The Father and Mother leave for a journey abroad. Anything may happen out- side the defences of home. In fact a curious ship- wreck occurs from which the Father returns with- out the Mother. Father takes Malcolm's orphan. Mother returns, not drowned, but living on an al- lowance of banknotes anonymously sent her from a neighbouring village. The orphan is sent back to marry Malcolm. She does so, but reveals that Father has been paying Mother to keep away. She has a baby, Father's not Malcolm's, disappears; Malcolm marries Father's daughter. Baldly stated the plot is rather absurd—as indeed are the plots of most works of art. Related by Miss Compton- Burnett in conversation (almost all the action takes place offstage) it is irresistibly beguiling. It is often said by both admirers and detractors that her dialogue is unprecedented and inimitable. There is, however, one popular English book, first published in 1913, which has a remarkable affinity. The plot is a numerous family in a large country house with an odd butler, a ridiculous tutor, a disinherited half-brother and a lost will. This is how they speak : 'I cannot think it dutiful of you, Dorothea, to call either your parents or myself passing old or tough. I don't see what comfort you could expect us to find in such epithets. . . . ' am only thinking of what the servants would say.'

`You will not hear what their servants say, Emily.'

`But I shall know they are saying it all the same. . .

'Emily,' said Mr. Chubb in agitated tones to his sister-in-law, 'are you aware that your back hair is all caked in mud?' No, Thomas, I was not; and I think it very unkind of you to tell me. Now I shan't be able to enjoy my lunch for thinking of it.'

'It is not noticeable from the sides or from the front so no one at table will be able to perceive it.'

`But it is not that I care about. The servants will all be standing behind me. You must take the first opportunity to mention our accident, Thomas.'

Try those extracts on one of Miss Compton- Burnett's admirers. Then tell her that they are from Mrs. Henry de la Pasture's The Unlucky Family.