Mother and Son, by Ivy Compton-Burnett was bought at the same time as Mae West’s The Constant Sinner, and bears out my theory that you should never make assumptions about books. I bought the West book out of curiosity and, against all expectation, thoroughly enjoyed it. On the other hand I had high hopes for Mother and Son, and absolutely HATED everything about it – the characters, the story, and especially the way it was written. Sometimes, even when I don’t like book, I can appreciate the way it is constructed, and understand why other people would praise it, but not in this case. In fact I can’t understand why Compton-Burnett is so highly esteemed, and I was disappointed, because she’s admired by so many people, including Simon T over at Stuck in a Book, whose recommendations usually turn out to be excellent.
Plus IC-B gets a mention in Alan Bennett’s The Uncommon Reader (which is brilliant – all book lovers should read it). He describes how the Queen, in pursuit of barking corgis, stumbles upon a mobile library van. Consequently, she discovers the joys of reading, and her first book, by Ivy Compton-Burnett, is selected because she made the author a dame. “Yes, I remember that hair, a roll like a pie-crust that went right round her head,” she recalls. And when I looked at photographs of the author I realised how apt that description that is – but how terrible for a writer to be remembered for her hair rather than her prose!
Anyway, the novel opens as Miranda Hume, a strong-willed 80-year-old matriarch, is interviewing an applicant for the post of companion. But Miss Burke is as strong-minded as her prospective employer. During the course of the conversation we learn that Miss Burke believes housework has very little to do with companionship, which is very true, and made me recall Max de Winter’s first meeting with the nameless heroine of Rebecca, when he says: “I did not know one could buy companionship,” and adds: “It sounds a strange idea.” The nature of companionship, and fear of being alone seem to be the main themes of the novel. The characters, as Hilary Spurling observes in her introduction, are not satisfied with the companionship on offer – but are unable to manage without it.
Until she can find a suitable person, Miranda falls back on the companionship of her middle-aged, son Rosebery – they seem almost unhealthily close. And there is her husband Julius, her orphaned teenage nephews and niece, Bates the maid, and Mr Pettigrew the tutor. It’s a strange, constrained sort of household, very different to the nearby establishment run by friends Miss Greatheart and Miss Wolsey (who take Miss Burke on as their housekeeper).
The book was written in 1955, but reads like something from an earlier age – it’s difficut tell when it is set. There’s not much of a plot, although hidden secrets are revealed, and none of the characters came to life for me; I found them unlikable, unrealistic and not very clearly defined.
I must admit that since Compton-Burnett is known for her strong use of dialogue, while I love lots of description, this was never likely to be my ideal read. I adore Dickens and Trollope and all those Victorian novelists who covered page after page with details of the weather, a dinner party table, slum housing and all sorts of other stuff. I want to know what people looked like, and where they lived and what they wore, and I like to find out what they thought and what made them tick. As far as I am concerned dialogue is fine, in small doses, and it should help reveal plot and character. But you don’t get that with Compton-Burnett. What you do get is a book full of dialogue, to the exclusion of all else. And very stilted dialogue it is. The speech patterns, words and language seem terribly old-fashioned, which could be due to the passing of time, but I refuse to believe anyone ever spoke like this in real life and especially not in the mid-50s.
On occasions I wondered if it was meant to be a parody: if Stella Gibbons had written things like ‘truly the flesh is weak’, ‘my watch informs me of the hour’, or ‘do not look at me with an expression that pierces the heart’, we would know absolutely that this is not serious. In fact that last quote could just as easily come from Oswald Bastable, or any of Edith Nesbit’s other child heroes and heroines, using fantastical.high-flown language when playing together or describing their adventures.
And all the characters have the same voice, which is really, really irritating (and confusing). Everyone, whatever their age or social class, speaks in exactly the same fashion, without any hint of character or experience. If you read a page with the attributions removed you would have no idea who was speaking. In fact, there are great chunks of this novel where I was totally confused as to who said what. And there’s no emotion or feeling, or insight into character. It’s as if the’re bad actors mouthing lines which are witty but meaningless.