A House and Its Head by Ivy Compton-Burnett (1935)

Review by George Simmers (see his Great War Fiction blog here)

A House and its Head is the story of a family ruled by the whim of Duncan, the despotic patriarch, who dominates and humiliates his wife, his daughters and his nephew, mostly by the use of a pedantic wit that reminds them of their subordinate status. He is presented as a man continuing Victorian habits of behaviour into a later age. (The novel is unspecific about date, but seems to be set in the early years of the twentieth century. Transport is by railway or horse-drawn carriage.) In first chapter his ascendancy is established by his confiscation from his twenty-five-year-old nephew of a book on evolution that counters the church’s teachings. He tells the young man that the book has been burnt. (10)

His wife’s death provokes a crisis in Duncan, and a deep depression. For a while he seems to be recognising how badly he has treated her, until his attitude changes, and he convinces himself that his behaviour to her had always been perfect. His family do not dare argue with this assessment.

The book’s real complications begin when he announces his intention to marry again, to a woman only a little older than his daughters. The intrusion of this stranger into the family home produces a string of catastrophes, including betrayal, adultery and even murder.

Compton-Burnett’s style is distinctive. The story is mostly told in dialogue (always formal and grammatically correct). The narrative voice is spare and objective. There are brief summaries of characters when they first appear, but otherwise the narration is restricted to short, objective descriptions of the characters’ actions, like stage directions in a playscript. Compton-Burnett never tells us what the characters are thinking or feeling; the reader is expected to do quite a lot of work in understanding that underneath the lucid and articulate conversations there is a subtext of repressed and thwarted passions.

As in a Greek tragedy, the dramatic actions (such as adulteries and elopements) are never actually shown, but happen outside the novel’s text, to be reported or commented on in the dialogues. The cool narrative voice never expresses a judgement, but allows us simply to watch as character is expressed in action, and every new situation ratchets up the psychological pressure on the characters.

It is in the management of the plot that Compton-Burnett is cleverest. She mixes suspense with surprise. For example, when the father goes away after the death of his wife, the young people of the family invite their friends for a party that he would almost certainly have forbidden. The reader shares their suspense, but when the father does, as they fear, arrive, it is not to criticise them, but, even more disturbingly, to announce his engagement woman hardly older than his daughters.

Ivy Compton-Burnett’s novels do not offer some of the pleasures that novel-readers expect. There is no character with whom it is easy to identify; there is no warmth; hot emotions are described with little sympathy, but with chilly accuracy. She observes passions dispassionately.

Fellow-novelist Sheila Kaye-Smith admitted that she found it difficult to connect with Compton-Burnett’s books, until she realised that she was looking at them with inappropriate expectations:

I. Compton-Burnett’s novels are not pictures, they are designs, and bear the same relation to life as the stylized rose on the wallpaper bears to the realistic illustrations in Flowers of the Field. One does not quarrel with the wallpaper flower because it has a symmetry and formality which the model lacks.  We obtain both from the book and from the wallpaper the essential meaning of a rose – indeed there may be more abstract meaning in the wallpaper design than in the naturalistic picture.  I. Compton-Burnett is definitely an abstract novelist.

(All the Books of My Life, Chapter 10)

Kaye-Smith finds much to admire in Compton-Burnett’s pattern-making, but admits that after reading one of these novels she prefers not to begin another, but instead turns with relief to the new Monica Dickens. So you have been warned, but if you are ready to coldly appreciate a brilliantly-executed pattern rather than to warmly lose yourself in an experience, A House and its Head is a novel that you are likely to enjoy very much.

6 thoughts on “A House and Its Head by Ivy Compton-Burnett (1935)

  1. Excellent review. It sounds like one needs to read Ivy coldly and objectively, without expecting the usual warm identification with characters in novels and instead admiring her wonderful style! I can do that, I’m sure……

  2. That is a fantastic quotation from Kaye-Smith. I’ve read and enjoyed some Compton-Burnett, but I think that aloof quality got in the way of them becoming my favorite books. This one has been on my “to read” list for a long time, so the review is much appreciated!

  3. The only thing to add is that the author is very clear on the first page of the novel that the action starts in 1885.

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