A Heritage and its History by Ivy Compton-Burnett (1959)

Review by Sylvia D:

I have read several of Elizabeth Taylor’s novels with a growing respect for her ability as a writer, so I chose an Ivy Compton-Burnett instead as I have never tried her before.   Initially I wished I hadn’t as I found A Heritage and its History rather boring at first but as I got into it I began to find it rather intriguing.

The first thing that strikes you is that it is written virtually all in dialogue with only three or four line descriptions of the characters when the reader is first introduced to them and a few directional comments such as ‘Julia glanced at her brother-in-law’ (p 46) or ‘Hamish turned to Naomi’ (p 121) which enhance the dialogue. The dialogue itself is strange in that the characters mainly speak in short, often staccato, sentences which read like aphorisms: ‘Death is to us the natural change and end’ (p 29) or ‘You will want what is yours, as all men want it’ (p 121). It is through the conversation of her characters that C-B allows the story to develop and their personalities to emerge.

 A Heritage and its History is a family saga with all the passion, inter-personal tensions, and twists that characterise the genre.   Sixty-nine year old Sir Edwin Challoner is the true, Edwardian patriarch who rules the lives of his brother, Hamish, to whom he is very close, and his brother’s family – his wife, Julia, and his two sons, Simon and Walter who are also very close – as they live together in the ancestral home where nothing is allowed to change. As Simon says, ‘We shall go on and on the same way’ (p 45). They are attended by an elderly manservant who responds in rather engimatic tones when addressed.

Simon makes no secret of his wish to inherit the estate but rather than his uncle dying, it is Hamish who dies and Sir Edwin, deprived of his brother’s companionship, confounds them all by taking as his young wife, a family friend, Rhoda. One night of illicit passion between Simon and Rhoda then has momentous consequences. Rhoda conceives and Sir Edwin accepts the child whom he calls Hamish as his own (his and Rhoda’s marriage is platonic), swears Rhoda, Simon and Walter in whom Simon has confided to secrecy and disinherits Simon.

As well as the use of continuous dialogue, it is the treatment of the women characters as the story unfolds that is also intriguing. Hamish’s wife who for twenty-seven years has been the lady of the household has to relinquish her position to Sir Edwin’s new wife whilst Rhoda’s younger sister, Fanny, agrees to marry Simon and to let his family move into her house when Sir Edwin requests him to live elsewhere. They then have five children. It feels at this stage as if the women are very much pawns in a man’s world.  However, when she is twenty, Simon’s daughter, Naomi, and Hamish fall in love.

At first Simon tries to forbid the marriage but he comes up against his mother and his wife, both of whom are ignorant of the truth, and oppose themselves to his view. Simon says, ‘You are my wife, and have heard what I said. Surely that is enough.’ His wife’s replies, ‘I must have a mind of my own. I am not an echo of you’ – (p 109). Faced with the intransigeance of his wife and mother and of Naomi and Hamish themselves, Simon has no alternative but to confess that they are half brother and sister.   Hamish goes away, only to return when Sir Edwin is on his deathbed. Naomi, though, being a woman, has no alternative but to remain with her family.

It is another woman who finally resolves the question of the inheritance. During his absence, Hamish meets and marries Marcia, an older woman of independent means who has no wish to take on the Challoner’s ancestral home which she dislikes from the first moment of entering it. ‘You would like something more modern?’ said Hamish. ‘No, but something lighter and more on my level’ – (p 144). She feels that in the house, ‘Nothing belongs to the present, and it is in the present that we live. Otherwise we live in what is not there, in what is in our minds, and nowhere else’ – (p 147).   Marcia realises that Simon is the right person to inherit the house, “‘This is his place’, she said. ‘It is time he had it.’” – (p 151). She also doesn’t want to see herself displacing Hamish’s mother as happened to Julia and after further discussion, ‘a few words sent the history of the house into another channel’ (p 154). Simon’s family move back into the ancestral home whilst Hamish and Marcia go to live elsewhere. Simon finally gets to inherit it for himself when Hamish dies young.

The novel has a very claustrophic feel to it. The weight of tradition is all pervasive. The children are totally dominated by their elders. There is no sense of the outside world. Apart from Rhoda and Fanny, no-one except family seems to visit. At one point, Simon’s elder son, Graham, does consider taking up a post at Oxford University but once he knows he will one day inherit, he gives up the idea.

The plot is complex and the reader has to concentrate hard to follow both the story development and the family’s conversations.   In my view Ivy Compton-Burnett needs to be read in small doses!

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