Wednesday, December 19, 2007

"I think we should go on living," or, From Compton-Burnett to Conan Doyle

I'm returning briefly to Ivy Compton-Burnett's Manservant and Maidservant (1937) tonight both because I feel it would be wrong to give up before I've convinced each of you to slip one of her novels into the stocking of your favorite witty cynic and because I can't resist sharing the following scene. Set in the schoolroom of the novel's isolated rural family, it tells of the arrival of the long-suffering children's first tutor, Gideon. In the children's grilling of him, Compton-Burnett's dialogue hews closer to realism than usual--perhaps because children tend more towards cruel bluntness than adults do--but it's no less funny or cutting for that.
"You are rather old for a tutor," said Marcus, "I thought they were generally young."

"Some young men begin by being tutors, and pass on to something else."

"Then you are a failure?" said Tamasin.

"I think I should be called one. I paid too much attention to my studies when I was young, and that does lead to people's being tutors."

"How old are you?" said Marcus

"I am forty-one."

"Oh, quite a young man," said Tamasin.

"Does your wife think you are a failure?" said Marcus.

"I am not married. I live with my mother and sister. If they think so, they do not betray it. Women are so loyal."

"What do you do with the money you earn?" said Jasper. "If you have no wife, you can't have children, and you don't seem as if you spend very much on yourself."

"Part of it I subscribe to the family expenses, and part to a fund that is to give me an income when I am old."

"Your hair is gray now," said Marcus.

"Yes, but that is premature. It merely gives me a personality."
The scene is also unusual in that it develops along more typically comedic lines than most of Compton-Burnett's scenes: there are no surprise interruptions from a character who's not even been announced as entering the room, no unexpectedly murderous asides, not even a sense that the participants are scrapping for points. Given the freedom that comes from the natural inquisitiveness of children confronted with a new tutor, Compton-Burnett runs with it.

One technique that does tie Compton-Burnett to other English satire is her employment of negative constructions as a way of both softening and improving a joke. Born, presumably, of a real usage reflecting British reticence, the negative construction--"not entirely unexpected," "not particularly," "not without its charms," and the like--works as a way of tiptoeing up to a barb; it focuses the attention, and, in the case of a skilled satirist, reveals unexpected degrees of denial and diffidence. It is the stiff upper lip incarnate. Anthony Powell was a master of negative constructions, as was Evelyn Waugh, who employs it simply but to good effect in this line about the dictatorship of Neutralia in "Scott-King's Modern Europe":
"[They were] led to the reception hall which with its pews and thrones had somewhat the air of a court of law and was in fact not infrequently used for condemning aspiring politicians to exile on one or the other of the inhospitable islands that lay off the coast of the country.
But I've yet to encounter a writer whose employment of negative constructions is more effective than Compton-Burnett's. The following lines describing the role of a village shopkeeper, Miss Buchanan, as a receiving station for clandestine letters capture the understated effectiveness of the technique:
On this secondary traffic Miss Buchanan turned an equivocal eye, that did not add to the ease, already not complete, of those who availed themselves of it.
At its best, the negative construction works sort of like a hand brought to the mouth to hide the scurrilous details we're being told; its pretense to authorial reluctance make the bulk of the satire, expressed in positive, straightforward terms, seem even more viciously pointed.

And viciousness is unavoidable in Compton-Burnett; life in her novels is richly red in tooth and claw. Late in Manservant and Maidservant, two of the boys, on seeing their father headed for a bridge they know to be dangerously faulty, willfully neglect to issue a warning to him. After he passes, they reflect on their failing:
"We are worse than we have ever been. We are not meant to kill people, whatever the reason. We might meet him in a future state, and know that he knew about it. It would be what is called poetic justice."

"That would not be for a long time."

"It might be soon. Some people would die of remorse."

"I think we should go on living," said Jasper.
That scene came to mind the other day when I was reading Michael Dirda's appreciation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Sherlock Holmes in his Classics for Pleasure (2007). Dirda describes a feeling I've written about before, the sense of returning home that one gets every time one slips into the familiar world of a Holmes story:
[W]e discover a quiet refuge from our crowded lives as we glance again around the familiar flat with its chemical retorts, blazing fire, the bullet holes in the wall forming the initials V. R. Outside the fog rolls in and the rain beats down, but Mrs. Hudson is even now bringing up a cheering supper. Soon, there will be a knock on the door and a distressed gentlewoman will enter, or a puzzled policeman or a disguised nobleman, and the next grand adventure will begin. As Vincent Starrett observed: "they still live for all that love them well: in a romantic chamber of the heart, in a nostalgic country of the mind, where it is always 1895."
In Compton-Burnett's novels, it is always the early Edwardian era, a few years into the new century at best, and as I read Dirda's description, I began to picture Compton-Burnett's country houses, and the spite and viciousness they contain, as the flip side of Holmes's rationality: these are the locations, the people, the crimes, the competing hatreds and passions, that Holmes is called on to put to rights.

Conan Doyle provides us with answers and comforts us; Compton-Burnett provides us with unruly darkness and distaste. Perhaps an appreciation of both is a sign of emotional health?

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