Ivy Compton-Burnett
This introduction appears in the New York Review Books edition of A House and Its Head, published in March 2001. Introduction copyright © 2001 by Francine Prose. Used by permission of New York Review Books.

An introduction to Ivy Compton-Burnett's A House and Its Head

by Francine Prose

A House and Its HeadTo read the hilarious, harrowing work of Ivy Compton-Burnett is to be persuaded that Darwin could have skipped the expedition to Tierra del Fuego and simply stayed home to observe the truly ferocious, unrelenting struggle for dominance and survival enacted every morning around the Victorian breakfast table. How fitting that the first scene of A House and Its Head should include the burning of a book, "a scientific work, inimical to the faith of the day," a volume that sounds suspiciously like Darwin, whose clear, harsh view of the natural order could serve as a blueprint for this novel which, in its own furiously chatty and grimly chipper way, may be among the funniest, most remorseless, and savage ever written.

The novels of Ivy Compton-Burnett are less like conventional fictions than like the laboratory notes of a meticulous and rather mad scientist. With the variables altered only slightly (most of her nineteen books begin at breakfast, concern household tyranny, death, remarriage, and the resultant squabbles over inheritance, and involve notably old-fashioned, melodramatic plot devices), each inaugurates a new phase of her obsessive research into the corrosive chemistry produced when power and money interact with civilized domesticity. Though only some of her novels concern children, the formulae she uncovers are concocted from the anxieties of childhood — the fear of being humiliated, bullied, silenced, and ignored, the fear of eternal incarceration in the prison of the family — compounded by the adult’s shaming realization of how utterly and pathetically we have failed to outgrow them.

The tiny corner of territory Compton-Burnett stakes out is not, as it might at first seem, localized and exotic, but rather (as she seems, terrifyingly, to believe) so familiar and universal that she sees no need to orient her readers with the literary equivalents of a compass or topographical map. Rather, she drops us — as if from a great height — into her opening scene. Thus A House and Its Head (first published in 1935) starts with a seemingly offhand question — one that, like so much of Compton-Burnett’s dialogue, barely conceals the bloodcurdlingly normal, human desire to have its speaker’s existence acknowledged. "So the children are not down yet?" inquires Ellen Edgeworth, a query that will be repeated (nervily, for what other novel dares begin with a character saying the same thing again and again?) four times, with minor alterations, until at last Ellen’s husband, Duncan, deigns to reply.

Certainly, it’s a more accurate and less misleading introduction than a more formal and conventional prelude: the panoramic overview of character, history, setting. Because, from these first lines on, nearly every exchange (and the book is constructed almost entirely of such exchanges) will resemble this one: dismissive, abusive, ironic, double-edged, more or less sadistic, devastatingly revealing, often extremely funny, and consistently entertaining.

In less than a page and a half, we have achieved total immersion in the bubbly, ice-cold waters of Compton-Burnett’s dialogue — conversation that (we think at first) is more peculiar, brittle, witty, and aphoristic than ordinary speech, but which rapidly and almost inexplicably begins to sound like ordinary speech — indeed, far more like regular conversation than what we are used to seeing on the page, since she so deftly renders the clip at which people talk around and over one another, rudely ignore and answer for one another, say more or less than they intend. Each line of dialogue subtly refracts our understanding of the characters and their situation; the only things as eloquent and communicative as speech are silence and gesture, both of which figure powerfully in this opening scene in which Duncan Edgeworth — the selfish, authoritarian, imperious, and capricious husband, father, and eponymous head of the house — gazes toward the window, shrugs, adjusts his collar around his big male neck, and, for almost longer than we can bear, refuses to answer his hapless wife.

The children do come down, at last. They are not, of course, children, but young adults, the Edgeworths’ daughters, Nance and Sibyl, and their nephew, Grant. It is Christmas morning. All of the characters are — and will be, until the final scenes of the novel — consciously or unconsciously attempting to navigate (or avoid completely) the increasingly tricky and treacherous narrows that divide truth-telling from lying. And all will be defined by the extent to which they resist or concede to the demands and pressures exerted by the despotic Duncan and by the forces (family, privilege, money, order, entitlement, reputation) that he represents.

From the first brief volley between Mr. Edgeworth and his elder daughter ("Well, Nance, you have condescended to join us?" "If that is the word you would use, Father. I felt simply that I was joining you"), we understand that Nance has inherited her father’s sarcastic wit without his nastiness; she possesses the same ability to sling words, like lethal boomerangs, back at their sources, though her instinct is to use these weapons defensively rather than as instruments of aggression and control. By contrast, her younger, prettier sister Sibyl ("Happy Christmas, Father Dear") could hardly be more agreeable, sweet, and good-natured, displaying a supple feminine pliability that will turn out to mask a horrifying absence of a soul or moral backbone. And Grant (the daughters’ ally in subverting Duncan’s authority through humor and mild ridicule) is what he will remain throughout, since characters don’t change in Ivy Compton-Burnett’s books so much as they shed layers to reveal the same hard, unyielding kernel of the self they always possessed: he’s charming, amusing, flirtatious, appealing to women, spoiled, accustomed to being adored, ultimately shallow, and thus lacking the insight and the ability to judge character that might have saved him from making the tragic mistakes that lie, just ahead, in his future.

Nothing happens, everything happens. The family bickers, dispassionately and almost ritualistically, about the hour "the children" awoke, about their New Year’s resolutions, about holiday money for the servants, about Christmas presents; Grant’s book is burned, and he is reproved for some misconduct or other with a maidservant; every line that is spoken (for example, Sibyl’s sudden interest in the question of Mother’s access to Father’s purse) will resonate throughout the novel. Yet another reflexive argument centers on the question of who will go to church, where, in the second chapter, the Edgeworths (and the reader) meet the variously dim or perceptive, well-meaning or self-serving neighbors who form the nattering, largely uncomprehending Greek chorus which comments on, and ultimately intercedes in, the fates of the main characters.

Just as this emblematic and predictive opening chapter ends — that is, as we are about to breathe a sigh of relief at having been liberated from the airless, oppressive Edgeworth home — there comes a moment that intensifies the prosecutorial case against Duncan:

Duncan stood in the hall, with hat and book, in an attitude of being on the point of leaving the house. The young people stood about, still and silent, until Grant and Nance met each other’s eyes and broke into laughter.

Duncan breathed more audibly and maintained his position, but as the laughter increased, he dropped his book, and signed sharply to Grant to retrieve it. Grant took a moment to follow, and Sibyl was before him; and Duncan idly dropped it again, and motioned his nephew to obedience.

Ellen came hurrying down the stairs, her avoidable haste acting in its normal way upon her husband. He remained as he was, until she came up, and then without turning his eyes upon her, walked from the house.

Reading Ivy Compton-Burnett, one never feels that her characters have "taken over" and caused their creator to reconsider her original intention. She retains a fierce control, she has firm ideas about how the novel will go, and many of these notions are not only thematic but formal. Soon, for example, it becomes clear that A House and Its Head will propel itself forward partly through a series of progressively more appalling variations on the initial scene at breakfast on Christmas morning.

The first of these echoes is sounded at the beginning of the fourth chapter. Now it is Ellen who has failed to appear for the morning meal, and her husband and "the children" who are left to wonder what has become of her. And now it is Nance — the first to announce, the first to notice, that Ellen is unwell — who must cope with her father’s disagreeable and dismissive silence. ("Father, I wish you would answer me....People generally make a comment, when they hear someone is ill.") Eventually Duncan does respond, in ways that combine a peremptory, heartless self-involvement with a more covert, sympathetic anxiety and the refusal to believe that anything serious might be wrong; the question of whether or not Ellen is ill is repeated more frequently and more urgently than any of the queries with which the characters have previously nagged, beseeched, and tormented one another. By the time we (and the family) go upstairs to seek out poor Ellen, she is on her deathbed. What ensues is a scene of breathtaking moral grisliness, one which will be paralleled later in the novel by the very different but no less distressing death of the neighbor Mrs. Jekyll.

Duncan remarries. And now it is his new wife, Alison, who is missing from the group convened for breakfast. This time, the task of asking after the delinquent family member falls to Sibyl; and this time, what makes the delinquency so disruptive is that no one (no one in the house, and probably not even the most attentive first-time reader, though it is hard to mistake upon rereading) knows what has occurred — that is, that a dangerous, erotically subversive tone has already crept into the previous evening’s seemingly innocuous conversation between Alison and Grant.

Everything — or nearly everything — horrifying and tragic proceeds from this conversation, even as we readers are rethinking the easy, automatic judgments we’ve passed on the Edgeworths for having missed the signs and symptoms suggesting that Ellen might be gravely ill — because from now on, everything of importance that happens in the novel transpires either offstage or in the furthest periphery of our field of vision. Unless we are paying extremely close attention, it is all too easy to miss the details and the implications of the missing brooch, the anonymous letter, Cassie’s instinctive alarm (so puzzling to the neighbors) when Sibyl holds her child, and so forth. We might as well be the neighbors who (unlike the traditional Greek chorus) prove to be far more myopic and unenlightened than the central characters they observe. Nor do the principal players give us much assistance, since their responses to the book’s most shocking events are so hard to reconcile with what we might expect, or with what we consider to be normal human reactions. Have we missed some crucial plot point? Are we wrong in our understanding of what appears to have occurred?

All of which contributes to the novel’s rare and peculiar achievement. A House and Its Head is among the few works of fiction that elicit an almost overwhelming sense of disbelief without ever calling into question their own essential plausibility, or the writer’s authority. As the novel approaches its conclusion (a restoration of domestic order that suggests Jane Austen on bad drugs), our questions — how could something like this happen? how could people behave so badly, with so little moral courage, acting from such sordid and contemptible motives? — have already been answered by each of the thousands of lines of the simultaneously flippant and searing dialogue that the characters have so blithely and pointedly delivered.

Apparently unswayed by any temptation to sweeten the bitter pill she is prescribing for her readers, unwilling to offer us the faintest redemptive consolation or even hope, Ivy Compton-Burnett never waivers in telling us what she sees, or what she believes. When, at the end of A House and Its Head, Duncan Edgeworth makes his final godlike pronouncement ("You are all at my hand to be taught"), we understand that what he — and his household — have imparted to us is a series of chilling lessons about the depths to which people will sink for the lowest possible reasons, and about the mortal and near-mortal injuries sustained, and somehow survived, in the grisly Darwinian combat that we so fondly call family life.

Copyright © 2001 by Francine Prose. Used by permission of New York Review Books.