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A House and Its Head (New York Review Books Classics) Paperback – February 28, 2001
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Ivy Compton-Burnett is one of the most original, artful, and elegant writers of our century.
— Hilary Mantel
A radical thinker, one of the rare modern heretics.
— Mary McCarthy
No writer did more to illuminate the springs of human cruelty, suffering, and bravery.
— Angus Wilson
About the Author
Ivy Compton-Burnett (1892-1969) wrote over fifteen novels about the upper classes of the late Victorian period. The novels are constructed almost entirely of seemingly banal dialogue that eventually reveals, beneath its surface, the truths of human nature and insights into human relationships which Compton-Burnett took as her themes. Her works include Pastors and Masters, A Family and a Fortune, Manservant and Maidservant, and A House and Its Head.
Francine Prose is the author of three collections of stories and ten novels. Her most recent novel, The Blue Angel, was nominated for the National Book Award.
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A HOUSE AND ITS HEAD, like so many of Ivy Compton-Burnett's novels, reads something like a modern updating of a Greek tragedy: most of the novel is told through dialogue, there is a kind of chorus that comments on the action of the principal characters, and the plot involves murder, incest, and familial cruelty. Yet for all these borrowings Compton-Burnett paradoxically remains wonderfully sui generis: no one else has ever mastered her capability for evoking such extreme subtlety in manners that the merest cruel nuances can become evoked (if one reads carefully enough). She is also a master plotter: just when you think you've caught up with the characters' schemes, she allows the other characters in the novel to make similar realizations, and then jumps even further ahead. This is a real page-turner as well as a subtle commentary on Edwardian manners and moral monstrousness.
Her fiction is remarkable for two reasons. Her dialogue, for one, which she uses to convey her characters' identities, their tensions, complexities, resentments, repressions and sometimes their - and always CB's - savage irony.
By savage, I mean that CB is a wonderful Swiftian ironist/satirist, and scalpel-sharp. This is the other reason why her fiction stands out. You can trace her influence on other notable modernists, in particular and most especially William Gaddis (e.g., Recognitions,Carpenter's Gothic, and Jr), Henry Green (e.g., Loving; Living; Party Going), the dialogue from the early plays of Harold Pinter Complete Works, Vol. 1 and sometimes Samuel Beckett.
In her fiction CB has a set of themes she returns to time and again - you could call them obsessions, in a way, from the Victorian repressive household settings, to the patriarchal, remote, powerfully domineering father/husband of the household, to the anaesthetised (dream-state-like) wives. And, of course, the children, who are fearful or sometimes wonderfully, mordantly insubordinate (Nance, the daughter in this novel), or otherwise self-serving, and monstrously deceptive (as with Sybil, here).
In the Edgeworth family in A House and its Head, published in 1935, you therefore have the archetypally representative CB family. The author often referred to it as one of the two of her most favourite works (the other being Manservant and Maidservant (New York Review Books Classics)).
It opens with a conversation between husband and wife that is disconnected, disjointed, alienated and reminds you of Pinter's early work (The Room, The Birthday Party). While Duncan Edgeworth, the father, is without doubt a tyrant, dictating all terms to his family, there are two snakes in the grass in the apparently-servile daughter, Sybil, who in some ways is far more destructive than him; and Grant, Duncan's nephew.
As with Gaddis' fiction, sometimes it can be difficult to recognise who is speaking, as CB rarely identifies the person; but you come to understand them by their individual natures and thereby the content of what they say. This is what makes her such a modernist, and she remains a radical and remarkable one at that. While demanding in regard of conversation, the satire, sharp language and characterisation make this and all her other fiction well worth the effort (never a painful effort, by the way, just requiring a participating, not passive, energy on the part of the reader) and, as with her other novels, it leaves you intellectually and emotionally rewarded. And amazed at her brilliance.
For those who are keen to learn more about CB, I highly recommend three excellent sources:
1. A dedicated, very helpful website on CB, her work and her critics, titled the Ivy Compton-Burnett Home Page, which you can usually find listed as the second search result under Google, if you search under the author's name
2. In this edition there is an excellent afterword by Francine Prose, the National Book Award-nominated novelist, which you can access for free online at New York Review of Books' website (NYBooks), just search for the title of the novel or the author. In it, Prose characterises CB's fiction rather wonderfully as '[...] less like conventional fictions than like the laboratory notes of a meticulous and rather mad scientist.'
3. Hilary Spurling's masterful biography, Ivy: the life of I. Compton-Burnett.