M. J. We are both what our country landladies call “great readers,” and have often talked over other people’s books during this long quarter of a century between two wars, but never your books.
I. C. B. It seems an omission, as I am sure we have talked of yours. So let us remedy it.
M. J. I see that yours are a novel thing in fiction, and unlike the work of other novelists. I see that they are conversation pieces, stepping into the bounds of drama, that narrative and exposition in them are drastically reduced, that there is less scenery than in the early days of the English drama, when a placard informed the audience that the scene was “a wood near Athens,” and less description than in many stage directions. There is nothing to catch the eye, in this “country of the blind.” All your books, from Pastors and Masters, to the present-day Elders and Betters are quite unlike what Virginia Woolf called the “heavy upholstered novel.”
I. C. B. I do not see why exposition and description are a necessary part of a novel. They are not of a play, and both deal with imaginary human beings and their lives. I have been told that I ought to write plays, but cannot see myself making the transition. I read plays with especial pleasure, and in reading novels I am disappointed if a scene is carried through in the voice of the author rather than the voices of the characters. I think that I simply follow my natural bent. But I hardly think that “country of the blind” is quite the right description of my scene.
M. J. I should like to ask you one or two questions; partly my own and partly what several friends have asked. There is time enough and to spare in Lyme Regis, which is a town well-known to novelists. Jane Austen was here, and Miss Mitford.
I. C. B. And now we are here, though our presence does not seem to be equally felt. No notice marks our lodging. And we also differ from Jane Austen and Miss Mitford in being birds of passage, fleeing from bombs. I have a feeling that they would both have fled, and felt it proper to do so, and wish that we could really feel it equally proper.
M. J. I have heard your dialogue criticised as “highly artificial” or stylised. One reviewer, I remember, said that it was impossible to “conceive of any human being giving tongue to every emotion, foible and reason with the precision, clarity and wit possessed by all Miss Compton-Burnett’s characters, be they parlourmaids, children, parents or spinster aunts.” It seems odd to object to precision, clarity and wit, and the same objection would lie against the dialogue of Congreve and Sheridan.
I. C. B. I think that my writing does not seem to me as “stylised” as it apparently is, though I do not attempt to make my characters use the words of actual life. I cannot tell you why I write as I do, as I do not know. I have even tried not to do it, but find myself falling back into my own way. It seems to me that the servants in my books talk quite differently from the educated people, and the children from the adults, but the difference may remain in my own mind and not be conveyed to the reader. I think people’s style, like the way they speak and move, comes from themselves and cannot be explained. I am not saying that they necessarily admire it, though naturally they turn on it a lenient eye.
M. J. The word “stylised,” which according to the New English Dictionary means “conforming to the rules of a conventional style” has been used in reviewing your books, but the dialogue is often very close to real speech, and not “artificial” or “stylised.” It is, however, sometimes interrupted by formal speech. Take Lucia Sullivan’s explanation of her grandfather’s reluctance to enter his son’s sitting room without an invitation. “It is the intangibility of the distinction (she says) that gives it its point.” Lucia Sullivan is a girl of twenty-four, not especially formal at other times.
I. C. B. I cannot tell why my people talk sometimes according to conventional style, and sometimes in the manner of real speech, if this is the case. It is simply the result of an effort to give the impression I want to give.
I should not have thought that Lucia Sullivan’s speech was particularly formal. The long word near the beginning is the word that gives her meaning; and surely a girl of twenty-four is enough of a woman to have a normal command of words.
M. J. Reviewers lean to comparisons. Some have suggested a likeness between your work and Jane Austen’s. Mr. Edwin Muir, however, thinks it is “much nearer the Elizabethan drama of horror”—I can’t think why.
I. C. B. I should not have thought that authors often recognised influences. They tend to think, and to like to think, that they are not unduly indebted to their predecessors. But I have read Jane Austen so much, and with such enjoyment and admiration, that I may have absorbed things from her unconsciously. I do not think myself that my books have any real likeness to hers. I think that there is possibly some likeness between our minds.
The same might apply in a measure to the Elizabethan dramatists, though I don’t think I have read these more than most people have.
M. J. Mr. Muir in an earlier review says that you remind him of Congreve—a formidable list, Congreve, Jane Austen, Henry James and the Elizabethan dramatists—and the odd thing is that they are all disparate.
I. C. B. The only explanation I can give, is that people who practise the same art are likely to have some characteristics in common. I have noticed such resemblance between writers the most widely separated, in merit, kind and time.
M. J. I see one point of contact between your novels and Jane Austen’s. She keeps her eye fixed upon the small circuit of country gentlefolk who seem to have little to do but pay calls, take walks, talk, and dine, in fact—the comfortable classes; she does not include people in what Austen Leigh calls “a position of poverty and obscurity, as this, though not necessarily connected with vulgarity, has a sad tendency to degenerate into it.”
I. C. B. I feel that I do not know the people outside my own world well enough to deal with them. I had no idea that my characters did nothing but call, walk, talk and dine, though I am glad you do not say that they only talk. Their professions and occupations are indicated, but I am concerned with their personal lives; and following them into their professional world would lead to the alternations between two spheres, that I think is a mistake in books. I always regret it in the great Victorian novelists, though it would be hard to avoid it in books on a large scale. And my characters have their own poverty and obscurity, though of course it is only their own.
I feel I have a knowledge of servants in so far as they take a part in the world they serve. This may mean that the knowledge is superficial, as I have often thought it in other people’s books.
The people in between seem to me unrelated to anything I know. When I talk to tradespeople, their thoughts and reactions seem to have their background in a dark world, though their material lives may not differ greatly from my own.
M. J. I don’t see any influence of the “Elizabethan drama of horror,” nor much of Jane Austen. I think there is something of Henry James. What about the suggestion that the Russian novelists affected you—not Tolstoy of course, but Tchekov or Dostoievsky. Dostoievsky’s method, “a mad jumble that flings things down in a heap,” isn’t yours. And how about the Greek dramatists?
I. C. B. I am not a great reader of Henry James, though I have seen it suggested that I am his disciple. I don’t mean that I have any objection to the character, except in so far as it is a human instinct to object to being a disciple, but I hardly think I have read him enough to show his influence. I enjoy him less than many other writers. He does not reveal as much as I should like of the relations of his characters with each other. And I am surprised if my style is as intricate as his. I should have thought it was only rather condensed. If it is, I sympathise with the people who cannot read my books. The Russian novels I read with a sense of being in a daze, of seeing their action take place in a sort of half-light, as though there was an obscurity between my mind and theirs, and only part of the meaning conveyed to a Russian came through to me. I always wonder if people, who think they see the whole meaning, have any conception of it. So I am probably hardly influenced by the Russians. But, as I have said before, I think that people who follow the same art, however different their levels, are likely to have some of the same attributes, and that it is possibly these that lead them to a similar end. The Greek dramatists I read as a girl, as I was classically educated, and read them with the attention to each line necessitated by the state of my scholarship; and it is difficult to say how much soaked in, but I should think very likely something. I have not read them for many years—another result of the state of my scholarship.
M. J. There is little attention given to external things and almost no descriptive writing in your novels, and that is a breach with tradition. Even Jane Austen has an aside about the “worth” of Lyme, Charmouth and Pinhay, “with its green chasms between romantic rocks.” And there is much more description in later novels, such as Thomas Hardy’s. In The Return of the Native, the great Egdon Heath has to be reckoned with as a protagonist. Now you cut out all of this. The Gavestons’ house in A Family and a Fortune is spoken of as old and beautiful, but its date and style are not mentioned.
I. C. B. I should have thought that my actual characters were described enough to help people to imagine them. However detailed such description is, I am sure that everyone forms his own conceptions, that are different from everyone else’s, including the author’s. As regards such things as landscape and scenery, I never feel inclined to describe them; indeed I tend to miss such writing out, when I am reading, which may be a sign that I am not fitted for it. I make an exception of Thomas Hardy, but surely his presentation of natural features almost as characters puts him on a plane of his own, and almost carries the thing described into the human world. In the case of Jane Austen, I hurry through her words about Lyme and its surroundings, in order to return to her people.
It might be better to give more account of people’s homes and intimate background, but I hardly see why the date and style of the Gavestons’ house should be given, as I did not think of them as giving their attention to it, and as a house of a different date and style would have done for them equally well. It would be something to them that it was old and beautiful, but it would be enough.
M. J. I see a reviewer says that Elders and Betters—which has the destruction of a will by one character (Anna Donne) who afterwards drives another to suicide—has “a milder and less criminal flavour than most of its predecessors.” There is a high incidence of murder in some of your novels, which is really not common among the “comfortable classes.” I remember, however, talking of the rarity of murders with a lawyer’s daughter, who said that her father asserted that murders within their class were not so rare. He used to call them “Mayfair murders.”
I. C. B. I never see why murder and perversion of justice are not normal subjects for a plot, or why they are particularly Elizabethan or Victorian, as some reviewers seem to think. But I think it is better for a novel to have a plot. Otherwise it has no shape, and incidents that have no part in a formal whole seem to have less significance. I always wish that Katherine Mansfield’s “At the Bay” was cast in a formal mould. And a plot gives rise to secondary scenes, that bring out personality and give scope for revealing character. If the plot were taken out of a book, a good deal of what may seem unconnected with it, would have to go. A plot is like the bones of a person, not interesting like expression or signs of experience, but the support of the whole.
M. J. “At the Bay” breaks off rather than comes to its full stop. A novel without a plot sags like a tent with a broken pole. Your last book had a very generous amount of review space; and most of the reviews were intelligent. Elizabeth Bowen found a phrase for one of your characteristics; “a sinister cosiness,” but the Queen tells one that “if one perseveres with the conversations (evidently an obstacle), a domestic chronicle of the quieter sort emerges.” How do you think reviews have affected you and your work?
I. C. B. It is said that writers never read reviews, but in this case it is hard to see how the press-cutting agencies can flourish and increase their charge. I think that writers not only read reviews, but are subject to an urge to do so. George Henry Lewes is supposed to have hidden George Eliot’s disparaging reviews, in case she should see them; and if he wished to prevent her doing so, I think it was a wise precaution. I think that reviews have a considerable effect upon writers. Of course I am talking of reviews that count, by people whose words have a meaning. I remember my first encouraging notices with gratitude to their authors. Much of the pleasure of making a book would go, if it held nothing to be shared by other people. I would write for a few dozen people; and it sometimes seems that I do so; but I would not write for no one.
I think the effect of reviews upon a writer’s actual work is less. A writer is too happy in praise to do anything but accept it. Blame he would reject, if he could; but if he cannot, I think he generally knew of his guilt, and could not remedy matters. I have nearly always found this the case myself.
Letters from readers must come under the head of reviews, and have the advantage that their writers are under no compulsion to mention what they do not admire. I have only had one correspondent who broke this rule, and what he did not admire was the whole book. He stated that he could see nothing in it, and had moreover found it too concentrated to read. Someone said that I must have liked this letter the most of all I had had, but I believe I liked it the least.
Some writers have so many letters that they find them a burden. They make me feel ashamed of having so few, and inclined to think that people should write to me more.
M. J. In all your work you go back to the period between the South African war and the “Great” war, when time stood still. One novel (A Family and a Fortune) is dated 1901, and the others are all round the same date. England is still on the gold standard; the miser Clement Gaveston has a pile of sovereigns in his desk—carriages are horse-drawn, and there is an ample supply of servants.
I. C. B. I do not feel that I have any real or organic knowledge of life later than about 1910. I should not write of later times with enough grasp or confidence. I think this is why many writers tend to write of the past. When an age is ended, you see it as it is. And I have a dislike, which I cannot explain, of dealing with modern machinery and inventions. When war casts its shadow, I find that I recoil.
M. J. Did you take any suggestions for the characters or plots in your novels from actual life; I mean from our own friends and acquaintances?
I. C. B. I think that actual life supplies a writer with characters much less than is thought. Of course there must be a beginning to every conception, but so much change seems to take place in it at once, that almost anything comes to serve the purpose—a face of a stranger, a face in a portrait, almost a face in the fire. And people in life hardly seem to be definite enough to appear in print. They are not good or bad enough, or clever or stupid enough, or comic or pitiful enough. They would have to be presented by means of detailed description, and would not come through in talk. I think that the reason why a person is often angered by a supposed portrait of himself, is that the author leaves in some recognisable attributes, while the conception has altered so much that the subject is justified in thinking there is no resemblance. And I believe that we know much less of each other than we think, that it would be a great shock to find oneself suddenly behind another person’s eyes. The things we think we know about each other, we may often imagine and read in. I think this is another reason why a supposed portrait gives offence. It is really far from the truth.
In cases where a supposed portrait of some living person has caused trouble, I have thought that the explanation lies in these things, and that the author’s disclaimer of any intention of portraiture is in the main sincere and just.
As regards plots I find real life no help at all. Real life seems to have no plots. And as I think a plot desirable and almost necessary, I have this extra grudge against life. But I think there are signs that strange things happen, though they do not emerge. I believe it would go ill with many of us, if we were faced by a strong temptation, and I suspect that with some of us it does go ill.
M. J. Several writers are at their best in the mood of recollection—Thomas Hardy for instance. The immediate past also gives more complete specimens of the fabric of parental authority.
Sir Jesse Sullivan in Parents and Children “believes in his divine right,” and his son accepts his position. Isolation and leisure seem necessary for the rearing of strange family growths.
I. C. B. Isolation and leisure put nothing into people. But they give what is there, full play. They allow it to grow according to itself, and this may be strongly in certain directions.
I am sure that the people who were middle-aged and elderly when I was young, were more individualised than are now my own contemporaries. The effect of wider intercourse and self-adaptation seems to go below the surface, and the result is that the essence of people is controlled and modified. The people may be better and do less harm, but they afford less interest as a study. This is surely the real meaning of the saying that personalities belong to the past.
Imagine a Winston Churchill, untaught and untrained and unadapted in the sense we mean, and then immured in an isolated life in a narrow community, and think what might have happened to his power, what would have happened to it.
The assumption of divine right and the acceptance of it takes things further along the same line. History gives us examples, that are repeated in smaller kingdoms.
M. J. I don’t think you have the notebook habit, I mean the collection of unrelated notes of things seen and heard. Katherine Mansfield filled notebooks with memoranda and worked these up into what she called vignettes, or into her stories. She also made notes of phrases and sentences for as she said, “one never knows when a little tag like that may come in useful to round off a paragraph.” I like to know how people work.
I. C. B. I daresay you do, but the people themselves are not always quite sure. I have not the notebook habit; that is, I do not watch or listen to strangers with a view to using the results. They do not do or say things that are of any good. They are too indefinite and too much alike and are seldom living in anything but the surface of their lives. Think how rarely we should ourselves say or do anything that would throw light on our characters or experience.
But as I have already said, some sort of starting-point is useful; and I get it almost anywhere; and I doubt if Katherine Mansfield really got more help than this from what she saw and heard. You say she worked it up, and I am sure she must have done so.
I cannot understand her noting phrases and sentences for future use, and find it hard to believe that they served any purpose. Rounding off a paragraph, occurring in the normal course of writing by a tag overheard and stored up, seems to me too unnatural to be possible. She said that she never knew when such things would come in useful, and I suspect that she never found out.
M. J. What is odd, but of course it isn’t serious criticism, is the recoil of some reviewers from what they call “the sorry spectacle of adult human nature” presented in your novels, as if they were a board examining the degrees of moral turpitude among a group of immigrants. Yours are not the only doubtful characters in fiction! And when characters are accepted, even the New Statesman “violently hoped for a quite different, a more vindictive ending” of Elders and Betters. Is it the old demand for what was called “poetic justice,” the calling in the world of fiction to redress the balance of the real world?
I. C. B. I should have said that there were a good many good people in my books, and this may mean that I hardly see eye-to-eye with the reviewers. But I think that life makes great demand on people’s characters, and gives them, and especially used to give them, great opportunity to serve their own ends by the sacrifice of other people. Such ill-doing may meet with little retribution, may indeed be hardly recognised, and I cannot feel so surprised if people yield to it.
I have been told that I treat evil-doing as if it were normal, and am not normally repelled by it, and this may be putting my own words in another form. As you say, there are many doubtful characters in other fiction. Something must happen in a novel, and wrong-doing makes a more definite picture or event. Virtue tends to be more even and less spectacular, and it does not command so much more sympathy, as is proved by the accepted tendency of the villain to usurp the hero’s place.
The New Statesman wanted wickedness to be punished, but my point is that it is not punished, and that that is why it is natural to be guilty of it. When it is likely to be punished, most of us avoid it. I do not think this desire is the old demand for poetic justice, any more than the normal demand for actual justice. In a book there hardly seems to be any difference.
M. J. Going back to the reviews I have just quoted, it is only adult human nature that is criticised. This reminds me that in Parents and Children children play as large a part as parents. Is that not a change?
I. C. B. Yes, it is a change, though one or two children have appeared in my other books. I think it may be the result of an instinct to do something different.
It is difficult to avoid apparent repetition, if books remain too much on the same line. The words, “apparent repetition,” are my own, and it may in effect be real repetition. However differently characters are conceived—and I have never conceived two in the same way—they tend to give a similar impression, if they are people of the same kind, produced by the same mind, and carried out by the same hand, and possibly one that is acquiring a habit.
And I do not think children have less interest than older people. I think their experience tends to be deeper and sharper, and even if more transitory—and I am not sure of this after very early years—to leave a deeper impression and memory. This seems to be borne out by the current phrases about the despair and ecstasy and observation of childhood.
But I do not claim that the children in my books, any more than their elders, resemble the actual creatures of real life. When I meet them, they are open to the same objection, and fail to afford me assistance.
And now I feel I know nothing more about myself, and hope the inquisition is at an end. And in spite of what I said about Katherine Mansfield, I am sorry that I have no tag stored up to round off the last paragraph.
(A Conversation between I. Compton-Burnett and M. Jourdain by I. Compton-Burnett reprinted by permission of Peters Fraser & Dunlop (www.petersfraserdunlop.com) on behalf of the Estate of Ivy Compton-Burnett)