Saturday 20 March 2010

Ivy Compton Burnett

Ivy: unique hairstyle

One of the other women writers discussed by Alison Wright in Forever England: Femininity, Literature and Conservatism between the Wars
is Ivy Compton Burnett. I’ve never read any of Ivy’s books, and now I feel I don’t need to. Alison Light is penetrating in her dissection of the airless milieu that gave rise to Ivy’s works. Briefly, her parents made money in “trade”, and bought a villa in Hove where they raised her and her siblings. Light notes that “a family is an investment”. It’s also a state – a dictatorship in which the parents “colonise” the children.

Ivy’s family was one of many. The grandiose villas were meant to resemble grand country houses, but had so little accompanying land that they practically touched. The parents had made enough money for their children not to have to work. Having risen in the social scale, they spent all they had on keeping up their position.

Few people were good enough for their children to mix with. So they were trapped in the house, with hardly any cash of their own, subject to regimes of scrimping and penny-pinching. It is the perfect environment for domestic tyrants who insist their children adhere to “house rules”, and police their every move (constantly asking "What are you doing?").

When Ivy’s parents died, she became the tyrant, controlling her younger sisters and forbidding them from playing the piano. The sisters escaped and lived independently – but then they killed themselves. Ivy sold the villa, set up house with a female friend and spent the rest of her life writing about trapped siblings and tyrannical parents, though she set their stories among grander surroundings.

Some time between World War II and now the family ceased to be a dictatorship and became a democracy – but I’m not sure everybody has noticed.

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