The Last and the First
What have the following in common: Chaucer, Francis Bacon, Donne, Bunyan, Herrick, Jonathan Swift, Smollett, Lamb, Keats, and Shelley? They are the names of characters in the novels of Ivy Compton-Burnett. In her final novel, now posthumously published as The Last and the First, there is even a Miss Murdoch. Yet the pregnant exchange about Miss Murdoch’s portentous verbal mannerisms cries out (silently, of course, as always in this mistress of the tacit) to be applied rather to the novels of Miss Compton-Burnett herself, those skeletons from family cupboards which between 1925 and 1963, from Pastors and Masters to A God and His Gifts,1 have daunted and delighted with their finely bony family likeness. From beyond the grave—as so often in the novels themselves, where the human will has its last joyless fling when it makes its will—there now comes this disconcerting admonition, a concession which is disarming yet armed; taking the words out of one’s mouth and having them as the last word.
“Miss Murdoch seems in her way an unusual woman,” said Madeline.
“She does,” said Sir Robert. “It is a safe thing to say.”
“She is not unusual in herself,” said Eliza. “She has invented a way to seem so. And I daresay it deceives many people, including herself and Madeline.”
“It is true,” said Hermia. “And people are perceiving the truth. She may have done better at first, when the method was more alive. Before it was an echo of itself.”
Yet those names, Chaucer and others: what is she up to? It is characteristically taunting, a persistent insinuation which we are by no means sure how to take. One way to take it is humbly, as before a goddess and her gifts. Charles Burkhart’s book2 on Miss Compton-Burnett can hardly bring itself to look her gift horses in the eye, let alone in the mouth. He too much substitutes gratitude, about which the novels happen to be bitterly acute, for thinking, and so feels no qualms about saying simply this: “A minor, quite meaningless, but amusing convention is that many of the characters’ names are those of literary figures.”
He ought to have taken note of, and not just noted, the somber injunction in The Present and the Past: “It is a mistake to ignore conventions. There is always a reason behind them.” For as Mary McCarthy observed in her incisively intelligent inquiry into “The Inventions of I. Compton-Burnett,”3 such nomenclature is one of the unignorable ways by which the novels establish their uneasy complicity—for better and worse—with the family of authors, a family whose rivalries, closing of the ranks, pressures, and passions are no less intimidating than those of the domestic family. From first to last the novels are alive with writers, professional and amateur (Daughters and Sons and A God and His Gifts each have an infernal…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.