Friday, 3 August 2012

Ivy Compton-Burnett: A Memoir - Cicely Greig

My favourite thing in the blogosphere in 2012 has been Claire discovering, and loving, A.A. Milne.  Every time one of her AAM reviews come out, I more or less burst with glee that somebody else has found out how funny and delightful his many and various books are.  Most of my AAM reading happened before I started blogging (I've read about 25 books by him) so you haven't witnessed my love of his books as much as you would have done had you engaged me in conversation in 2002, but - it is there!

So, that's one favourite author off the list.  Back when I started blogging in 2007, it seemed that nobody much liked Virginia Woolf either - but plenty of people have come to the blogosphere since who share my love of Ginny.  And there's never been any shortage of those who'll wax literary over E.M. Delafield, Barbara Comyns, and Persephone & Virago etc.

But... but... as of yet, I haven't found a blogger who loves Ivy Compton-Burnett as I do (although I think Geranium Cat is more in favour than not?).  There is no-one who gets as excited as I do about her novels; most people, indeed, have either never read her, or run screaming from the thought of having to read her again.

Picture source
Which is why it is so wonderful to find books which match my enthusiasm for Dame Ivy.  Earlier in the year, I read Pamela Hansford-Johnson's enthusiastic pamphlet on Ivy Compton-Burnett - and now I've read something I loved even more.  In fact, it's in my top two or three books of the year so far.  AND it's available from 1p on Amazon.  It's Ivy Compton-Burnett: A Memoir (1972) by her typist and friend, Cicely Greig.

Had I know that Greig was Ivy Compton-Burnett's typist, I probably would have read this book much sooner (according to the date I scribbled inside, I've had it for nearly three years.)  It's such an interesting perspective on this fascinating author.  Gradually they became friends as well, but the Victorian/Edwardianism of Ivy's novels extended to her understanding of social mores, and it took quite a long time for her to unbend enough to treat Greig as a friend.  As Greig writes, Ivy Compton-Burnett just couldn't quite understand her position - as a woman who had to earn her living, but wasn't a servant.  The mechanics and background detail of writing fascinate me, and Greig is uniquely able to provide firsthand experience of certain aspects of Ivy's writing process - as the first person to be given the novels in longhand:
I had not yet opened her parcel with the manuscript of her novel.  We said goodbye to each other at the front door, and I flew back to the sitting-room.  When I opened the parcel I found fourteen school exercise books of the cheaper kind, blue paper covers and multiplication tables on the back cover.  I remember thinking this last detail quite a fitting logic for a book of Ivy's.  Her books so often have a sort of inexorable logic about them, like twice one is two.
For Greig was not solely a typist, but also an ardent fan.  This was how she got the job: she wrote to Ivy Compton-Burnett (and, incidentally, Rose Macaulay) expressing her admiration and asking that they consider her for future typing.  Macaulay didn't take her up on it, but months later Ivy Compton-Burnett did.  As an admirer of Dame Ivy's work, Greig combined professionalism with the sort of mad joy that any of us would feel at this privileged position with an author we loved.  Greig echoes Pamela Hansford-Johnson when writing about her love of Ivy:
Why did I like her books so much?  I have been asked that question many times, sometimes with a note of incredulous exasperation.  With Ivy one is either an addict or an abstainer.  I became an addict from the first chapter of A House and Its Head.  Most of my friends, unfortunately, are abstainers.  Suggest her, and if they have ever tried to read one of her books their reply can be an indignant refusal.
She really is love or hate.  Greig goes on to explain her own love of Ivy Compton-Burnett, not quite as astutely as Pamela Hansford-Johnson does, but still in a fascinating manner.  But it was her firsthand interaction with Dame Ivy which makes this book so thrillingly interesting to me.  Greig has no illusions about Ivy Compton-Burnett's fairly terrifying character, but she also recognised the fondness behind it.
Her fierceness, when it showed itself, and when I provoked it, was always short-lived.  Any breach of normal decorum, and her standard was perhaps exceptionally high, was annoying to her, and she never failed to let this be seen.  But having let it be seen, the matter was over.
Ivy Compton-Burnett was always keen for Greig to visit, and expressed an interest in her life which was far from perfunctory.  They could not meet as equals, nor did they even use each other's first names for many years, but there was a genuine affection and (more characteristically) curiosity from Ivy.  One gets the sense that Greig's other friendships were more free and easy, but that perhaps this was one of the most valued - and while Ivy Compton-Burnett wanted to meet Greig's friends, Greig felt she could only bring people who also admired Ivy's writing; few and far between.  So, although Greig also grew to know Ivy's dear friend Margaret Jourdain, theirs was mostly an exclusive friendship, in a vacuum, as it were.  Ivy's life, aging, and death are shown sensitively, from the angle of a friend who saw her all too rarely, and Greig balances Ivy's life and work excellently, being herself fascinated by, and involved with, both.

I would have been scared rigid of Dame Ivy, I'm sure.  Obviously manners maketh man, but decorum and etiquette often baffle me - and Ivy Compton-Burnett's standards were positively Victorian, as though she were part of the world she so often depicted through fiction.  Ivy Compton-Burnett is one of those authors (like Virginia Woolf, like Muriel Spark) whose writing and personality I adore, but with whom I cannot imagine being friendly or even at ease.  And yet I lap up their comments and views of the world, whether or not I agree - and Greig's perspective offers greater potential for these.  A brief observation Ivy Compton-Burnett made to Greig is one with which I do very much agree, for her time but more especially for ours:
"Yes, that's the worst of writers today," Ivy said.  "They will write about something.  Instead of just writing about people, about their characters."
That's probably one of the wisest things I've ever read about writing, and if more writers today considered it then we wouldn't have the deluge of issue-driven books, which doubtless market well but prove rather uninspiring, to me, at least.

When people ask me where they should start with Ivy Compton-Burnett, I usually recommend either Pastors and Masters (as it is an early work; a sort of Ivy-lite) or simply say that they're all more or less the same, so it doesn't much matter.  I'd now be inclined to suggest they start, in fact, with this book.  Jumping straight into Ivy Compton-Burnett can be an intimidating prospect; I think becoming acquainted with her through Cecily Greig's eyes is a great halfway house, and one which (through Greig's infectious enthusiasm and personal insight) might well pique a reader's interest, and make Ivy Compton-Burnett's novels feel not only accessible but an absolute must.  These sorts of books are rather hit or miss, but Cecily Greig's is one of favourite reads this year.  Hurrah!



17 comments:

  1. Can I join the orderly queue of ICB lovers? I adore her books. I wouldn't say they were easy reading in times of stress and strife, but they are jaw-droppingly astounding tours-de-force of sheer creative brilliance. And technical skill. And British malevolence. I love them. I've added Grieg to my booklist. Thank you! Kate

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    1. Most certainly you can, Kate! I love the description 'jaw-droppingly astounding tours-de-force of sheer creative brilliance.' So true.

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  3. Well, I've just discovered Virginia Woolf, after years of avoiding her (I read her as a teenager and failed to connect on any level), and Miss Hargreave is one of the best books I've ever read, and The Provincial Lady is wonderful, so, purely on your recommendation, I've added Ivy Compton-Burnett to the list of Authors I Must Read. And of course, she is the first author Alan Bennett's Queen (An Uncommon Reader) reads, selecting her because she made ICB a Dame, and remembers the roll of hair, like a pie-frill, all around her head...

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    1. What a lovely comment, Christine, especially about Miss H! Although Dame Ivy has little in common with these other wonderful books, I definitely think it's worth giving her a go.

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  4. Did you catch Elizabeth Jane Howard's ICB anecdote at the Reading Elizabeth Taylor day? She once shared a taxi with the great woman and was too petrified to say a word!!!!

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    1. I did! My favourite moment of the day!

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  5. Crawling out of the woodwork, I am another ICB fan although it's been an age since I read any of her novels (and I've only read a couple altogether). This seems a book to look out for - thank you for writing about it!

    'Pie frill' is just the most perfect description of her hair!

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    1. Lovely, Helen, to have other ICBites on my side! Hope you get the chance to read this, or another ICB novel, soon.

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  6. Remember Jay? She is crazy about ICB - why not get her to write something?

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    1. True! I was thinking I should recommend this book to her.

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  7. Oh Simon, do you know what you did by encouraging me to read Milne? It has become an obsession. I can already tell you that he is going to be, without a doubt, the most well represented author in my Century of Books, probably accounting for somewhere between 15 and 20 years. I just finished The Dover Road (which, you won't be surprised to hear, has become my absolute favourite of his plays) and have The Lucky One, Miss Marlow at Play and Toad of Toad Hall standing by to enjoy this weekend. It is a three-day weekend here and how better to enjoy it than with a good dose of Milne?

    I've been looking forward to trying ICB but have been a little scared as to where to start. This sounds like an ideal introduction and my library has come through yet again - they actually have a copy. They have almost none of her novels (I'll have to rely on used bookstores or the university library when it comes time for that) but they do have this, bless them.

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    1. Hurrah for The Dover Road! And hurrah for an author who swiftly and enjoyably fills up A Century of Books. I'm reading some of his essays at the moment, Not That It Matters, which will help with one of the 1910s.

      I was hoping you might be tempted by this book - I was thinking that you'd like it, and it is a great intro to trying ICB, I think.

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  8. I'm still hovering on the brink of Ivy, Simon. I have Parents & Children on my e-reader but I just haven't got there yet... One of these days I will, I'm sure. This memoir sounds fascinating. I love books about writers & how they write.

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    1. Oh, I remember you saying that you'd downloaded Parents & Children. Good luck with it! I also love memoirs of writers, and this is one of my favourites so far. Sometimes I love them whether or not I like the author in question, but it does help when an excellent memoir is written about a much-loved author.

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  9. I've missed this one must go over to Amazon and order at once. I love ICB: in fact I love all femaile writers of this period; I just can't get enough of them.

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    1. Lovely, Jennifer Dee! I didn't realise (or perhaps remember) that you were also an ICB fan - great to have you on side :) Hope you enjoy this book - I'm sure you will!

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