Parents and Children - Ivy Compton-Burnett Once again Ivy Compton-Burnett (ICB) takes a look at the late Victorian family and finds it lacking. Even though I’ve met her dysfunctional families several times now, ICB’s knack is making them unique. In Parents and Children, we are introduced to the Sullivan clan – Fulbert and Eleanor, parents, and their nine children (Daniel, Graham, Lucia – the three oldest, adults; James, Isabel, Venetia – the middle children; and Honor, Gavin, Nevill – the youngest, Nevill being all of 3). They all live in Fulbert’s parents’ house.

Fulbert is an amiable man who loves his children and has a pretty good relationship with them but, as is typical of the ICB patriarch, he’s a distant presence in their lives. Eleanor is utterly out of her depth as a mother. She’s delegated the raising of her children to a coterie of nannies and tutors – Hatton, Mullet, Miss Mitford & Miss Pilbeam – but still operates under the delusion that she is well loved. Daniel & Graham are in their 20s, attending university, and chafing to escape. Among the other children, the most distinctive are James, Isabel and Nevill.

James is a bookish young man who wants nothing more than to be left alone, and often contrives to miss public school to be with his sisters, Isabel and Venetia (aka Venice).

Isabel is a bitter but perceptive girl whose relationship w/ Eleanor is the most poisonous as the following scene reveals. Isabel has been promised her own letters from her father who has been sent to South America on a 6-month business trip. When the first of those letters arrives, Eleanor opens it:

“`Isabel,’ said Eleanor, raising her voice, as footsteps sounded in the hall, `come in and say good morning to us. Are you all here?’
Isabel and Venice and Miss Mitford entered the room.
`Good morning,’ said Miss Mitford, looking at Eleanor and using a tone of compliance with an injunction.
`Good morning, Miss Mitford; good morning, my dears. I want to read you Father’s letter. Come and hear it.’
The two girls listened to the letter, put the normal questions and comments, and were about to go.
`Here is a note put in for you, Isabel,’ said Eleanor, handing it to her daughter.
`Thank you. Father said he would write to me,’ said Isabel, turning to show the letter to her sister.
`It came inside my letter,’ said her mother.
`Who opened it?’ said Isabel.
`Now, who had the right to do that?’ said Eleanor, stroking her hair. `No one touched it, who had no business with it. I should not have allowed that. I wanted to see if there was any message for me. There is one for all of you in my letter.’
Isabel looked at her mother’s note, as it lay on the table.
`You have not let anyone see that.’
`Well, naturally not, my dear. Father would not have liked it.’
`Would he have wished you to see mine?’
`Think for a moment and tell me.’
`It is a pity you do such second-rate things,’ said Isabel, in a slow voice. `It is a mean way of using power.’
`What other second-rate thing have you known me to do?’
`You do not deny the term. And these things are never isolated.’
`Come, come, my child. You would have shown me the letter, would you not?’
`I might have had no choice. But I should have read it myself first. There would have been a semblance of free will. Decency would not have been outraged.’ (p. 163)

Ironically, it turns out that Fulbert has written the same letter to both, changing only the opening and closing salutations. I have to admit to liking Isabel a lot – she gets in quite a number of pithy observations about her mother and her deficiencies.

Anticipating Bob Dole by several decades, Nevill likes to refer to himself in the third person:

“`What are you going to be when you grow up?’ said Fulbert, catching his son and lifting him to his knee.
`He will be a king,’ said Nevill, reconciling himself to his situation.
`Then you will be above your father.’
`He will take care of you. And he will take care of Hatton and Mullet too.’
`And what will Hatton be?’
`She will be a lady when he marries her.’” (p. 280)

At three, he’s yet to be “infected” by the cynicism that already affects his closest siblings, Honor and Gavin (Honor is a younger version of Isabel, Gavin is a sullen boy who hates being spoken down to).

The great drama of the book is that Fulbert appears to have died in South America. Eleanor soon finds a way to escape her family by marrying Ridley Cranmer, the man Fulbert had entrusted with looking out for the family in his absence. Ridley is also on the prowl to find a suitable wife and escape his own family. Unfortunately for both, Fulbert recovers and returns a day before the nuptials and the family is restored, though (as usual) none of its faults have been healed.

It wouldn’t be an ICB review without mentioning her trademark use of dialog, which crackles with wit, often with animus, and just as often with sympathy. I’ll quote here just two of my favorite zingers:

“Well, the English have no family feelings. That is, none of the kind you mean. They have them, and one of them is that relations must cause no expense.” (p. 80)

“Ridley’s best is rather unfitted for daily life,” said Hope. “This is the first time I have seen it in thirty years. It might be better to have one that came in oftener. But I suppose it is meant for an emergency.” (p. 174)

Very highly recommended, as is everything I’ve read by this author so far.