There are many circles in the world of blogging -- which I can't bring myself to call the blogosphere, though many do. I myself have a nice list of blogs that I check on every day, through the very useful Google Reader. They are mainly, though not exclusively, composed of book reviews. I arrived at my list a good while ago and then have added to it from time to time when I happen on something I really like. After a time, especially when there's been cross-commenting going on, you get to know the people who write them quite well. And occasionally you are lucky enough to meet them face to face. This happened to me a few of years ago when I moved back to Oxford and encountered Simon of Stuck in a Book.
Now of course I no longer live in Oxford but still think of Simon as a friend. I enjoy his blog tremendously and through it I've been introduced to many writers I have come to love a lot. So when he started going on about Ivy Compton Burnett, I thought I should give her a go. I dutifully got hold of Manservant and Maidservant, and fell at the first hurdle. How could anyone read, let alone enjoy, this kind of thing? Well, Simon had said you either love her or hate her, so I put myself into the hate camp and more or less forgot all about it.
Then, recently, I read a review of A Family and a Fortune on another blog I have come to love and respect, A Penguin a Week. What a great idea that is, by the way. Karyn's reviews are always lively and intelligent, but it was clear that she was slightly bemused by ICB (hardly surprising). However, something she said about the novel made me think I'd like to read it. I think it was partly that she said it read like a play, which made me think I should try reading it like that. And so I did. And hooray, I finally got it. Yes, ICB writes almost entirely in dialogue, and dialogue of a rather peculiar kind. But I was totally immersed in the novel and have immediately ordered another two of hers which should be on their way to me as I write.
A Family and a Fortune is about exactly that. The Gavestons -- father Edgar, mother Blanche, two grown-up sons, daughter Justine, and Aubrey, the youngest, plus uncle Dudley -- live together in a large house. Though the house is large, and the family lives comfortably enough, money is rather on the short side. As the novel begins, a letter arrives from Blanche's 87-year-old father. He has fallen on hard times, and wants to come and live in the lodge, bringing Blanche's disabled sister Matty and her companion, Miss Griffin. They arrive, and are rather shocked by the small size of the lodge, having come from a much larger and grander house. Then Dudley gets a letter. He has inherited a fortune from his godfather, quite unexpectedly, which will provide him with an income of £2000 a year (considerably more than it sounds today, of course). Immediately, discussions ensue about how the money is to be distributed amongst the family members, though nobody actually asks Dudley if this is what he wants.
Quite a lot of other things happen -- deaths, broken engagements, marriages, and more. In fact one thing that really surprised me about the novel was how much plot there was. But what makes it so exceptional and interesting is the way the characters and their relationships emerge, almost entirely by means of the dialogue. Yes, that's the worst of writers today, ICB once said. They will write about something. Instead of just writing about people, about their characters. In fact the people in the novel are meticulously described when they first appear -- size and shape, hair colour, general demeanor -- but their personalities and the way they relate to each other emerge almost entirely from their conversations.
"Would some ham make me grow?" said Aubrey. "I am afraid my size is really worrying for Clement".
"What does it matter on what scale Aubrey is?" said the latter.
"I should always be your little brother. So you do not mind".
"Always Mother's little boy", said Blanche, taking Aubrey's hand.
"Mother's hand looks lily white in my brown, boyish one".
"Don't let us sit bickering all through breakfast,", said Justine, in an absent tone.
Bickering is really this family's chief mode of interaction. Justine sees her role as the peacemaker, and Aubrey -- fifteen years old, undersized, sharply observant -- frequently says what others are only thinking, though everybody is always trying to shut him up. Then there is Matty, Blanche's sister, who suffered some kind of accident in her youth and now has some problems walking -- though from time to time she appears at the house, having made her way up the long drive unaided. Matty is angry, bitter, jealous, vindictive, though all these qualities mostly appear only through her seemingly bland comments on people, things and circumstances. She treats her companion, Miss Griffin, abominably. She constantly appeals for sympathy, comfort and company, but her neediness and her self-pity drive everyone away.
"Come in, whoever you are, and find a poor, wrought-up woman, tired of knowing nothing and tired of being alone. You have come to put an end to that. I am not forgotten. And do I see three dear faces? I am not forgotten indeed. But I have been feeling quite a neglected, sad person, and I am not going to sympathise with anyone. I have used up that feeling on myself".
The great thing about this novel is that it is really funny. Or at least I thought so, though you might not. I don't mean laugh out loud funny, but just wryly, subtly, often blackly funny. So, Simon, you will be pleased to hear that I got it at last. Any other fans of ICB out there?