A House and its Head

(by I Compton-Burnett)

Ivy Compton-Burnett* must have had a strange family life (just look at her hair).  She was the seventh of her father’s  children and the first of her (less than affectionate) mother’s five.  A brother died of pneumonia, another on the Somme. Two of her sisters (“Baby” and “Topsy”) committed suicide together one Christmas Day. None of the twelve had children.  None of the girls married.

Certainly her books are about strange families.  The Edgeworth family of A House and its Head is unhappy, decidedly in its own way.  The solipsistic father Duncan is oblivious to his (first) wife’s misery and to the contempt of his daughters and his nephew Grant.  The family and their peculiar friends, including the insufferable Dulcia and the sinister Gertrude Jekyll, jab and snipe at each other via the agency of formal, often impenetrable dialogue.  They are all terribly proper and yet, when two truly shocking things are done by major charcters, they’re virtually passed over with a shrug.

The elusive, idiosyncratic style is difficult, but becomes easier as the undercurrents of vice and mendacity become clearer.  A truly engaging book – but not one for readers who need likeable characters.  There are none in this book.

*  Compton-Burnett was English.  Naturally, the name was pronounced ‘Cumpton-Burnit’.  Although she was English, it was not Tony Abbott who made her a Dame.


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