A House and Its Head

Christmas day seems like the perfect day to write about a novel that is acerbic, dark, witty, and full of human beings who are insensitive, cruel and often downright evil. At this point, it goes without saying that this was a novel I thoroughly enjoyed reading.

This is probably the only day I’ll have to sit down and write, so I’ll write about Ivy Compton Burnett’s A House and its Head (1935) now despite the fact that the only thing Christmas-y about Burnett’s self-proclaimed “favorite” of her own novels is the opening scene, which takes on Christmas morning. Terse, tyrannical Duncan Edgeworth sits at the breakfast table with his wife, Ellen, waiting for their two daughters, Nancy and Sibyl, and their nephew, Grant, who are late coming downstairs to the table. Christmas morning is not a morning to be late in the Edgeworth family–in fact, no morning is a morning to be late, no excuse (even deathly illness) is good enough, and no thought can be given voice without risking criticism (if not outright insults) from the ever-imperious Duncan.

Burnett’s decision to open her novel on Christmas morning–typically the time for an affectionate family breakfast, if the only one of the year–underlines that this is not a typical family. In fact, in the Edgeworth family every interaction is a battle, every room in the house a war-zone, and every comment, gesture, pause or pointed silence is a salvo in a continuous, brutal and barely-masked brawl for survival and supremacy.

Burnett writes with an economy of description and an emphasis on dialogue that gives A House and its Head a rapid, careening pace quite at odds with the quiet Victorian domestic setting in which it takes place. While other fast-moving books may be driven by the sort of ceaseless plot that hammers on towards climax and conclusion, Burnett’s writing moves quickly despite a relative lack of plot. Not much happens, and what does usually occurs offstage, and is only revealed to the reader as it is talked over by the characters after the fact. A House and its Head is very dramatic, each character’s voice is precise and distinct, their style and diction easily differentiated (and as the reader goes on, one acquires a sense of their consistent tones, as well), and at first I felt rather lost in all of the conversations, like reading a script for a radio play in which assigning intonation and meaning was haphazard and dangerous.

Her juxtaposition of a conventional novelistic setting (the Victorian sitting room) beside her innovative and deeply cynical prose style creates a layer of formal tension parallel to the ridiculously tense atmosphere that exists between the characters themselves. In A House and its Head Burnett creates a place that is recognizable and real, but where what is traditionally considered good, and what (or who) one can traditionally depend on, have become evil and treacherous. Furthermore, the synthesis of an almost Cubist style with a traditional setting helps to create a sense of normality overturned, inverted, or perverted.

I definitely struggled a bit to orient myself within this novel, largely because of its oblique, heavily conversational style, but once I found its rhythm, I was totally entranced. Maybe even too entranced. I was definitely late to work, late back from my break, and late going to bed because of this book. I’m lucky it only took a couple of days to read it. The more I read (and the more I read continuously in one sitting…hence the lateness), the clearer everything became, and layers of irony and nuance  made what initially seemed quite a spare novel (not in a bad way) into a complicated, rich and engrossing reading experience.

Burnett shifts scenes, orchestrates her characters’ entrances and exits, and launches apparently anonymous lines of dialogue at the reader like a playwright who wants her audience to remain in the dark for as long as possible–to remain in the dark, in fact, until accustomed to it, until the intended reversal (of light for dark, or good for bad) has taken effect, and the audience is as implicated in the inverted, claustrophobic morality of the piece as the characters themselves. To understand what’s happening is to take part in it, and in Compton Burnett’s world, this is a frightening proposition, because her characters are mothers and daughters and fathers and neighbors and priests, but they are also backstabbers, adulterers, tyrants, hypocrites, seducers, blackmailers, liars, and murderers. You want to read this book now, right?

I feel like this book is a P.D. James or Agatha Christie novel without Adam Dalgliesh or Miss Marple: these are the cloistered, claustrophobic and brutally, incestuously intense little communities where all manner of sins are committed and covered up on a regular basis. And without the presence of a detective or an over-wise spinster uncovering secrets and bringing justice to all, jealousies fester, bitterness seethes, and anger bursts out not only in the smallest of phrases but also in the largest of betrayals. Almost all of Burnett’s characters are terrifying, because she skillfully demonstrates not only what they can remain oblivious to, or what they will do to further their own best interests, but also what they can willfully overlook. It’s that last thing I found most fascinating and frightening of all.

Merry Christmas!

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2 thoughts on “A House and Its Head

  1. Margaret, no fair! I went over to the Olympia Public Library to borrow this, and it is a “New York Times Classic”, republished in 2001, and not available.

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