Friday, 20 July 2012

Brothers and Sisters by Ivy Compton-Burnett

In common with most Ivy Compton-Burnett novels, this 1929 book revolves around the secrets, evasions and general awfulness of Edwardian family life.  In the first chapter, old Andrew Stace, head of the family, is discussing the disposal of his property with his daughter, Sophia, and his adopted son, Christian.  The two young people tell their father that they wish to marry; he forbids this, but after his death they marry anyway.  The scene jumps forward thirty years, and Sophia and Andrew are living with their adult children, Dinah, another Andrew, and Robin, in the family home.  Sophia dominates the household, seeking to control everything that happens within the family, demanding a perpetual tribute of attention and love from her children,  and enjoying the status of domestic martyr.  This is a typical Sophia outburst: "I don't know what things are coming to, when I can't claim a little attention in my own house.  How am I to get on with my work of organising everything, if I am to be left entirely without help?"

The atmosphere of the novel is claustrophobic from the outset; the narrow social group of the Staces does nothing to enlarge their world, since it is made up of other pairs of brothers and sisters.  Dinah and Andrew become engaged to one of these pairs, Gilbert and Caroline Lang, who have recently moved to the village.  However, these engagements are quickly broken off when it emerges that elderly Mrs Lang is the mother of the adopted Christian Stace, and Dinah and Andrew realise they are engaged to their own uncle and aunt.  Mrs Lang dies suddenly, Christian Stace even more suddenly, and the possibilities of escape for the Stace children open and close as more and more secrets are revealed.

There is a chilly frivolity about this novel, like a very bitter and cynical version of A Midsummer Night's Dream, as the pairs of brothers and sisters form and re-form into different pairings.  ICB's usual style persists; plot and character are developed mainly through dialogue, and we never step outside the Staces' village.  However, I enjoyed this a lot more than most of the other ICBs I have read; the Stace and the Lang children are sympathetic characters, and there is a lot of ironic humour in the characterisation of Sophia herself, monstrous though she is.  There are lots of other interesting themes within the novel, too, especially class and the position of servants - Miss Patmore, once the children's nurse and still living with the Staces, is a key character and a very interesting one in terms of how the family maintains its equilibrium.

Disappointingly, this one is out of print, although there are secondhand copies around.