Ivy Compton-Burnett’s first book, Dolores, was published in 1911. Her second, Pastors and Masters, did not appear until 1925—a gap of 14 years. In later life she considered Dolores a girlish effort only, not worth talking about. That is all I know about that novel. About Pastors and Masters, I know this: it is wild. It actually is, as The New Statesman described it, “astonishing, amazing. It is like nothing else in the world. It is a work of genius.” (Truthfully, that’s more gushy than I would be.)
The most distinctive thing about Pastors and Masters is its style. It is extremely dialogue-heavy; at times it can feel almost like reading a play. Compton-Burnett gives you lines, she gives you some stage directions, sometimes she gives you a tone of voice, a look—and she describes the characters in a brief but decisive way—but that’s it. And most of the conversations are among groups of people, or in rooms where many people are talking in smaller groups, dizzying the reader who must infer all the action or plot of the novella from snippets of stylized, socially acceptable Edwardian small talk.
The opening scene provides an example. Mr. Merry is the master of a school run by Nicholas Herrick. Herrick does nothing but read morning prayers; Merry is the one who deals with the boys all day long. His wife helps, and there are also a male and a female instructor employed by the school.
‘Well this is a nice thing! A nice thing this school-mastering! Up at seven, and in a room with a black fire… “I should have thought it might have occurred to one out of forty boys to poke it… and hard at work, before other men think it time to be awake! And while you are about it, don’t pile on as much coals it would take the day’s profits of the school to pay for. And here is a thing I have to see every morning of my life! Here is a thing I have to be degraded by, every morning when I come down to an honest day’s work, a middle-aged man working to support his family! I am surprised to see people with such a want of self-respect. I admit that I am. I would rather see a boy come in roundly late, than slip in on the stroke, half dressed and half asleep, and pass as being in time. It is an ungentlemanly thing to do.’
This is the first paragraph, by the way. We find out just after this that “Mr merry [is] a tall, thin man about fifty” and all the rest. But how much better do you think you really get to know Mr Merry than you do just reading that paragraph? But that’s an idea for later in the week.
Today, I just want to get to an actual conversation. A few paragraphs later, the boys and Mr Merry have entered the breakfast room.
‘Well, Mother,’ said Mr Merry, in the tone of a tender husband and tried man.
‘Well, dear,’ said Mrs Merry, without raising her eyes.
‘Good morning, Miss Basden,’ said Mr Merry, with the almost exaggerated courtesy due to a lady he employed.
‘Good morning, Mr Merry,’ said Miss Basden, in a tone in which equality, respect and absorption in her duty [slicing bread] were rather remarkably mingled.
‘Now, look here,’ said Mr Merry, ‘I have never had such an ungentlemanly set of boys. Now, go out again, all of you, and come in like gentlemen meeting a lady for the first time in the day.’
A retirement from the room was succeeded by a chorus of ‘Good morning, Mrs Merry’.
‘Good morning, boys,’ said Mrs Merry.
‘Have you all met Miss Basden already today?’ Mr Merry inquired, looking round frigidly.
‘Good morning, Miss Basden.’
‘Good morning, boys,’ said Miss Basden, in a casual tone, still cutting.
‘Hillman!’ said Mr Merry, ‘How often am I to say that I will not have sitting down before grace is said? Pravy do not show your nature to the rest of us.’
The technique gives Pastors and Masters an observational tone, and distances the narration from the events, characters, and emotions in the book. You could say, “Mr Merry scolded the children and made them reenter the room, saying good morning politely to the ladies.” But that’s not what Compton-Burnett says at all—and her sentence is, I think, terribly interesting. The boys are neither the subject nor object; their actions are, even as those actions are represented by flabby nominalizations like “a retirement.” That is to say, it seems at first heartless, by deleting the boys as people, then strangely action-oriented for such a dialogue-heavy book, and finally just cold (in perhaps the same way as it did at first).
I don’t mean to get stuck on one sentence. The main thing is that the style makes Pastors and Masters more of a puzzle-book than average—there is always going to be something to fill in but here there is a lot. Some of it is on the order of realizing, based on Mr Merry’s last line above, that Hillman has sat down before anyone else in the room, and before they say their prayers. But a good deal of it is much more difficult in that it requires a solid understanding of the said and unsaid, the class norms, and so forth of the period.What is “the almost exaggerated courtesy due to a lady he employed”? What does it mean to have “the tone of a tender husband and tried man”—in the morning, in front of forty children and a few employees, to your wife? These are also the sort of puzzles that make Pastors and Masters so fun—and so bitingly effective. I mean, look what Mr Merry is teaching these boys!