“Dear Mr Merry! To support us all, so that people think it is Nicholas!”

Pastors and Masters has continued to prove difficult to write about. Usually when that happens I come up with some strategy for attack. Attack! Break it down, pull it apart, expose all the works inside, say something. I managed only the tinest bit of that in my post on its style.

Part of what stymies me is how much that style makes the novella about its characters. The characters are all excellent—utterly unusual and lifelike. But again, back to the style, the only way to really talk about them is by telling you nearly everything they say. I’m sure you have a picture of Mr Merry at this point; there is more, yes, but there’s not much more I can tell you without simply quoting the rest of his lines.

So in my reluctance to leave such a brilliant work with the mediocre one-post treatment, I will get to the other subject that interests me right now: work in Pastors and Masters. It turned out to be quite relevant to The Project.

The boys’ school is run by Nicholas Herrick, a seventy-year-old bachelor who has a degree and supports his 20-odd-years-younger sister, bachelorette Emily. He does so by running the school—but as I mentioned, all he does for the school is to read morning prayers to the boys.

He does one other extremely important thing: he holds a degree, and when it’s prize-giving day and the parents come, he gets to wear his academic gown. Mr Merry, the real schoolmaster, does not have this privilege, but he has something else. This something is continually alluded to by the Herricks and their friends, Mssrs Masson and Bumpus, fellow degree-holders who have remained in academia. But “[t]he quality of Mr Merry’s that gained him his bread was never alluded to between them.” What is it?

He knows how to reassure the parents—especially the mothers. One evening he does so, after one has arrived to meet with Mr Herrick. Herrick leaves the woman with Merry and goes back to his rooms, which he shares with his sister.

‘This is a good room to come back to,’ said Herrick. ‘That hall and the woman, and poor Merry shuffling up to do his duty! It made me shiver.’

‘The sight of duty does make one shiver,’ said Miss Herrick. ‘The actual doing of it would kill one, I think.’

‘Merry knows what the duty is,’ said Herrick. ‘For my life, I don’t.’

‘One couldn’t know what that duty was,’ said Miss Herrick. ‘It could only be felt, and perhaps you have too good a brain to do things in that way.’

‘Let us leave it at that,’ said Herrick.

But she doesn’t.

‘To think that you made the school!’ said Emily. ‘For it was you who made it. But of course you would do the creative part.’

‘Yes, yes. And I could go on with it,’ said Herrick.

‘Of course you could,’ said Emily. ‘Wouldn’t it be dreadful if you had to? Or if you did? It is almost dreadful that you could.’

Duty is a dreadful thing, a thing for ordinary people. It is a thing that the Herrick’s don’t understand—as Emily says, one must feel something, and feeling can’t be forced. Much later, at a dinner party, Emily says that “It must be so dreadful to be a servant…and do the important work of the world. That sort of work, so ill paid and degrading.” The only work done in her circle is done by the likes of Masson and Bumpus: research and writing, if that. Or perhaps by the local clergyman, giving sermons every week. But a servant? “Fancy having to be of nice appearance, and quick and willing and trustworthy, and not wear spectacles waiting at table, as if one’s sight would alter then!” Emily says. “It must be very bad to be all that, or anything except the first.”

Needless to say, these are not very nice people, but they are largely honest. And the Herrick’s definitely feel an uncomfortable indebtedness to Merry, well aware as they are that they could not, in fact, run the school without him. At the end, Herrick even admits to “almost envy[ing]” him, because his own life is coming to a close with very little to show for it in terms of work—the book he was working on throughout Pastors and Masters is never to be finished or published, and that is the end of any “career” Herrick might have had.

But Emily’s biting tongue is quick to put that notion to bed. “You should not talk about ‘almost envying’ Mr Merry, as if he belonged to people like that,” she says, quickly interjecting all the social distance possible between the two men. Merry is, certainly, not a contented man, either withs his job or his life. Neither is Herrick. But Herrick can see, by the end, that Merry has done something he has not—even if it is something he did not really want to do, it is also something he knows he was incapable of doing. But Herrick is “extraordinary,” and Merry is “ordinary,” and that is that.

‘I am disgusted! I am more. I cannot tell you before ladies what I think of you.’

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!