Ever Decreasing Circles

Pastors and Masters by Ivy Compton Burnett

I won this book from Librarything in their Early Pastors and Masters by Ivy Compton-Burnett Reviewers draw, and it’s a lovely little thing. Hesperus Press is another publisher whose raison d’être is bringing back neglected works into print and their list sounds very interesting (Pushkin, Flaubert and Charles Lamb etc). Printed on quality off-white paper with super matt wraparound soft covers, this novella was a physical pleasure to read. The reading itself was a little more difficult. This was ICB’s breakthrough novel after one previous effort, and at a mere 98 pages is a swift read.

Published in 1925 at the age of 41, Pastors and Masters is set in a minor prep school of which Nicholas Herrick is the nominal headmaster. However apart from taking prayers in the morning he leaves everything to Mr Merry (who, gasp! is not a qualified teacher), plus Mrs Merry, Mr Burgess (who, phew! is qualified), and Matron Miss Basden. Herrick and his younger sister Emily, prefer more intellectual pursuits such as engaging his friends in debate, and bragging about the book he is writing – will it ever get finished and be published? This is the basis of the plot, on which I’ll expound no further to save the twist in tail for you.

ICB’s style though takes a bit of getting used to. There’s little descriptive prose, it’s mostly dialogue and that is really clipped, and the characters never shut up! They’re constantly talking, mostly at each other, in engagements of verbal sparring, scoring points off each other. This was a group stuck in an old Victorian way of doing things, full of fake gentility. It was impossible to find a single likeable character who actually had anything interesting to say or did anything of merit whatsoever – something I suspect was a deliberate ploy of ICB.

‘How good we all are at talking without ever saying anything we think!’ said Bumpus.
‘It is not always politic to say what we think,’ said Miss Basden.
‘It is not so easy,’ said Masson.
‘Some times I suppose it is right to say it, whether or not we like it, and whether or not it is liked, said Delia.
‘Yes, yes the thing to be done,’ said Miss Lydia, sighing.
‘Oh, just possibly. Once or twice in a lifetime,’ said Mr Bentley to his daughter.
‘Nearer once than twice,’ said Bumpus.

An interesting introduction to ICB’s work, but just as I really got into it, it was over. Recommendations for a mature ICB to read some time in the future would be appreciated – hang on a minute, didn’t the Queen borrow one from the mobile library in The Uncommon Reader?  The foreword by Sue Townsend, and biographical notes at the end were interesting and useful too – ICB had a colourful life!  (6.5/10)

For another review, see Simon T’s at Stuck in a book here.

This post was republished into its original place in my blog’s timeline from my lost posts archive

Source: Review copy

Ivy Compton-Burnett, Pastors and Masters (Hesperus, 2009) paperback original, 120 pages.

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