At the centre of this novel stands Harriet Haslam, the epitome of the maternal power figure, whose genuine but overpowering love dominates the novel and whose self-knowledge drives her into insanity. Even after her death Harriet continues to dominate. Surrounding this central figure are a host of marvelously realised characters - Sir Geoffrey Haslam, Harriet’s husband, an innocent self-deluder; Dominic Spong, a hypocrite whose platitudes do not quite conceal his powerful self-interest; Agatha Calkin whose benevolent maternalism nearly hides the greediest of drives towards power; Lady Hardistry, the most outrageously witty of all sophisticates; Camilla Christy, a loose woman, dazzling, charming, and corrupt. Unlike Harriet Haslam, who will not spare herself the truth, the others are happier with their lies and can never achieve Harriet’s grandeur.
Compton-Burnett was encouraged by her liberal and unorthodox father, homeopath Dr Burnett, to prepare to read classics at London university (neither Oxford nor Cambridge gave degrees to women at this time). She had dearly loved her father, who died without warning from a heart attack in 1901 when she was sixteen. Her closest brother died three years later, and Ivy Compton-Burnett went on to lose three more of her younger siblings and her mother by the time she was 35, something she could hardly bear to speak about, but constantly explored in her novels. Compton-Burnett published twenty novels, the first while she was in her twenties, in 1911. However, the first of her works to use her mature and startlingly original style was published when she was forty, in 1925. Compton-Burnett’s fiction deals with domestic situations in large households which, to all intents and purposes, invariably seem Edwardian. She was named a Dame Commander of the British Empire in 1967.
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Is Buttermere listening?
The printed version of Men and Wives has been in my possession for over three years, but I never managed to read over the first few chapters. This audible version made my job as a listener a lot easier by the narrator who gives a voice and a body to each of Compton -Burnett character.
The novel is indeed constructed on the interaction between characters, with all the twists and turns that this affords particularly when they are determined to achieve what they wish at all costs, so that the plot is full of memorable moments which the listener can enjoy. My favourite is perhaps Sir Godfrey's realisation that much younger Camilla could become his new wife, and his hypocrisy when he discovers that it won't happen.
Jean Barrett's performance was, in this case as throughout the book, elegant, polished and extremely helpful.
Too long to be listened to in one sitting, this audiobook made me wish it were possible to do so and whetted my thirst for more audiobooks by the same author.