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Words as Weapons: The Subversion of Power in Ivy Compton-Burnett’s A Father and His Fate

Paroles perfides: la subversion du pouvoir dans A Father & His Fate de Ivy Compton-Burnett
Linda Carter
p. 137-148


L’œuvre romanesque de Ivy Compton-Burnett prend toujours pour cadre une maison bourgeoise à la fin de l’époque victorienne, où un patriarche règne en maître sur une famille asservie. Le resserrement de l’espace ainsi que l’omniprésence du dialogue servent à mettre en lumière les rapports de domination et de soumission qui se jouent à l’intérieur de ce cercle fermé. Une telle théâtralité se déploie de manière tout particulièrement frappante dans A Father & His Fate (1957), où les interventions narratives sont réduites au minimum et où les paroles des personnages, tous engagés dans une impitoyable guerre des mots, résonnent avec d’autant plus d’éclat. Si le site de pouvoir que représente le père paraît inébranlable, une polyphonie subversive vient néanmoins miner ce pouvoir en mettant en valeur les propos de ceux qui en sont privés, tandis que le discours patriarcal se voit encore davantage affaibli par une forme de dialogisation interne. Ainsi, dans ce roman, véritable chambre à écho, le pouvoir se dissémine dans une pluralité de sites. Le discours dialogique reflète en ce sens l’insolite modernité de Compton-Burnett mais il permet aussi d’ouvrir l’espace clos du roman, lieu d’un drame à première vue figé à tout jamais.

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  • 1 Joanne Hutchinson’s quote in fact takes up the words of a character in More Women Than Men (1965) a (...)
  • 2 Ivy Compton-Burnett wrote her first novel, Dolores (an imitation of George Eliot which she later di (...)

1‘She has looked at human nature’s hidden side, and looked away; but not before writing it down’. This comment on Ivy Compton-Burnett’s novels aptly sums up their unerring focus on the least savoury aspects of human relationships, and their creator’s skill as stage-manager (Hutchinson 192)1. Novel after novel2, the author unveils the reverse side of an apparently decorous, upper-middle-class society in the late Victorian period to reveal a wasp’s-nest of exploitation and manipulation. Hers is a narrow, claustrophobic world, whose inhabitants, enclosed within the confines of a country house, invariably engage in an incessant war of words. Indeed, the setting is the well-nigh perfect stage for the central theme of all her work, namely power- relationships within the family. Members of different sex and class are opposed in direct conflict, as many of the novels’ titles attest, Brothers & Sisters (1929), Parents & Children (1941), Manservant & Maidservant (1947) being but a few examples. Drama, even melodrama, is another of their hallmarks; bigamy, incest or attempted murder are not uncommon occurrences in this falsely-genteel society. Compton- Burnett herself saw nothing amiss in the use of such sensational happenings, considering them as the very ‘bones’ of the plot (Burkhart 26). It need hardly be added that plausibility and realism are not the novels’ concern this is, precisely, part of their singularity. That being said, the seemingly-manicheistic simplicity of their titles is instantly belied by a random glance at any one page; the events occurring behind the scenes may appear contrived, but the characters’ manner of commenting upon them is formal, abstract, frequently cryptic, requiring constant vigilance on the reader’s part. In addition, conventional novelistic padding such as temporal, spatial or historical references is notably absent; there is no attempt to situate the characters within a wider social backcloth, and authorial intervention is reduced to a bare minimum. Consequently, the characters’ utterances stand out even more strikingly and powerfully within such a stark, austere universe. Compton-Brunett’s work is positioned at the other extreme of the monologic novel governed by the consciousness of the author/narrator; here it is dialogue that performs the functions normally pertaining to the latter, acting as a screen, simultaneously concealing yet revealing the dark undercurrents beneath.

  • 3 Penelope Lively in her introduction to the 1984 edition of A Father & his Fate (vi).
  • 4 It is striking to note the recurrence of terms referring to warfare in comments on the novels; Cons (...)

2Nowhere is this more obvious than in A Father & his Fate, the most theatrical of Compton-Burnett’s novels; it consists almost entirely of dialogue and there is an even greater scarcity of authorial comment than usual. Once more, the invariable framework of the extended Victorian family suits the author’s purpose to perfection, offering as it does ‘opportunities for the use and abuse of power unequalled since the baronial system: an emphasis on primogeniture, an attendant serf class by way of children and servants, concentration of economic resources in a single hand’3. As a result, Miles Mowbray, the eponymous father, can wield his authority over a whole range of dependents: his wife Ellen and their three daughters, his widowed sister-in- law Eliza and her three sons (one of whom, Malcolm, is heir to the estate) and governess and servants. He is temporarily aided and abetted in this by Verena Gray (originally Malcolm’s fiancée) who becomes engaged to Miles after his wife’s apparent death. Subsequently, however, Ellen reappears; Verena, pregnant (by Miles, it is revealed), leaves the household and Malcolm marries Ursula, one of the daughters, with whom he will bring up Verena’s and Miles’ child. As this brief summary of the plot illustrates, Compton-Burnett, having placed her characters in virtual isolation, then provokes those in power to extreme behaviour—the (apparently) powerless being left to observe and comment upon the consequences. Their unrelenting scrutiny recalls Michel Foucault’s view of power as a system which functions precisely because, rather than being restricted to a single ‘nuclear’ site, it is disseminated into a series of sites. These sites constitute a network of surveillance set up by ‘overseers’ who scrutinise and unerringly pick out any signs of deviance or weakness in those around them (Foucault 1980, 155). Within the Mowbray household, the characters who are under the father’s authority indeed dissect his behaviour and, above all, his every utterance. For the spoken word is the only weapon4at the disposal of these ‘overseers’, and the purpose of the present article is, precisely, to examine how their utterances, functioning as a series of sites, slyly undermine the ‘nuclear’ site of power represented by the father. The use of dialogue not only dramatically highlights the exercise of power but enables a ‘plurality of independent and unmerged voices and consciousnesses’ to make itself heard. This ‘genuine polyphony of fully valid voices’ (Bakhtin 6) invests the powerless with an authority of their own and lessens the sway of the father-figure, whose pronouncements are gradually weakened. Power is thus displaced from a single locus and disseminated through the plurality of potential sites represented by the seemingly powerless.

3From the outset, the narrator’s voice is virtually absent, replaced by those of the various protagonists. The novel begins, fittingly, with the voice of the father addressing his family at the breakfast-table before the Bible-reading and asserting his power. This is, clearly, the reign of patriarchy; his three grown-up daughters are denied the right to work, for example, and the property is entailed to their male cousin, who is referred to as the ‘son of the house’. Details such as these, plus the presence of a governess and various staff-members, function as cultural codes (Barthes 1970, 25) which indicate both the characters’ social class and their effective confinement within the home. As in classical theatre, unity of place creates dramatic intensity. Here, however, a huis clos effect not only increases the plight of the imprisoned but throws this plight even more acutely into relief for the reader. The only change of scene is from the main house to that of Miles’ sister-in-law, neither of which location is ever named or described. The reader is left to deduce any spatial or temporal variations from the characters’ speech. Thus, ‘Why, my son, it is a week since we saw you. We wondered if anything was wrong’ (26) shows at the opening of chapter III that Eliza is greeting Malcolm on his returning home for a visit. Similarly, entries and exits are indicated through short announcements which suddenly crop up in the course of a conversation, as in: ‘Mrs Malcolm Mowbray and the young gentlemen!’ (143)—not until the subsequent comment by Miles will it be fully clear that it is the butler who has just entered the room to announce the visitors. Frequently, then, the reader can only deduce the actions and movements of one character through the words of another; not until an utterance reveals that someone has returned to a room, for example, does one realise that they had in fact previously left it. The utterance may be preceded or followed by a short, impersonal statement such as ‘There was the sound of an opening door’ (88), another character’s words then furnishing the identity of the person who has made his entry or exit. Thus the individuality of each character is not as important as the function he or she fills within the power-structure; as such, they emerge as ‘actants’ or ‘participants’ rather than as fully-fledged human beings (Barthes 1977, 33, 34). Such elements as these place the novel firmly outside any realist tradition, as Nathalie Sarraute acknowledged in her collection of essays on the nouveau roman, where she hailed Ivy Compton-Burnett’s ‘absolutely original’ use of dialogue (118).

  • 5 See Robert Liddell for a detailed analysis of Ivy Compton-Burnett’s use of adverbs.

4All other interactions with the outside world are referred to in minimalist terms and almost exclusively through dialogue. Conventional aspects of plot, notably causality, are swept aside, often with disconcerting effect; indeed, there appears to be not so much a plot as a ‘parody of a plot’ (Rowsell 210). The Mowbrays’ voyage abroad (no details of which are ever provided, other than that they will ‘cross the seas’) is introduced for the first time through Miles’ greeting to his sister-in-law at the start of chapter IV: ‘“Why, Eliza!” said Miles. “Why, I am glad to see you. But you know we are just about to leave?” “Yes, that is why I am here. We have come to say our farewell”’ (43). As in this example, such information is frequently declaimed at the start of a chapter, which functions as a curtain-rise announcing a change of scene or situation. The narrator provides a brief physical description the first time the members of the family are introduced, but such descriptions are either vague—‘Ursula resembl[ed] her father, but with more looks, Constance her mother, but with less, Audrey a cross between the two’—or arbitrary. Far more space is devoted to the presentation of the governess, for example, than to the rest of the family combined (9-10). Other than this, narrative intervention is generally reduced to the barest of stage directions which indicate the tone of an utterance (‘gravely’, ‘in a quiet tone’)5or the manner of speaking (‘whispered’, ‘muttered’). More often than not, merely the name of the speaker and the verb ‘to say’ are used, or the dialogue stands alone and the reader is left to deduce who is actually speaking. Unusual, shocking or tragic events are generally stripped bare of any niceties of presentation, the two most extreme examples of this being (at the beginning of chapters V and X respectively), the sudden news of Ellen’s death at sea (64), and Miles’ subsequent announcement to his family a mere eighteen weeks later that he and Verena (forty-four years his junior) are to be married (132). In both cases, the events leading up to such results are omitted. Such ellipses make this a definitely writerly text, the reader being obliged not only to fill in the gaps and provide the missing links but, in addition, to decipher the cryptic utterances of the protagonists.

  • 6 Alain Robbe-Grillet, quoted by Philippe Hamon (168, my translation).

5For the absence of any ‘hierarchy of discourses’ (Belsey 70) leaves full space for a polyphony of voices which echo around this confined stage in a highly stylised manner. As noted above, the novel’s plot may be somewhat lurid, but the dialogues themselves are formal, almost eerily disembodied, as though uttered by ‘flat figures in a pack of cards’6. This effect is heightened by the use of impersonal structures such as ‘said another voice’ or ‘said Verena’s voice’ (30, 134). It is opposing forces, coming into friction through utterance, that are foregrounded; on the one side stands the father, on the other the subordinates, daughters and nephews in particular. The latter function as a chorus, or rather a group of choral characters who ‘represent a communal point of view or the perspective of a cultural group, and so provide norms by which to judge other characters’ (Abrams 26). This device, at first sight, sets up a straightforward opposition which subverts the father’s power; the choral characters collectively highlight the latter’s defects, implicitly setting them against their own norms and thus engaging the reader’s sympathy. Miles’ hypocrisy and tactlessness, for example, are exposed when, following his wife Ellen’s return, he addresses the whole family, including his former fiancée, thus:

‘We shall be a happy family round the tea table.’
‘That is a rash word,’ said Audrey. ‘I suppose this is the way to do it. But could it not have been left undone?’
‘The moment had to be got through,’ said Constance.
‘It could surely have been omitted. It would have passed by itself.’ (152)

6The ‘chorus’ thus appears to be invested with the very function the narrator declines to perform, that of voice of truth, a truth imparted to the reader in asides. This function enables them, as victims whose subjection is frequently highlighted and revelled in by the father, to be re-vindicated and re-instated in a position of power.

7However, as Foucault points out: ‘There is not, on the one side, a discourse of power, and opposite it another discourse that runs counter to it’ (1981, 102), and any such simplistic demarcation is cancelled out in A Father & his Fate. For polyphony is, precisely, a means by which the narrator grants ‘full and equal authority to the word of the characters’ (Dentith 42). The powerless, highly articulate and granted unrestricted use of the spoken word, are indeed endowed with ‘full and equal authority’—on a par with that of the father. Far from being passive listeners or simply commenting in asides, they actively assimilate and challenge the latter’s words, thus calling into question the patriarch’s dominion. When Miles ensconces Verena as new mistress of the house, for instance, one of his daughters queries the latter’s claim to any such status:

‘You cannot have had much experience,’ said Constance.
‘Did she say she had?’ said Miles.
‘No, Father. And I did not say she did.’
‘You implied that she suggested it.’
‘I simply stated that she could not have had it.’ (122)

  • 7 Robert Liddell has noted Compton-Burnett’s frequent use of this device, borrowed from Greek drama, (...)

8Brief exchanges like this one equally challenge the reader, for the characters’ words are indeed ‘unlike any conversation ever heard’ (Sarraute 119) and one is obliged to remain extremely alert in order to understand to what the different auxiliaries and complements actually refer. This difficulty is partly due to the use of stichomythia—fast exchanges of alternate single lines7—and partly to Compton-Burnett’s practice of constructing dialogues around a single word. Such constructions recall mathematical equations, relying as they do upon ‘precise symmetry, repetitions and oppositions’ (Jordis 130). But this practice also affects the balance of power defined by Foucault, since, within the field of power relations, the site of power is constantly displaced: ‘there can run different and even contradictory discourses within the same strategy; [discourses] can, on the contrary, circulate without changing their form from one strategy to another, opposing strategy’ (1981, 102). Both processes can be seen at work here (the father is taking leave of his family):

‘Come, my love,’ said Miles. ‘The farewell scene will remain with us. To prolong it is to add nothing.’
‘I thought it was adding a good deal,’ said Nigel. [. . .]
‘We shall have the scene to carry with us,’ said Constance. ‘I would not be without the memory.’
‘I think I would,’ said Ursula.
‘And I am sure I would,’ said Audrey. (45)

9On the one hand, the speakers indeed pronounce contradictory discourses, yet, at the same time, certain elements of their discourse ‘circulate without changing their form from one strategy to another, opposing strategy’, each voice continuing and adding to the previous utterance (‘scene’, ‘add’, ‘would’). Utterances pinpoint, reiterate, hark back to words from previous utterances, both within a single exchange and throughout the entire novel, thus creating an echo-chamber effect. Such is their force that they ultimately seem to exist as pure sound, as though a ‘textual dispossession’ were eerily at work, urging the reader beyond the written word to focus on ‘the dramatic potential of unembodied voice’ (Davison–Pégon, 74, 75). These voices reverberate around the stage, dislocating the site of power by disseminating it into a plurality of sites, and gathering force with each new utterance.

  • 8 hetorical questions (direct or indirect) are another manifestation of the ‘sideward glance’ and fre (...)

10Compton-Burnett’s use of dialogue, therefore, both intensifies yet reduces the plight of her victims; it simultaneously throws into relief yet weakens the apparently absolute power of the patriarch. Conversely, the latter’s words are subjected to an internal dialogisation; they are, that is, pervaded with anticipations of, and rejoinders to, the words of the others. This ‘double-voiced discourse’ (Dentith, 199) constitutes a flaw in the patriarchal site of power since it reveals a dependence on the interlocutor. Thus, in his opening declamatory speech, Miles initially purports to exalt his three daughters: ‘My dear, good girls! [. . .] I would not change one of you for all the sons in the world’ (3). The very mention of ‘sons’, however, paves the way for a gradual slippage towards the male lineage, and the fact that the estate is entailed out of the father’s hands: ‘My brother’s son will take [the land] from me, as if he were my own. [. . .] I look to hear the words, ‘Well done’, from him, if ever a man has heard them from the lips of another. What do you say, Malcolm?’ Miles’ words typify what Bakhtin calls a ‘sideward glance’ at the possible response of his interlocutor. His whole speech, despite the professions of love for his daughters, is in fact addressed to his heir. His intense anticipation of Malcolm’s words is sensed in the rejoinder he invites through a direct formulation (‘I look to hear the words ‘Well done’ from him’), which wedges its way into his discourse. This ‘hidden polemic’ contains a ‘muffled challenge’, as Bakhtin puts it (‘if ever a man has heard them’. . .), which, however, fails to bring forth any response. Finally, unable to contain his need for a rejoinder, Miles is obliged to fall back on a direct interpolation of his nephew: ‘What do you say, Malcolm?’ His authority, already called into question by his own dialogic discourse, is further undermined by his interlocutor’s actual rejoinder, which neatly pinpoints the rhetorical nature of all his words: ‘Am I to repeat the words, Uncle? I can hardly improve on them.’8 The ‘sideward glance’, in constant expectation of a response, thus alters the hierarchy of power by exposing a dependence on the hearer, and by laying the utterer open to a frequently derisive response.

11In addition, as the nephew’s words illustrate, the father’s discourse is declamatory and pompous, his speech weighed down by a surfeit of clichés, proverbial statements and received ideas:

‘Goodbye, Eliza,’ said Miles. [. . .] ‘It is a day we shall not forget.’ [his supposedly dead wife has returned to find him engaged to Verena]
‘He hardly will,’ said Rudolph. ‘There is enough to stimulate recollection.’
‘He might,’ said Nigel. ‘He is going to forget a good deal.’
‘I am, Nigel’, said Miles, in a deliberate tone. ‘I am going to tear a page of my life from the scroll of memory. It is a dim chapter, a story half-told.’ (146)

12Even though his first cliché is ironically picked up and dwelt upon by the two nephews, Miles takes their comments literally and proceeds to add a further round of dead metaphors and quotations. His discourse reveals what Bakhtin calls a ‘hybrid construction’—two speech manners or styles with no formal boundary between them. In Miles’ hollow rhetoric, any original utterances of his own are indeed scarcely distinguishable from this second, borrowed language. Now, this hybridity is on the one hand ‘especially characteristic of comic style, in which someone else’s speech is dominant’ (Dentith 200), and indeed, a tragi-comic effect does occasionally emerge from the father’s pompous pronouncements, belittling his status all the more. But, as Riffaterre has noted, if mockery and cliché frequently coexist, the latter may also reveal a certain linguistic exhaustion: ‘[le cliché] laisse voir son vide de cheville verbale, de remplissage, ou bien c’est une pose qui est dévoilée et moquée’ (180). Thus the paucity of the father’s discourse is exposed by its tautological nature, as when Miles complains of the hardship of his life:

‘I have done my best with it. And my best was only what it was. I am only what I am [. . .] That is all I  have to say’ [. . .]
‘I think it is enough, Miles,’ said Eliza. (183)

13The father’ utterances not only deflate his importance and expose him as a petty tyrant but, beyond this, drain language itself of its substance: ‘[le discours] se fait défenseur de la lettre, congédie tout recours à la fable, au mythe, au symbole, rend, par la tautologie, [. . .] le langage inutile’ (Barthes 1970, 50). The father, in the final instance, may be seen as belonging to a postmodern vacuum, imprisoned within a ‘destiny devoid of any heroic scope’, and ‘condemned to a farcical repetition’ (Bernard 149)—of his own words, of others’ words. In this perspective, A Father & His Fate’s very title appears both as an ironic parody of Miles’ self-dramatisation, and as the reflection of a postmodern dilemma.

14Thus a paradox ultimately emerges in Ivy Compton-Burnett’s work; on the one hand, language is used in all its sophistication and subtlety, and on the other, it is suggested that words can never serve to communicate, let alone to convey any meaning or truth. Belying the nihilistic undertones, however, the highly formal nature of many exchanges transforms them into incantations:

‘You talk as if you had something to hide.’
‘As if I had many things to hide, as we all should talk.’
‘I do not think I have more than is inevitable.’
‘I daresay I have not either.’ [. . .] ‘I think I have,’ said Ursula.
‘I am sure I have,’ said Audrey.
‘I only hope I hide them,’ said Rudolph. (93)

15This kind of uncanny reiteration brings to mind Bakhtin’s remark that ‘[a] single consciousness is contradictio in adjecto [a contradiction in terms]. Consciousness is in essence multiple’ (288). Plurality of voice may thus be considered to vehicle an ambivalence at the core of Ivy Compton-Burnett’s work: a cynical pessimism, revealed in her relentless staging of the worst aspects of human nature, and an underlying humanism, reflected in her constant recourse to dialogue. For dialogue is the basis of any human undertaking: ‘two voices is the minimum for life, the minimum for existence’ (Bakhtin, 252), and its very preponderance softens the bleakness of the diegesis. Rather than reproducing a ‘vision out of hell’ (Jordis 140), it suggests a tenuous faith in human nature, bearing witness to the basic human need for communication. Furthermore, it is dialogic discourse—by nature unclosed, porous, adaptable to new voices and new influences—that enables the extremely confined stage on which the protagonists enact their drama to open out. Although at first sight there appears to be no room for any transformation or variation whatsoever, the characters accepting their lot even as they rail against it, their very utterances provide an outlet, even a glimpse of hope. Thus the author, despite her apparent lack of interest in any social, let alone feminist, questioning of the patriarchal order, may be seen as having inscribed in her work a latent desire for change and renewal. The reader, faced with such a cryptic text, is obliged to bring into play forces enabling him to reconstruct all that lies unsaid beneath the surface. If the writerly text provokes pleasure through its very ruptures and blanks (Barthes 1973, 14–15), then Ivy Compton-Burnett’s subversive work, with its constant appeal to the reader as a source of meaning and power, should once again be recognised as a unique delight, and at last find its rightful place in the canon.

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1 Joanne Hutchinson’s quote in fact takes up the words of a character in More Women Than Men (1965) after she and her friend have discovered each other’s darkest secrets: ‘And you and I have each looked at the other’s hidden side, and looked away: and that is much’.

2 Ivy Compton-Burnett wrote her first novel, Dolores (an imitation of George Eliot which she later disowned), in 1911. She then abandoned writing until she was almost forty, Pastors & Masters being published in 1925. Subsequently, eighteen novels appeared, always with the same setting and theme, ending with The Last & the First (1969), published posthumously in 1971.

3 Penelope Lively in her introduction to the 1984 edition of A Father & his Fate (vi).

4 It is striking to note the recurrence of terms referring to warfare in comments on the novels; Constance Lewis, for example, speaks of ‘a view of words as a minefield’ (228), Penelope Lively talks of ‘the weapons of guerilla resistance’ (xi).

5 See Robert Liddell for a detailed analysis of Ivy Compton-Burnett’s use of adverbs.

6 Alain Robbe-Grillet, quoted by Philippe Hamon (168, my translation).

7 Robert Liddell has noted Compton-Burnett’s frequent use of this device, borrowed from Greek drama, which helps create and maintain tension.

8 hetorical questions (direct or indirect) are another manifestation of the ‘sideward glance’ and frequently characterise the father’s discourse, as in: ‘I wonder if there is anyone in the world who cares for me,’ said Miles [. . .] ‘I often ask myself that question.’/‘Then you should answer it,’ said Ursula. ‘It is less safe to put to other people.’ (10)

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Linda Carter, « Words as Weapons: The Subversion of Power in Ivy Compton-Burnett’s A Father and His Fate », Études britanniques contemporaines, 36 | 2009, 137-148.

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Linda Carter, « Words as Weapons: The Subversion of Power in Ivy Compton-Burnett’s A Father and His Fate », Études britanniques contemporaines [En ligne], 36 | 2009, mis en ligne le 08 septembre 2017, consulté le 22 février 2018. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/ebc.4133

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Linda Carter

Université Stendhal-Grenoble 3.
Linda Carter est maître de conférences à l’université Stendhal-Grenoble 3, où elle enseigne la littérature britannique et les études féminines. Son principal domaine de recherche est le roman britannique du vingtième siècle et elle a publié plusieurs articles sur le post-modernisme et sur la ré-écriture féministe. Elle a co-dirigé Sites de résistanceStratégies textuelles/Sites of ResistanceTextual Tactics (2006), ouvrage qui s’appuie sur les travaux de Michel Foucault pour analyser les notions de pouvoir et de contre-discours, et s’est chargée de la partie consacrée au corps féminin, qui constitue un de ces ‘sites de résistance’.

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