More Women than Men. Ivy Compton-Burnett

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Today comes out in Italy for Fazi Editore a little pearl for English literature lovers. More Women than Men came out for the first time in 1933. The author Ivy Compton-Burnett is a great writer of the Twentieth Century, however recently she seems to have been almost forgotten. She was born in Pinner, London from a big family, the father was a linguist and a homoeopathic doctor, the mother was beautiful and smart yet hardly a caring mother.

When she passed away in 1911 Ivy took her place: she will play this role in a tyrannical way. We meet this same tyrannical trait in many of her characters. She will die in 1969 after writing 19 novels marked out by a distinctive style which relies primarily on sharp and acute dialogues.  

Dialogues to explore the nature of power 

In More Women than Men the use of dialogues is carefully studied to describe family dynamics and the relationships between women and men. This was our first Ivy Compton-Burnett’s read and it stroke us for the originality of both the narrative style and the main themes. The contest is family life among the late Victorian upper middle class.  In this book the setting is a school for women run by Josephine Napier, a strong and authoritative character who exercises her power over teachers and her family members.

By picturing her stories Ivy Compton-Burnett explores the nature of power. We see the way in which Victorian upper middle class used to maintain their structural balance through controlling and hiding the darkest secrets behind a facade politeness and formality. The characters communicate by ellipsis but in a way that their brief and apparently polite chunks of words express, preserve and perpetuate the rhetoric of hierarchies, conformism and immobility of their family system.

Power and women 

In this book, being the main character a woman, we see the dialogue to provide also an interesting reading of the nature of power and women. Josephine Napier runs her institute and her family almost as a dictator, however, she always manifests particular attention to fairness and justice. She seems to be willing to exercise her power, not in order to prevaricate but to protect and maintain the balance of her family or school system. Besides, she also expresses a pleasant sensibility to gender equality. 

“No, I had not noticed it. What I have noticed, since you bring it to my mind, is that in highly developed people, the mental force is often out of scale with the physical. I have found that with men as well as with women. I do not think – Josephine lifted her eyes in reflection – that it is a sex difference. And I must say that I do not deal with women wholesale, but as individuals.”

The capacity to exercise her power and at the same time promote ideas of gender equality is particularly successful in the character of Josephine Napier and we found it particularly pleasant to read. It shows how power in women may show inner strength and an independent attitude that beyond manipulative traits aims at controlling also to protect and sustain.   

Reading More Women than Men

Reading the book is a unique experience, not only for the style and the particularity of the dialogues but also because it treats topics potentially shared by everyone: power, gender and mostly family relationships. We all know how difficult can be to participate in family reunions. Notwithstanding the existence and joy of sharing sincere relationships within a family, we all are aware that, especially in the contest of extended families, relations can be tough based on hidden dynamics made of hypocrisy, prevarications and power struggles.  

What Ivy Compton-Burnett is able to represent, through her masterfully designed dialogues, is the very nature of these powerful dynamics: how they consolidate and spread. This kind of sociological approach to the theme of family’s hierarchical structures and balances is very interesting and pleasant to read in particular here where it develops in parallel to an exploration of the difference between women and men.

Whereas men are just authoritarian in their exercise of power, women probably due to their history of fights for self-independence even when tyrannical tend to show a profound sensibility toward the need of protecting others and promoting equality. This aspect that we see successfully represented by the character of Josephine Napier is what we loved the most about this book, particularly recommended for those who love plots that explore family, gender and power dynamics