Pastors and Masters by Ivy Compton Burnett

I am an impatient woman. Incredibly impatient. This is largely inherited from my father, as most of my personality traits appear to be, (rather than the more placid temperament of my mother, whose legs I got instead, which, frankly, is a blessing I am grateful for every day) and also a legacy of being a lifelong Londoner, who walks at the speed of light, talks incomprehensibly fast and doesn’t understand people who feel the need to stop and look at things. Dawdlers, beware! if you come across me on the streets of this fine city – I will mow you down without a second thought, tutting loudly in the process.

What do my negative personality traits have to do with Ivy Compton Burnett? Well, I have discovered that Ivy is a writer for someone more of my mother’s persuasion, who takes time over things and isn’t in a rush to get stuff done. Someone who enjoys puzzling over who said what and can remember who someone with two nicknames is when they don’t appear for several pages. I am not this person. My initial thoughts on picking Pastors and Masters up off the shelf were ‘Fantastic, I can get this done in a day’ and ‘This should be a really easy read’. Both of these turned out to be complete errors of judgement and in fact I found it a horridly complicated and time consuming read that required the patience I don’t possess and also an ability to follow a conversation with no indication of who is speaking for pages on end, which I don’t think anyone should be asked to do. Casting my mind back to the first year of secondary school, I distinctly remember being told by my English teacher NEVER to write reported speech without indicating who the speaker is. Sage advice, and something I feel Ivy should have followed. It would have made this novel far more enjoyable and comprehendable. Also, I thoroughly enjoy feasting on description in novels; the surroundings of the characters, their clothes, the food they eat, their thoughts and feelings, and facial expressions. Ivy gives nothing of this away except for what the characters say about these matters, which, in most cases, is very little, and so, while her style is very good at revealing people’s characters through their speech, you never get to see their inner lives, and so we can never be sure if what they say is a true indication of their real selves anyway.

In short, Ivy and I didn’t get along. This really did disappoint me, as I had hoped I would ‘get’ her style and find in her a new author to enjoy, especially as we share our obscure alma mater which no one has ever heard of and I always like having a bit of a personal connection with a novelist. Loosely the plot involves the staff of a boy’s school and the family of two of the pupils, but as the entire novel consists of dialogue, most of which has little or no indication of which character it belongs to, and considering that for the majority of the time I had absolutely no idea what was going on, I’ve probably missed most of the plot. Simon’s review is far better than mine in that respect. It doesn’t help that I do most of my reading on the train to work, so it’s quite hard to read books like this that require such intense concentration. I did find it funny in parts – Mr Merry, one of the schoolmasters, was hilarious and very endearing, but I still don’t think I’ll be trying another Ivy any time soon. However, I’m glad I’ve given her a go, and I am very thankful to Hesperus Press who sent me this book via the Librarything Early Reviewers Programme. Its one redeeming feature is the book design, I have to say – the front cover is gorgeous, and it’s a little like Persephone in that it’s a heavy card paperback with front and end flaps, and lovely satiny feeling paper. Do check out Hesperus Press (their website is currently being redeveloped, so that’s a link to their titles on Amazon), as they have reprinted some really interesting looking titles. I’m particularly coveting this one.

24 comments

  1. oops, I think my comment got deleted so I'll just rewrite this…Oh wow Rachel, I'm so glad I'm not the only one who didn't like ICB although I can totally understand why some readers would. I didn't like her style plus with 100+ books staring at me from my To-be-read pile, I just couldn't find the patience to read her. I'm so glad I'm not alone now. I think out of the Manservant and Maidservant group read I was the only one who didn't like it together with Simon's (Stuck in a Book) mum.

  2. Oh dear! I'm curious where I will fall now, close to you or closer indeed to Simon, who called this "ICB-lite"?I too was given that writing advice in school but, like a lot of other advice I was given at school, rules are sometimes made to be broken!And, another thing (did you notice what I did there?) …Hesperus Press publish beautiful books and I covet them all! For some insane reason the copies I do own (apart from this one) are all at home in Glasgow, which is something I must rectify and regale you with a photograph!

    1. I don’t know, Claire…I suspect you may not like her but only time will tell!
      Haha you grammatical renegade! I’d love to get hold of more Hesperus Press books, but not until the ban is over, of course…

  3. Hehe, that post made me laugh – it was funny when I met you and Naomi as you did talk very fast! I still have yet to read any ICB so no idea whether I will like her or not.

  4. Thanks for the warning Rachel…I'll be sure to watch out for you on London's streets when I'm next in town!You've spared me from feeling as though I were missing out on not having read any of ICB's books. I too love description and yes, it's of great value to know who is speaking at any given time. So glad that the cover is a redeeming factor, very cheery against all the grey at the moment!

    1. I am the epitome of the harrassed Londoner – be warned if you ever come to visit!

      I don’t think you are massively missing out, Darlene, don’t worry. But you are right – the bright cover of this made it worth well. I felt very stylish getting it out of my bag!

  5. I haven't read any I.C.B. yet – I bought a tatty secondhand copy of A house without a head (think that was the title) picked it up, read the first page and got no further. I should try again. Like you I do fast (you know I talk fast!) so maybe I.C.B. should be for when I have cold?!

  6. Oh! – just read Verity's comment! Yes – we do talk fast, sometimes I lose track. But I've never really been on a track anyway!

  7. Oh dear, Rachel, I did have you down as someone who'd love ICB! But you dislike her for all the reasons that those who dislike her *do* dislike her… and most of the reasons I love her! Oddly, I never have any trouble knowing who's speaking, because their voices are so distinctive to me – but Mum always complains that she doesn't know what's going on or who's in the room, etc. etc.What I love about ICB is that she manages to get so much across about the situation and the characters in her wonderful dialogue. I suppose I didn't miss the descriptions because I tend to read books for character (which is quite narrow, actually…)But, yes, if you didn't like Pastors and Masters then you definitely won't like ICB's other novels – this is ICB-lite, as Claire quoted! BUT – those who haven't tried ICB yet, do give her a go! You might hate her, but you might (like me) find an author you'll love love love. Even if I can't skim-read her…

    1. I’m sorry to disappoint you, Simon! But yes, I am not really a dialogue sort of person – I like dialogue, but I much prefer thought processes and description and I missed that.

      I’m glad I tried her once though. It’s always good to try things once! Apart from drugs OF COURSE.

  8. I was so surprised when I started reading book blogs by how many people seemed to be huge ICB fans. Really, the only time I'd come across her name before had been on lists for "Books that no one ever has the attention span or patience to finish/comprehend". So I'm reassured that not all book bloggers are so far outside the norm. That said, I'm still going to keep ICB on my "to be read one day in the distance future" list, just so I can figure out which side of the love/hate divide I belong on.

    1. Hello! Love your blog by the way.

      Really?! Well I am not one of the fan club, rest easy!

      I’m impressed by your resolve to try her – though I must say I was curious about her and I’m glad that I have now satisfied my curiosity.🙂

  9. This is going to prove very interesting as I trust both yours and Simon's judgements on books. I have an ICB from Simon on my TBR and think it might be a baptism of fire as its an ICB but not this 'ICB lite' one, rather more a 'hardcore ICB' could be an interesting experiment I feel.

    1. Haha! Whose side will you take, Simon?!

      Well you will be jumping into the deep end by the sounds of it, so good luck when you do try her! I look forward to finding out what you think of her when you get around to it on the TBR pile!

  10. I started reading ICB because she was one of Barbara Pym’s favorite writers. After making it through a couple of her books (Master and Servant being my “favorite,” if you can call it that), I’ve decided that her books are more interesting to read about than to actually read. I found it helped to imagine that I was reading a play–but who wants to do that when you’re not actually reading a play?

    Incidently, ICB came from an extraordinarily dysfunctional family. There was an evil stepmother and many siblings. Two of her younger sisters committed a joint suicide one Christmas morning. Deep, dark stuff. Perhaps it’s no wonder that she wrote as she did.

    1. Barbara Pym’s favourite novelist? That’s interesting. I suppose I can see some parallels, thinking about it…

      Yes, it was a bit like reading a play – I think her books would be much better appreciated if they were read aloud as then it would be easier to distinguish between the different voices.

      I read that – not a great upbringing all told. Poor Ivy.

  11. Sorry–that’s Manservant and Maidservant. I must have been having a 1980s/Depeche Mode flashback when I decided the name of the book was Master and Servant.

  12. I've had mixed feelings towards the prospect of reading ICB – on the one hand, I've read some brilliant reviews of it and feel that is is something I 'should' read. But on the other hand, there have been people who have really similar tastes to me who have not enjoyed it… I think I will read it, but leave it for a time when I can give it my full attention. I do like Hesperus Press – I have a couple of the Charlotte Bronte Juvenilia they print, which I read before Christmas and really enjoyed! I also have my eye on the Braddon one!

    1. Yes – wait until you have time to sit and pay attention. I might wait until I’ve mellowed with age to read any more!

      The Charlotte Bronte juvenilia looks fantastic!

      And how exciting about your PhD! You should go for it – it’s a wonderful place to study, and I had a brilliant time. I wish I’d gone straight into my MA there – I got offered the chance but had to turn down due to lack of finances – same with the other MA I got a place on – the universe is against me doing a PhD I think! Were you thinking of Ruth Livesey by any chance? She was my favourite lecturer!

  13. Oh, forgot to say – Royal Holloway would be where I'd like to my PhD, if I ever get round to it – there's a couple of academics there who would be brilliant for what I want to do!

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