Happy birthday to Dame Ivy Compton-Burnett, who wrote dialogue so witty, lively, and fluent it makes Aaron Sorkin look like—uh—well, you get the idea—I’m sure one of them would be savvy enough to fill in the blank. “She was very, very clever,” Rebecca West said of Compton-Burnett in her 1981 Art of Fiction interview. “You’d have to be very tasteless not to see she had something unique to give her age.”
Here, in the way of proof positive, is the beginning of The Present and the Past, her 1953 novel, which starts with a lot of winsome talk about poultry, death, and cake.
“Oh, dear, oh, dear!” said Henry Clare.
His sister glanced in his direction.
“They are pecking the sick one. They are angry because it is ill.”
“Perhaps it is because they are anxious,” said Megan, looking at the hens in the hope of discerning this feeling.
“It will soon be dead,” said Henry, sitting on a log with his hands on his knees. “It must be having death-pangs now.”
Another member of the family was giving his attention to the fowls. He was earnestly thrusting cake through the wire for their entertainment. When he dropped a piece he picked it up and put it into his own mouth, as though it had been rendered unfit for poultry’s consumption. His elders appeared to view his attitude either in indifference or sympathy.
“What are death-pangs like?” said Henry, in another tone.
“I don’t know,” said his sister, keeping her eyes from the sufferer of them. “And I don’t think the hen is having them. It seems not to know anything.”
Henry was a tall, solid boy of eight, with rough, dark hair, pale, wide eyes, formless, infantine features, and something vulnerable about him that seemed inconsistent with himself. His sister, a year younger and smaller for her age, had narrower, deeper eyes, a regular, oval face, sudden, nervous movements, and something resistant in her that was again at variance with what was beneath.
Tobias at three had small, dark, busy eyes, a fluffy, colourless head, a face that changed with the weeks and evinced an uncertain charm, and a withdrawn expression consistent with his absorption in his own interests. He was still pushing crumbs through the wire when his shoulder was grasped by a hand above him.
“Wasting your cake on the hens! You know you were to eat it yourself.”
Toby continued his task as though unaware of interruption.
“Couldn’t one of you others have stopped him?”
The latter also seemed unaware of any break.
“Don’t do that,” said the nursemaid, seizing Toby’s arm so that he dropped the cake. “Didn’t you hear me speak?”
Toby still seemed not to do so. He retrieved the cake, took a bite himself and resumed his work.
“Don’t eat it now,” said Eliza. “Give it all to the hens.”
Toby followed the injunction, and she waited until the cake was gone.
“Now if I give you another piece, will you eat it?”
“Can we have another piece too?” said the other children, appearing to notice her for the first time.
She distributed the cake, and Toby turned to the wire, but when she pulled him away, stood eating contentedly.
“Soon be better now,” he said, with reference to the hen and his dealings with it.
“It didn’t get any cake,” said Henry. “The others had it all. They took it and then pecked the sick one. Oh, dear, oh, dear!”