Compton-Burnett, Ivy (1884–1969)

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Compton-Burnett, Ivy (1884–1969)

English novelist, author of psychological thrillers set in an earlier time, whose works are almost entirely composed of dialogue. Name variations: I. Compton-Burnett. Born Ivy Compton-Burnett on June 5, 1884, at Pinner, a village in Middlesex, England; died on August 27, 1969, at Braemar Mansions, London; daughter of James Compton Burnett (a homeopathic physician) and Katharine (Rees) Compton-Burnett; tutored at home; attended Assiscombe College for the Daughters of Gentlemen; Howard College, Bedford; Royal Holloway College, London University, Egham, Surrey; lived with Margaret Jourdain (d. 1951, a writer and expert on furniture); never married; no children.


Commander of the Order of the British Empire; James Tait Black Memorial Prize (1956); honorary Doctor of Letters, University of Leeds (1960).

Father died (1901); entered Royal Holloway College to study classics (1902); favorite brother Guy died (1905); passed Bachelor of Arts honors examination (1906); first novel published (1911); mother died (1911); brother Noel killed fighting in France (1916); two sisters died, possibly by suicide (1917); began life with Margaret Jourdain, writer and expert on furniture (1919); Margaret died (1951).

Selected publications—novels:

Dolores (1911); Pastors and Masters (1925); Brothers and Sisters (1929); Men and Wives (1931); More Women Than Men (1933); A House and Its Head (1935); Daughters and Sons (1937); A Family and a Fortune (1939); Parents and Children (1941); Elders and Betters (1944); Manservant and Maidservant (published in U.S. under title Bullivant and the Lambs, 1947); Two Worlds and Their Ways (1949); Darkness and Day (1950); The Present and the Past (1953); Mother and Son (1955); A Father and His Fate (1957); A Heritage and Its History (1959); The Mighty and Their Fall (1961); A God and His Gifts (1963); (unfinished and published posthumously) The Last and the First (1971).

The critic Charles Burkhardt maintains that all serious writers are eccentric, writers of "extreme individuality whose audiences remain small." Ivy Compton-Burnett was one of that breed, but she was never quite content with her limited readership. Of Agatha Christie , translated and read round the world, she said wistfully, "Think of the pleasure she must give. Think of the pleasure." Yet she admitted that she would have written "for a dozen."

Ivy Compton-Burnett had apparently always expected to be a writer. "We come of a booky family," she said. For Compton-Burnett, her early years held unusually great significance, foreshadowing the world to be created in her novels. Ivy's father James Compton Burnett, a man of great energy, ardent convictions, and considerable charm, was born in 1840 at Redlynch near Salisbury. The family legend held that the Burnetts were directly descended from Gilbert Burnet, bishop of Salisbury, a notable 17th-century writer of church history. The descent may be uncertain. James Burnett himself was the son of a Redlynch coal dealer. His childhood was impoverished, but his vitality and talent propelled him into a medical career. He obtained training on the Continent and early in his professional life became an ardent champion of homeopathic medicine, writing extensively as well as maintaining a large and lucrative practice.

James' first wife, the daughter of a homeopathic chemist, gave birth to five children before she died. His second wife, with whom he was deeply in love, was golden-haired Katharine

Rees Compton-Burnett , daughter of the mayor of Dover. Ivy, born in 1884, was the first of Katharine's seven children. James' career flourished, and the family settled in Hove, Sussex, in a splendid red-brick house of 13 bedrooms with a large staff of servants. Despite prosperity, the inner tensions in the house were many. Ivy, sensitive, observant, and always somewhat delicate, must have felt them keenly. Olive, the eldest of the first group of little Burnetts, eight years old at the time of her father's remarriage, keenly resented her stepmother and would always call her "Mrs. Burnett." Olive's siblings were apparently scarcely happier under the new regime.

Katharine, though proud of her own clever brood and anxious that both daughters and sons should be well educated, was not fond of small children. "She loved us," Ivy would later report, "but she did not like us." She was apparently a highly emotional woman, concerned with her personal beauty, wardrobe, and social status. It was she who hyphenated the family name. James enjoyed his children and played delightful games that they long remembered, but his thriving practice, as well as his extensive popular writings and his editorship of the Homeopathic World, kept him much from home.

Ivy seems not to have been close to her sisters but was deeply attached to her beloved brothers Guy and Noel; she was convinced they would also take up writing. The children were tutored for some years at home. Later Ivy was sent to day school at Assiscombe College for the Daughters of Gentlemen, still later to Howard College, Bedford, but duty to family and home would long be a strong moral imperative for her. The center of her life remained with the large and insulated household at Hove.

The pillar of that household was abruptly removed when Dr. Burnett died in 1901. Katharine went at once into a mourning that was excessive even for a Victorian widow, dressing the entire household black, down to the baby in her crib. Ivy would for many years wear long black gowns, though perhaps for different motives than those of her grieving mother.

In 1902, Compton-Burnett was sent to study classics at the Royal Holloway College at Egham in Surrey, founded not many years previously to educate the daughters of the middle-and upper-middle classes. The college, which contained some 800 rooms, was housed in a newly built château patterned after Chambord in the Loire Valley in France. The furnishings were elaborate and the food excellent, by no means usual characteristics of women's schools of the period. Ivy seems not to have taken a particularly active part in the busy college life, but she was a good student whose own writing would always be influenced by the austere economy, though not the cathartic tragic sense, of the Greeks whom she studied.

In 1905, she was called briefly home to Hove because of the death of her beloved brother Guy. It was a loss that she seems to have felt to the end of her life, a loss that left Katharine, her mother, still more emotionally uncontrollable than she had been since her husband's death. Though Compton-Burnett returned to Holloway, where in 1906 she passed the Bachelor of Arts honors examination, there was no escape from the dark house at Hove, and she was assigned the task of tutoring her sisters. She seems not to have been an eager teacher and apparently sat at table busy with her own writing while the younger girls quietly occupied themselves in their own way.

In 1911, Compton-Burnett's first novel Dolores, a tale of a daughter's determined self-sacrifice, was published. It was the only one of her books in which critics found the marked influence of another author—in this case George Eliot (Mary Anne Evans ). It was also the only one of her books that she later repudiated, even suggesting that her brother Noel had a considerable hand in writing it. Hilary Spurling , her major biographer, has rejected this suggestion.

But now the family life was changing. Katharine died in 1911, soon after the publication of Dolores. Compton-Burnett took over control of the household at Hove, relaxing only slightly her mother's stern regimen, refusing to allow her musical younger sisters to practice their instruments at home. She herself disliked music. In 1915, the sisters declared their independence and moved to quarters of their own choosing, with the noted pianist Myra Hess . In 1916, the second brother Noel, friend of Rupert Brooke and other talented classmates at King's College, Cambridge, was killed fighting in France. "[Guy and Noel] dying like that quite smashed my life up, it quite smashed my life up," Compton-Burnett would say many times. The household at Hove was dismantled.

Further tragedy was to ensue. In 1917, the two youngest sisters died of an overdose of veronal, possibly suicides. The tight family world was gone forever. Adrift and homeless, Compton-Burnett lived from 1916 to 1917 with Dorothy Beresford , the beautiful sister-in-law of her dead brother Noel. In the summer of 1918, like so many other Londoners, Ivy was stricken with influenza and, living alone, was discovered and saved almost by chance. The illness induced a long lassitude. In October 1919, Margaret Jourdain , author and expert on fine furnishings and embroideries, joined Compton-Burnett in her flat at Leinster Square. It was a major turning point in both lives. Margaret was gifted, vigorous, gregarious, unorthodox and, like Compton-Burnett, an atheist. She created a beautiful setting at Braemar Mansions, their longtime home.

Compton-Burnett said that she and Margaret were "neuters." Margaret claimed that she had never felt sexual passion, perhaps, she suspected, because of the frightening hereditary paralysis that had crippled two of her siblings. No matter what the details of their relationship, the two women found peace and stability together. Compton-Burnett was long considered by the many friends who came into their life to be the "dull" one of the pair, quietly pouring tea as the brilliant Margaret shone. But Ivy was writing again. In 1925, 14 years after the publication of Dolores, she found her own unique voice with her second novel, the highly original Pastors and Masters. For the rest of her life, with the exception of trips to the Continent with Jourdain to study art and pick Alpine flowers, writing would be her major preoccupation. She had few other interests.

In her own eccentric way, Compton-Burnett is a radical thinker, one of the few modern heretics.

—Mary McCarthy

As reported by her friend and biographer, Elizabeth Sprigge , Compton-Burnett seems to have spent considerable time thinking about each novel before beginning actual composition. When she was ready to commit words to paper, or, as she said, when a book "seemed to be trying to come out," she wrote on a series of penny exercise books. She used a pencil and erased frequently, since she had, she said with characteristic understatement, "nothing against corrections." When she had completed the first draft of a novel, she threw it away. She then proceeded to write a second draft rather quickly, though still amending. This manuscript, also in pencil on penny exercise books, went to her typist, then on to her publisher.

With the exception of the early Dolores, Compton-Burnett's 20 novels show little influence from other writers. She had in her girlhood been introduced to the major English novelists, especially those of the 19th century—Eliot, Thackeray, Hardy, Charlotte Brontë , and Mrs. Gaskell . She was particularly fond of Jane Austen , though little of Austen surfaced in her own work. Some critics found echoes of Henry James, but such echoes were muted. She did not reflect the other great 19th-century novelists, Dickens and Trollope, who awakened only her guarded admiration.

Compton-Burnett's style has been called abstract and intellectual. Her books are composed largely of dialogue, "something," she said, "between a play and a novel." Descriptions of place are almost nonexistent and descriptions of persons are brief, though often striking, usually appearing when characters are first introduced. The cast of characters is typically large. One would-be novelist has said that he would have practiced the genre if he had ever learned to move characters from one place to another. The problem does not concern Compton-Burnett; her people don't move. They simply are, from paragraph to paragraph, in one place or another. Settings, fragmentarily described, are schools or, more frequently, large country houses in a somewhat decaying state. The country house has been a familiar milieu in English fiction, and it gives scope for the story of Compton-Burnett's major interest—the family.

The presentation is witty, closely observed, and scalpel sharp. Fraud, domestic tyranny, death, bastardy, incest and even murder occur in an atmosphere of outer decorum with the criminal never brought before a court of law. Homosexual relationships are calmly and matter-of-factly explored. Other than money, almost no influence from the outside worlds of politics, public events, and professional activity seep into the hermetic family existence. Clergy appear but not the comforts of religion. One dying character says, "I don't feel I am going to meet my Maker. And if I were, I should not fear Him. He has not earned the feeling." Ultimately, Compton-Burnett's people must live, for better or more frequently for worse, with such disheartening knowledge as they have gained of themselves and of each other.

Though never a bestselling author, Compton-Burnett attracted an appreciative, even ardent core of readers and critics. The novel Manservant and Maidservant, published in the United States in 1947 under the title Bullivant and the Lambs, was generally conceded to be her most satisfying work.

With most of her contemporary women novelists she had little contact, literary or personal. Leonard and Virginia Woolf 's Hogarth Press rejected her third novel, Brothers and Sisters, published eventually by Heather Cranton . Woolf would speak later of "the bitter truth and intense originality of Miss Compton-Burnett," but the two met seldom and never became friends. Ivy seems to have thought poorly of Iris Murdoch , and, at a dinner party requested by Rebecca West , Ivy is said to have downed even that formidable conversational opponent with her wit.

In 1951, the greatest loss "I could have had" came to Compton-Burnett with the death of Margaret Jourdain. In June of that year, she was made a CBE—Commander of the Order of the British Empire—an honor that was dulled by her grief. Her Mother and Son won the James Tait Black prize in 1955, and in 1960 she received an honorary doctorate from the University of Leeds, this time to her satisfaction. Too frail to accept the awards in person, she became a Dame in the Queen's Birthday Honors in 1967 and in 1968 was named a Companion of Literature of the Royal Society of Literature.

In her last years, Compton-Burnett was visited by loyal friends and by her surviving sisters, with whom she was at last reconciled. She died in 1969, leaving unfinished a novel, The First and The Last, which was edited and appeared in 1971 under the imprint of Victor Gollancz, her publisher since 1937. When asked to write her autobiography, Compton-Burnett had refused, since "I have had such an uneventful life that there is little to say." To another correspondent she wrote, "I have not been deedy." Few personal papers of any kind and no letters dating before 1919 survive, and even at her death she left hardly more. She kept no journals, wrote no notes and no self-revealing letters. To a singular degree, for Ivy Compton-Burnett, her life and her books were one.


Baldanza, Frank. Ivy Compton-Burnett. NY: Twayne,1964.

Burkhardt, Charles. I. Compton-Burnett. London: Victor Gollancz, 1965.

Powell, Violet. A Compton-Burnett Compendium. London: Heinemann, 1973.

Sprigge, Elizabeth. The Life of Ivy Compton-Burnett. NY: Braziller, 1973 (originally published in England by Victor Gollancz).

Spurling, Hilary. Ivy, the Life of I. Compton-Burnett. NY: Alfred Knopf, 1984.

suggested reading:

Grieg, Cicely. Ivy Compton-Burnett, A Memoir. Garnstone Press, 1972.

Johnson, Pamela Hansford. I. Compton-Burnett. British Council, Longmans, 1951.

Liddell, Robert. The Novels of Ivy Compton-Burnett. London: Victor Gollancz, 1955.

Margery Evernden , Professor Emerita, English Department, University of Pittsburgh, and freelance writer

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Compton-Burnett, Ivy (1884–1969)

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