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Rediscovering Ivy Compton-Burnett

Ivy Compton-Burnett Hulton Archive Getty Images. Picture shown alongside an image of the inside cover of Hilary Spurling's biography about Ivy Compton-Burnett.
  • 5 June, 2024
  • Stuart Jeffries

June 5 marks the 140th anniversary of the birth of novelist Ivy Compton-Burnett (1884-1969). During her lifetime, Ivy had 19 dialogue-heavy novels published, focusing on family life in the late Victorian and Edwardian upper middle class. She had significant literary success and was awarded the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for her novel, Mothers and Son, in 1955. In 1966, she applied for and received a hardship grant from the RLF.

According to our writer, Stuart Jeffries, Ivy Compton-Burnett is one of Britain’s finest novelists, yet she remains “woefully neglected”. In 2008, Stuart wrote a Guardian article about his fruitless search for physical copies of Ivy’s books in the London city she called home and discovered that, “in a fit of absentmindedness, Ivy has very nearly disappeared from London.”

16 years later and Ivy Compton-Burnett’s work is still less well-known than her contemporaries. So, we invited Stuart to take a look at the life and work of the author he previously described as “the most adorably sour of 20th-century English novelists.”

This article originally appeared on our Substack channel.

1. Anything but an uneventful life

“I have had such an uneventful life that there is little information to give,” wrote Ivy Compton-Burnett. On the contrary: her early life was so extravagantly eventful and terribly sad that one can well understand why, as Adrian Mole’s creator Sue Townsend argued in her introduction to Compton-Burnett’s second novel, Pastors and Masters, she constructed a “carapace” around herself in “an attempt to avoid feeling more pain”.

Ivy was born in the London suburb of Pinner in 1884, the daughter of an illustrious homeopathic doctor, James, who had five children from his first marriage and fathered seven more with Ivy’s beautiful, neurotic and increasingly tyrannical mother Kathleen. When died in 1901, Kathleen plunged herself and the family into mourning, insisting all the children, even the baby, wear black for a year.

Ivy escaped in 1902 to study classics at Royal Holloway college in Surrey, but by 1906 was summoned back to the isolated family home in Hove, Sussex, to teach the younger children. Her mother’s death in 1911 effectively made Ivy the head of the household.

After this, Ivy and her family suffered a further series of tragedies. Her beloved brother Guy, with whom she collaborated on her first novel, Dolores, died of pneumonia. Another brother, Noel, was killed at the Battle of the Somme. On Christmas Day 1917, her youngest sisters, Topsy and Primrose, 18 and 22 respectively, were found dead after taking veronal (barbital, a now-banned tranquilliser used for severe insomnia) in a locked bedroom.

Compton-Burnett suffered what sounds like a mental and physical collapse. Her biographer, Hilary Spurling, writes that “the long series of shocks culminating in the deaths of her sisters must have lowered Ivy’s resistance for she was desperately ill in the influenza epidemic which ran through London like the plague in the summer of 1918.” For several months of that year, she was in what Spurling calls a state of “extreme debility, unable to read or write”.

2. Cruel families

“Apart from physical violence and starvation,” wrote critic Edward Sackville-West, “there is no feature of the totalitarian regime which has not its counterpart in the atrocious families depicted in [Compton-Burnett’s] books.”

The novels Ivy wrote between 1919 and her death in 1969 unfold in psychic torture chambers – schools that make Oliver Twist’s seem pleasant; stately homes where everyone from manservant to master is as sharp-witted as Dorothy Parker and as existentially savage as Michel Houellebecq; and breakfast parlours where children are eviscerated by demented grown-ups for the crime, we often feel, of having been born.

Manservant and Maidservant, her favourite of her own books, begins with seething domestic frustrations sublimated – as so often – into pedantic Oxford-style philosophising:

“Is that fire smoking?” said Horace Lamb.
“Yes, it appears to be, my dear boy.”
“I am not asking what it appears to be doing. I asked if it was smoking.”
“Appearances are not held to be a clue to the truth,” said his cousin. “But we seem to have no other.”

3. Single and smart?

Compton-Burnett’s women are unspeakably clever and darkly sardonic about their inferior status. Like some of the ‘spinsters’ Compton-Burnett wrote about, she remained single, at least officially, though she lived with Margaret Jourdain in a grand Kensington apartment until the latter’s death in 1951.

It was Margaret who helped Ivy recover from her breakdown. She moved into Ivy’s flat in October 1919. Margaret, a writer and furniture expert, was 43 and Ivy, 35. She pampered Ivy through a long convalescence. “It was years since Ivy had mattered in this way to anyone, far less been able to depend on anyone as she had once done on her brothers,” wrote Hilary Spurling in her biography.

The two women lived together until Margaret’s death, during which time Ivy wrote her first post-war novel – without Margaret’s knowledge. Pastors and Masters was published in 1925, and the first time Margaret learned of the manuscript’s existence was when Ivy produced a copy from under the bedclothes. It was hailed as “a work of genius” by the New Statesman.

Whether or not their relationship was sexual is unclear. Compton-Burnett later had a long and fond relationship with Madge Garland, founder of the School of Fashion at the Royal College of art and one-time editor of British Vogue.

Ivy’s novels are, for their times, remarkably relaxed about homosexuality: in More Women than Men (1933), Josephine Napier is found in a lesbian embrace with a teacher from the girls’ boarding school she runs. In Two Worlds and their Ways (1949) Oliver Firebrace has a romantic relationship with Oliver Spode, who is not only a fellow schoolmaster but also his half-uncle.

4. For many readers, her books were (and are) ‘putdownable’

“My books are hard not to put down,” Compton-Burnett said. A one-star comment on Goodreads suggests that today’s readers sometimes struggle to know who is talking, to whom and what they’re on about in Compton-Burnett’s novels. Even some admirers recommend a card system of characters and their relationships so as not to get lost. For many, though, she’s worth the effort: imagine Oscar Wilde’s wit founded on Schopenhauer’s misanthropy or PG Wodehouse rewritten by Patricia Highsmith.

Certain contemporaries were also intimidated by what they believed to be her genius. Virginia Woolf wrote: “My writing is much inferior to the bitter truth and intense originality of Miss Compton Burnett”, adding that next to her rival’s sparkling fictions, Woolf reckoned, her book The Years was “a dank failure.”

5. Dialogue-heavy

“I do not see why exposition and description are a necessary part of a novel. They are not of a play, and both deal with imaginary human beings and their lives,” said Compton-Burnett. She disdained what  Virginia Woolf called “the heavy upholstered novel” in favour of terse, sometimes gnomic novels, in which 90% of the writing consisted of dialogue.

Some critics, however, found her dialogues implausible. Indeed, in a published conversation between Margaret Jourdain and Ivy Compton-Burnett, the former recalled how one reviewer, after reading Compton-Burnett’s novels, “said that it was impossible to ‘conceive of any human being giving tongue to every emotion, foible and reason with the precision, clarity and wit possessed by all Miss Compton-Burnett’s characters, be they parlourmaids, children, parents or spinster aunts.’”

6. A heretical thinker

Mary McCarthy called her “a radical thinker, one of the rare modern heretics”. Compton-Burnett enjoyed the amoral pleasures of depicting apparent pillars of society who were, in fact, thoroughly immoral. For this reason, she has been described as post-modern, upending values and making us enjoy awful persons without imposing authorial moral judgment.

“This is the merriest tale of human depravity you will ever read,” wrote Hilary Mantel in her introduction to A House and Its Head, during which Christmas morning in 1885 ends with the presents in the fire and a power struggle raging as the Edgeworths go at each other’s throats. “Ivy is as pitiless as Jane Austen,” added Mantel approvingly.

7.  A forgotten writer 

“It is always dangerous to prophesy immortality for any writer, but it is certain that Dame Ivy Compton-Burnett’s novels will be discussed a century hence,” wrote critic David Holloway. Her books sold in large numbers during World War Two, to, as Hilary Spurling put it, “a general public which responded… without reservations to the severe and startling honesty of a writer whose moral economy had, so to speak, always been organised on a war footing.”

Ivy Compton-Burnett was made a Dame in 1967, yet today most of her novels are out of print. While contemporaries like Virginia Woolf and Elizabeth Bowen are feted and subjected to doctoral studies, Ivy Compton-Burnett is neglected.  Her books have hardly ever been adapted for stage or screen even though, to my mind, her arch dialogue is wittier and more scabrous than that of any contemporary novelist or TV writer (her dark view of human nature and savage humour reminds me of Jesse Armstrong, writer of Succession).

Her neglect is a terrible shame: for me at least, Ivy Compton-Burnett, of all English novelists, is the one we should be reading today as bracing, clever and mordant  corrective to the half-truths, comforting platitudes and manifold fatuities of our age.


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