Ivy Compton-Burnett

Picture of Ivy's mouth

> A conversation with Margaret Jourdain, 1945

> BBC interview, 1960

> Studs Terkel interviews Ivy Compton-Burnett, 1962 (You can hear this interview by selecting the Real Audio file terkel-a0a1j3-b.rm in the section titled "Terkel comments and presents Talking To Myself - Part 1." You can also read this interview at amazon.com.)


Excerpts from
A Conversation
Between I. Compton-Burnett
and M. Jourdain

Margaret Jourdain: We are both what our country landladies call "great readers," and have often talked over other people's books during this long quarter of a century between wars, but never your books.

Ivy Compton-Burnett: It seems an omission, as I am sure we have talked of yours. So let us remedy it.

M.J: I see that yours are a novel thing in fiction, and unlike the work of other novelists. I see that they are conversation pieces, stepping into the bounds of drama, that narrative and exposition in them are drastically reduced, that there is less scenery than in the early days of the English drama, when a placard informed the audience that the scene was "a wood near Athens," and less description than in many stage directions. There is nothing to catch the eye, in this "country of the blind." All your books, from Pastors and Masters to the present-day Elders and Betters are quite unlike what Virginia Woolf called the "heavy upholstered novel."

I.C-B: 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. I have been told that I ought to write plays, but cannot see myself making the transition. I read plays with especial pleasure, and in reading novels I am disappointed if a scene is carried through in the voice of the author rather than the voices of the characters. I think that I simply follow my natural bent. But I hardly think that "country of the blind" is quite the right description of my scene.

[ . . . ]

M.J: I have heard your dialogue criticised as "highly artificial" or stylised. One reviewer, I remember, 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." It seems odd to object to precision, clarity and wit, and the same objection would lie against the dialogue of Congreve and Sheridan.

I.C-B: I think that my writing does not seem to me as "stylised" as it apparently is, though I do not attempt to make my characters use the words of actual life. I cannot tell you why I write as I do, as I do not know. I have even tried not to do it, but find myself falling back into my own way. It seems to me that the servants in my books talk quite differently from the educated people, and the children from the adults, but the difference may remain in my own mind and not be conveyed to the reader. I think people's style, like the way they speak and move, comes from themselves and cannot be explained. I am not saying that they necessarily admire it, though naturally they turn on it a lenient eye.

[ . . . ]

M.J: In all your work you go back to the period between the South African war and the "Great" war, when time stood still. One novel (A Family and a Fortune) is dated 1901, and the others are all around the same date. England is still on the gold standard; the miser Clement Gaveston has a pile of sovereigns in his desk—carriages are horse-drawn, and there is an ample supply of servants.

I.C-B: I do not feel that I have any real or organic knowledge of life later than about 1910. I should not write of later times with enough grasp or confidence. I think this is why many writers tend to write of the past. When an age is ended, you see it as it is. And I have a dislike, which I cannot explain, of dealing with modern machinery and inventions. When war casts its shadow, I find that I recoil.

M.J: Did you take any suggestions for the characters or plots in your novels in your novels from actual life; I mean from our own friends and acquaintances?

I.C-B: I think that actual life supplies a writer with characters much less than is thought. Of course there must be a beginning to every conception, but so much change seems to take place in it at once, that almost anything comes to serve the purpose—a face of a stranger, a face in a portrait, almost a face in the fire. And people in life hardly seem to be definite enough to appear in print. They are not good or bad enough, or clever or stupid enough, or comic or pitiful enough. They would have to be presented by means of detailed description, and would not come through in talk. I think that the reason why a person is often angered by a supposed portrait of himself, is that the author leaves in some recognisable attributes, while the conception has altered so much that the subject is justified in thinking there is no resemblance. And I believe that we know much less of each other than we think, that it would be a great shock to find oneself suddenly behind another person's eyes. The things we think we know about each other, we may often imagine and read in. I think this is another reason why a supposed portrait gives offence. It is really far from the truth....

As regards plots I find real life no help at all. Real life seems to have no plots. And as I think a plot desirable and almost necessary, I have this extra grudge against life. But I think there are signs that strange things happen, though they do not emerge. I believe it would go ill with many of us, if we were faced by a strong temptation, and I suspect that with some of us it does go ill.

[ . . . ]

M.J: I don't think you have the note-book habit, I mean the collection of unrelated notes of things seen and heard. Katherine Mansfield filled note-books with memoranda and worked these up into what she called vignettes, or into her stories. She also made notes of phrases and sentences for as she said, "one never knows when a little tag like that may come in useful to round off a paragraph." I like to know how people work.

I.C-B: I daresay you do, but the people themselves are not always quite sure. I have not the note-book habit; that is, I do not watch or listen to strangers with a view to using the results. They do not do or say things that are of any good. They are too indefinite and too much alike and are seldom living in anything but the surface of their lives. Think how rarely we should ourselves say or do anything that would throw light on our characters or experience.

But as I have already said, some sort of starting-point is useful; and I get it almost anywhere; and I doubt Katherine Mansfield really got more help than this from what she saw and heard. You say she worked it up, and I am sure she must have done so.

I cannot understand her noting phrases and sentences for future use, and find it hard to believe that they served any purpose. Rounding off a paragraph, occurring in the normal course of writing by a tag overheard and stored up, seems to me too unnatural to be possible. She said that she never knew when such things would come in useful, and I suspect that she never found out.


*The complete "conversation" originally appeared in Orion: A Miscellany, Vol. I. London: Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 1945. Compton-Burnett and Jourdain later read it for a BBC radio broadcast. An excerpt appears in The Life of Ivy Compton-Burnett by Elizabeth Sprigge (London: Gollancz, 1973) and is reproduced in its entirely in The Art of Ivy Compton-Burnett by Charles Burkhart (London: Gollancz, 1972).

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