The Ivy Compton-Burnett Home Page
Ivy on . . .
Excerpts from the London Times obituary, August 28, 1969
DAME IVY COMPTON-BURNETT
Dame Ivy Compton-Burnett, D.B.E., who died yesterday, had for long been regarded by some critics as one of the foremost figures in English fiction, though she was slow in attaining that prominence. She was 85.
She was an uncompromising "high-brow" writer who made no concession to her readers' laziness, who never departed from the novel as a form, and who restricted her own novels to a single subject; life in the closed circles of the family....
Though her artistic integrity was as pure as that of Jane Austen she would never have wished to be regarded as an isolated, dedicated writer. "I give very little time to writing", she used to say. And yet almost regularly, ever other year, there was a new book: "I'm a biennial", she said. She found time for other things: for flowers, for keeping abreast with contemporary literature, and for her friends. Teatime was her hour, and it was a prolonged hour, for tea went, as in one of her novels, "through all its stages" in her flat in Kensington. For years she had shared it with Margaret Jourdain, the expert in English furniture; during these years, and in the lonely years that followed Miss Jourdain's death in 1951, she enjoyed seeing their literary and artistic friends, and others who belonged to neither of these categories.
She was exquisitely neat and good mannered and her chat was gossipy, cosy and amusing though sometimes there were pregnant silences, sharp questions and sibylline utterances. She was intensely interested in the details of other people's lives, and acutely aware of the importance of money in them. Her letters, short and rather formally phrased, and written in a hideous and distinctive hand, often surprised and touched the recipient by a few words of piercing intimacy and kindness. Those who loved her and they were many must have been stupid or self-satisfied indeed if they were quite without fear of this acute observer, this high-minded judge of human behavior; but she was as sensitive as she was acute, and her mercy was of the quality required by that Christianity in which she did not believe. Her values were those of an enlightened, nineteenth-century, liberal agnosticism....
She began to write with Delores (1911). "One wrote it as a girl" and it is a juvenile and sentimental work in which a daughter's self-sacrifice, in the face of paternal selfishness, is regarded as noble; in the later mature novels such self-sacrifice would be roundly condemned. Nevertheless, there is already a great precision in phrasing, a happy eye for eccentricity, and a turn for aphorism. She published nothing else until her sketch, Pastors and Masters (1925), a short but entirely mature work... There followed a series of novels in which parental tyranny and unhappy families were penetratingly exposed in a dialogue of ever increasing brilliance....
In an interview, she once described her books as all "much of a muchness", and they are very alike in theme and range; each, however, has its own special talents. The finely integrated plots of Men and Wives (1931), A House and Its Head (1935) and The Present and the Past (1953) have especially attracted some readers... she understood the strengths of the family no less well than its weakness, and the alliance between members of the same generation is as well analysed as the opposition between the generations. Particular mention must also be made of... the scenes "below stairs" in Manservant and Maidservant, her one book to be successful in the United States [where it was published as Bullivant and the Lambs].
Her work, from the first appreciated by a few discerning admirers, was for many years dismissed by critics and by the general public as the object of a modish cult. The bare, stylized dialogue needs a closer attention than most novel-readers are prepared to give. But the fine comedy and the deep humanity of her books in later years attained a wider recognition...
The radio, for which her brilliant dialogue is eminently suited, won Miss Compton-Burnett many more adherents: several of her novels have been adapted for broadcasting....
Though she was grateful for the appreciation of dramatized versions of her novels A Heritage and its History and A Family and a Fortune, many of her closest friends thought this success came to her too late in life to give her much pleasure.