A Compton-Burnett

By Sara Compton-Burnett

Dame Ivy Compton-Burnett:
A well-kept secret

"My novels are hard not to put down" Miss Compton-Burnett herself once said. She wrote 19 novels between 1925 and her death in 1969, but these were no easy bed-time read. Consisting almost entirely of dialogue, they are written in a spare, concise and formal style which at first glance seems boring or outmoded. This perhaps explains why she seems to be a rather well-kept secret; most well-read 40-something downwards people have never read a word by her.

But her books amply reward effort. They are about money, power, status, incest, adultery, murder, homosexuality (about which she was years ahead of her time) and all the other passions and stresses that make up family life, described with brilliant wit and perception. Her own initially intense and then traumatic experiences of family life provided some of the material she was to draw on later as a novelist. She has a striking ability to stop a reader dead in his/her tracks with some stunning statement and this is a distinguishing feature between her and many of the great novelists to whom she has been compared.


Picture of Ivy Compton-Burnett as a childBorn in 1884, the eldest child of Dr. James Compton Burnett, a distinguished homeopathic practitioner, and his beautiful if temperamental second wife, Katherine (his first wife had died in childbirth leaving 5 children under 8). Ivy had 6 younger siblings, including brothers Guy and Noel to whom she was especially close. Educated at home with her brothers, they had a secure if isolated childhood.

Then in 1901, when Ivy was 16, her father died and everything changed. His distraught widow plunged the whole family including the baby into black for well over a year, and became increasingly neurotic and despotic.

Four years later Guy, Ivy's true soulmate, died of pneumonia. Her mother died in 1911, and in 1916 Noel, to whom Ivy had turned after Guy's death, was killed on the Somme. On Christmas Day 1917 Ivy's two youngest sisters committed joint suicide in their bedroom; the following year Ivy was desperately ill with pneumonia.

So by her early 30's Ivy had lost all those closest to her. She drew a line under her past and started a new life in London, (sharing a flat for the next 32 years with Margaret Jourdain, the well-known journalist and writer on furniture and interiors) never again spoke of the events of her first 33 years and never married.


CBE in 1951

Made a Dame in 1967 for her services to literature.

In 1968 elected one of the 12 Companions of Literature alongside Dame Rebecca West and John Betjeman.

Best-known novels

Manservant and Maidservant, More Women than Men, A Family and a Fortune, A House and its Head, A God and his Gifts

Tributes to her writing

Critics of her day:

New Statesman: "Miss C-B is one of the very really original novelists alive... Her strange books have about them the golden touch of perfection: in their own sphere they are flawless works of art, and no-one else could conceivably have written a page of them."

TLS: "Brilliant wit... a formal and sophisticated elegance of conversational idiom, and a gift for quiet, bland and sinister melodrama, and you get this remarkable and unusual novelist, who has in her own well-tilled field, no rival and no parallel."

The Guardian: "Of the two candidates for greatness among comic novelists of our time, Evelyn Waugh and Ivy Compton-Burnett, it is her prospect that looks the more secure. There is nobody in all this writing world even remotely like her."

Frequently compared to Henry James, Congreve and the Greek dramatists and proclaimed as a 20th century Jane Austen.

Fellow writers:

Rosamund Lehmann: "The purest and most original of contemporary English artists."

Virginia Woolf wrote in her diary of how her own writing was "much inferior to the bitter truth and intense originality of Miss Compton-Burnett", and how such thoughts kept her awake at night.

Ivy's rejection of the Hogarth Press's advances to publish her books fostered a rift between her and Woolf which never healed.

Accolades to particular books

1955: Mother and Son won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize.

1984: A group including The Arts Council of Great Britain, The Society of Authors, and The Writers Guild proclaimed Manservant and Maidservant one of the top 13 "Best Novels of our Time" (effectively of the 20th century)

1996: A.N. Wilson in the Evening Standard listed the "100 books that everyone should read" and beneath Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice came Ivy Compton-Burnett's More Women then Men (among only 20 or so novelists in the English literature section).


Several radio plays, two 1960's TV plays.

1975: West End production of A Family and a Fortune adapted by Julian Mitchell starring Sir Alec Guinness

1974 and 1984: Two TV dramatisations produced to coincide with the publication of Hilary Spurling's acclaimed two-part biography of Ivy.

© 1997, 1998 by Sara Compton-Burnett
Reprinted by kind permission of the author