Ivy Compton-Burnett

An introduction

by Hilary Spurling

Picture of Ivy when youngIvy Compton-Burnett is a puzzle. She was born in 1884, within a year or so of Virginia Woolf, James Joyce and D.H. Lawrence, but her particular originality could hardly be further from the strenuous pioneering effort, the stylistic shock tactics and underlying romanticism of the giants of the Modern Movement. Her tone is cool, dry, sharp, irreverent and ironic. She was over forty when she made her debut in the 1920s alongside a much younger generation of novelists like Evelyn Waugh and Anthony Powell, with whom she had in some ways more in common than with her own contemporaries, whose imaginations had been formed and furnished before the First World War.

Pastors and Masters appeared in 1925. "It is astonishing, amazing. It is like nothing else in the world. It is a work of genius," wrote the New Statesman's reviewer. Its wit, acidity and quiet cynicism were picked up at once in Vogue by the young Raymond Mortimer, who would be one of the first to recognise in the strange, condensed and abstracted forms of I. Compton-Burnett's early novels the closest it was possible to come to post-impressionism in fiction. For Mortimer and others like him between the wars, she represented the last word in bold and daring innovation: "something quite, quite new," said Rosamond Lehmann. "I was so dazzled by it, she became my favourite novelist immediately." If the young were enthusiastic, the literary establishment responded with understandable caution to works that seemed to embody all the more unwholesome, frivolous and unsettling tendencies of decadent modern youth. I. Compton-Burnett's second novel, which became something of an intellectual rallying point for bright young things in 1929, had been turned down in manuscript by Leonard Woolf at the Hogarth Press ("She can't even write," he said), and her growing reputation in avant-garde circles over the next decade continued to give his wife Virginia sleepless nights.

From the beginning lvy's mystery strengthened her appeal. Nobody knew who she was or where she came from, and the few who met her were deeply disconcerted to find a nondescript, retiring, resolutely uncommunicative character who dressed and behaved more like a Victorian governess than a radical iconoclast. She had not yet evolved the protective formal carapace she would acquire in later life, when her austere features, erect carriage and penetrating stare often petrified even the most sophisticated observers. She seemed already formidably severe to Anthony Powell, when he met her for the first time after the second war. "Ivy Compton-Burnett embodied a quite unmodified pre-1914 personality," he wrote, identifying the extraordinary impression she produced in fact as a construct no less stylised and artificial than the Victorian settings of her fiction. "Her jewellery managed never to look like jewellery but, on her, seemed hieratic insignia," wrote the painter Robin Fedden, describing Ivy in her prime:

I do not recall seeing her out of black. She wore it like a uniform, with care but with the disregard of mode proper to uniform. A sense positively of the services attached to a black tricorne, vaguely reminiscent of an eighteenth-century quarter-deck ... For me, the physical impression was recurrently of a Roman head, a soldier-emperor, perhaps Galba. The rolled hair and the ribbon sometimes seemed like a laurel wreath.

By the time she died in 1969 she had become a legend, a public image so forbidding and remote that, when I set out soon afterwards to write her life, I found it hard at first to credit the fond, sociable, disarmingly absurd and affectionate creature described by friends who sorely missed her. The discrepancy was only one of many contradictions about her life and work for, as Powell pointed out, the two could not be separated, nor could the mystery of the one be solved without recourse to the other. Again and again her admirers had found themselves baffled and brought up short by her sedate appearance and resolutely prim small talk. It was as if the Victorian trappings provided, in both fact and fiction, a protective cover behind which her penetrating subversive intelligence might operate unsuspected, freely and without constraint.

There was little Ivy did not know, and nothing she could not say, about the ravages of jealousy, lust, greed, vanity, cruelty and aggression: the physical and emotional abuses perpetrated behind a facade of eminently respectable domesticity in her books. Her plots may take place in the 1890s but her preoccupations belong unequivocally to the twentieth century. Politics did not detain her. She had no interest in radical or any other sort of chic, but she spent the better part of her life analysing steadily and with unnerving precision the totalitarian misuse of power in a closed society, the pollution of thought and language, the ruthless oppression by the strong of weak and vulnerable victims. "I write of power being destructive," Ivy said, when asked about the violence and repression inside her nineteenth-century families, "and parents had absolute power over children in those days. One or the other had." She set her books at the time of her own girlhood in a world smashed and obliterated by the 1914-18 war. Her own early life supplied a body of material which she used, not for subjective exploration, but to examine dispassionately, in a series of clinically controlled fictional experiments, the squalor and brutality as well as the courage, generosity and endurance secreted in the tenderest and most private recesses of the human heart.

Ivy was born in Pinner in 1884, the seventh child of a leading homeopathic physician, Dr James Compton Burnett. She was the first child of his second marriage: her mother, Katharine Compton Burnett, was a beautiful, delicate, imaginative, imperious and highly competitive woman who had met her future husband as his patient, and fallen passionately in love with him. Their devotion was mutual and, when Dr Burnett's first wife died in childbirth, he remarried so promptly that Ivy was born less than two years after her last half brother. Her mother inherited five small stepchildren (one had already died in infancy), ranging in age from eight years old down to the new baby, and over the next fifteen years she bore seven more of her own.

Dr Burnett installed his growing family for the sake of their health in a capacious house on the south coast at Hove, spending the greater part of each week himself away in town, immersed in the demands of a rapidly expanding London practice. Katharine Compton Burnett, who was easily bored by domesticity and had never in any case cared for children, found herself immured without outside contacts or adult company in a household full of increasing numbers of her own and her hated predecessor's offspring. She possessed neither the inner resources nor the external support that might have helped her to bear loneliness and frustration. The children, competing for attention and affection in nursery and schoolroom, had no option but to submit to the steadily more tyrannical rule of an unchecked, unquestioned, unhappy and peremptory autocrat. It was a recipe for the kind of catastrophe which will be familiar enough to readers of I. Compton-Burnett.

Ivy herself grew up in a self-contained unit formed for mutual defence and protection with her beloved younger brothers, Guy and Noel. The three played together and shared a governess: Ivy, learning Latin and Greek with her brothers' tutor, was encouraged by the liberal and unorthodox Dr Burnett to prepare to read classics at London university (neither Oxford nor Cambridge gave degrees to women in those days). She had dearly loved her father, who died without warning from a heart attack in 1901 when she was sixteen. Her mother, hysterical and distraught, never fully recovered her mental or moral balance. She dressed the whole family in unrelieved black, retreating with them from now on to a life of almost complete isolation from the outside world, venting her depression on her eldest daughter and depending for consolation on Guy, who had always been her favourite. But Guy caught pneumonia and died as suddenly as his father in 1904, while Ivy was away in her final term at university. She had felt by her own account as close as a twin to Guy and now turned in her despair to Noel, forming an inseparable pair with him in the three years before he went up to Cambridge. The stepchildren had long since fled to London. Noel's departure left Ivy shut up at home with her mother, condemned to teach her four younger sisters, without friends of her own or openings or any imaginable prospect of escape. She had worn black throughout her youth and in the long years of mourning her father and Guy, and she wore it again in 1911 when Mrs Compton Burnett died of cancer after a long and debilitating illness.

Under her mother's will, ivy inherited the post of head of household, establishing her own autocratic rule over her four sisters until they mutinied in 1915, and ran away together to set up an independent establishment in defiance of her authority in London. Noel had been for years Ivy's ally, her sole source of intellectual stimulation and emotional support in a decade of bitter desolation since Guy died. But Noel joined the army as a sub-lieutenant on the outbreak of war with Germany in August 1914, and was killed two years later in the battle of the Somme. Ivy could never talk afterwards about the war, nor speak of her brother to the day of her death without tears welling up in her eyes. The closing phase of the war marked the lowest point for the surviving Compton-Burnetts. Even Ivy, who had seemed rock-like, inscrutable, inured to grief and shock, could not withstand the blow which destroyed the last remnants of the only life she had ever known. No one had anticipated, or could ever afterwards explain, the deaths of her two youngest sisters who killed themselves, aged twenty-two and eighteen, by swallowing veronal behind the locked door of their bedroom on Christmas Day 1917.

Ivy fell ill after the inquest, and very nearly died herself in the deadly flu epidemic that swept London the following summer. She emerged slowly and painfully over the next few years from a period of prolonged mental, physical and emotional prostration, a state she described at the time as death in life. The publication of Pastors and Masters marked her recovery: a final distancing from the experiences of her first forty years which she never discussed in fact, but whose implications she would spend the next forty years and more exploring in fiction.

"People say that things don't happen like they do in my books," she once said earnestly to an old friend: "Believe me, they do." Her second novel, Brothers and Sisters, was of all her books the one that stuck most closely to her own past, examining the depredations of a jealous, demanding, extravagantly grief-stricken widow directly based on Ivy's mother. It is an unreassuring, if not unsympathetic portrait — one of the things Ivy's admirers found most disconcerting was her refusal to dismiss or condemn her fictional tyrants out of hand — and it lays down for the first time a relationship with the past that would remain constant in all her subsequent novels. Sophia Stace stands revealed with disturbing clarity in the light of the hard, frank, unblinking stare Ivy's contemporaries found so essentially modern. "One suddenly sees that she is all that is worst in the nineteenth century," wrote a perceptive reviewer, comparing I. Compton-Burnett favourably with William Faulkner in the New York Saturday Review in 1929,

and the young people with their forthrightness and independence, all that is best of the twentieth. Their modernity gives them ... the ability to go through the fire and escape the burning. All other books on this theme are stories of the present defeated by the past; Brothers and Sisters is a story of the present hurt by the past, but not defeated.

Ivy had tried once before to deal with much the same autobiographical material in Dolores, a solemn, agonised and thoroughly conventional account of the plight of a dutiful daughter at home, published in 1911 and afterwards disowned by its author, who made a point of turning its theme of self-sacrifice and self-repression upside down in all subsequent books. "The sight of duty does make one shiver," as somebody says in Pastors and Masters. "The actual doing of it would kill one, I think." The flippancy and high spirits of Ivy's early novels made them peculiarly provoking to readers who found her uncompromising truthfulness hard to take. Moral indignation added zest to her critics' more self-righteous stylistic objections, as Raymond Mortimer pointed out in 1935:

At first sight her work strikes you as clumsy and heavy-fisted; her figures, though solid, are not what is called "life-like", and she composes her books on highly defined and artificial designs. In fact, she is open to all the reproaches laid upon the founders of post-impressionism. And it is still as useless, I think, to put her work before the general public as it was to put that of Cézanne a quarter of a century ago ...

Ivy herself made no claim to be an innovator, and was often drily humorous about the more preposterous assertions advanced on her behalf. But at the start of her career she too had struggled, as fiercely as Cézanne and his successors, in the grip of a dead aesthetic orthodoxy. There is no mistaking the reader's sense of relief and liberation on switching from the stifling, sombre, humourless and increasingly frantic convolutions of Dolores to the clarity and light, the bold colours and hard outlines of the later novels: "an icy-sharpness prevails in the dialogue", wrote Elizabeth Bowen, reviewing Elders and Betters in May, 1941. "In fact, to read in these days a page of Compton-Burnett dialogue is to think of the sound of glass being swept up one of these London mornings after a blitz."

Ivy's books sold in large numbers in the second war to a general public which responded for once 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. The effect of stiffness and surface distortion no longer seemed a problem in a world where the comforting half truths, clichés and conformist platitudes of convention were temporarily in abeyance. Ivy was after all an almost exact contemporary of Picasso and today, more than a century after her birth, readers may well feel inclined to agree with Elizabeth Bowen, who found complaints about her technical oddity beside the point: "Miss Compton-Burnett, as ever, makes few concessions; she has not, like some of our writers, been scared or moralised into attempting to converge on the 'real' in life. But possibly life has converged on her."

Ivy, The Life of I. Compton-Burnett© 1990, 1998 by Hilary Spurling
Reprinted by kind permission of the author

Hilary Spurling is the author of the acclaimed biography, Ivy: The Life of I. Compton-Burnett.