Ivy Compton-Burnett - World Literature

World Literature

Ivy Compton-Burnett


BORN: 1884, Piner, Middlesex, England

DIED: 1969, London, England


GENRE: Fiction


A House and Its Head (1935)

Elders and Betters (1944)

Manservant and Maidservant (1947)

The Present and the Past (1953)

Mother and Son (1955)



Dame Ivy Compton-Burnett. Compton-Burnett, Dame Ivy, 1955, photograph. Picture Post / Hulton Archive / Getty Images.



British novelist Ivy Compton-Burnett was a prolific writer, regarded during her lifetime as one of the most original writers of fiction in England. She attracted a small but devoted following of readers who appreciated her epigrammatic prose style and delighted in plot structures that were more often than not outrageously complex. The link between biography and fiction is crucial to an understanding of Compton-Burnett and her work.


Works in Biographical and Historical Context

Childhood in a Large Victorian Family. Born on June 5, 1884, in Piner, Middlesex, England, Compton- Burnett was the eldest daughter of James Compton Burnett and his second wife, Katherine. She was reared in a Victorian household of twelve children that included the numerous domestics whom she later cast as characters in her novels. Her father was a successful homeopathic physician. His second wife was a beautiful woman fifteen years his junior. To mark her own status, and that of her children, she introduced the hyphen into the Compton- Burnett name, thus distinguishing herself from her husband and his children by a previous marriage.

A Victorian Family Life. James Compton-Burnett’s medical practice in London kept him away from the family home in Hove during the week, leaving his wife in charge of the household. In the Victorian era—the nineteenth-century decades when Queen Victoria ruled over Great Britain—women were idealized as the helpmates of men and the keepers of the home and were seen as the ‘‘weaker sex.’’ A woman’s proper sphere of influence was considered her home and her children. Compton-Burnett’s mother created an atmosphere of family tension and encouraged the sibling rivalries and secret alliances that were later to be analyzed with such clinical precision in her daughter’s fiction. From the materials of her upbringing, Compton-Burnett would re-create this world of her childhood, inverting and subverting its values.

Except for the years spent at Howard and Royal Holloway Colleges, Compton-Burnett spent her life within the confines of this family until she was thirty years old. The children from her father’s first marriage left home as early as possible. After their father’s sudden death in 1901, the children of the second marriage were left in the care of their mother, but her mental and physical health degenerated so severely in the period leading up to her death in 1911 that Compton-Burnett was called upon to take increasing responsibilities in the rearing of her younger siblings. These responsibilities suited neither her interests nor her natural abilities. She was more interested in writing, and found some success at it, published her first novel Dolores in 1911.

Multiple Tragedies. Compton-Burnett’s attempt to establish a writing career were halted by events at home. Between the death of her father and the eventual breakup of the family home in Hove in 1915, the entire family lived ‘‘under the shadow of death.’’ They passed these years in mourning, first for their father and later for their brother Guy, who died of pneumonia in 1905. Her other adored brother, Noel, was killed while serving in World War I at the Battle of the Somme (a five-month British and French assault on the German position in Somme, which led to six hundred thousand casualties on the Allied side alone) in 1916. Two younger sisters, Topsy and Baby, killed themselves in a suicide pact in 1917. During these difficult years Compton-Burnett became increasingly withdrawn, and her jovial spirit gave way to bitterness. She retreated behind a mask of reserve, carefully watching the behavior of those around her.

Fourteen-Year Hiatus. Between the publication of Dolores and Pastors and Masters (1925), there was a fourteen-year silence during which she recuperated from the trauma she suffered because of the deaths of her parents and four siblings. During this time, she also tried— unsuccessfully by her own account—to recover from the effects of the World War I. The Great War was fought primarily in continental Europe but greatly affected Britain. While it began with the assassination of Austro-Hungarian Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Serbia, the war soon encompassed much of the continent as diplomatic alliances and long-simmering tensions came to a head. Britain lost nearly an entire generation of young men who fought in the conflict, with casualties topping two million.

During these years, Compton-Burnett did not write. After her sisters left the house in Hove, she lived with various women—including the widow of her brother Noel—eventually meeting Margaret Jourdain, a strong, independent professional writer whose expertise was English antiques and period furniture. The two women began to live together when Jourdain was forty-three and Compton-Burnett thirty-five. Jourdain was in large part responsible for Compton-Burnett’s return to health and her renewed interest in writing.

About this time, Compton-Burnett discovered the writings of British-born author Samuel Butler, who wrote such novels as The Way of All Flesh (1903). Here she found the great theme and succinct style for her novels that were to follow. After Pastors and Masters, she published Brothers and Sisters (1929). Like its 1925 predecessor and most of the novels to follow, Brothers and Sisters restricts its subject to family life and draws heavily on events from the author’s own personal life. There are recognizable portraits of her, her brothers and parents, and her mother’s father.

Limited Book Sales. Between the publication of Men and Wives (1931) and More Women than Men (1933), Compton-Burnett and Jourdain moved to a spacious first- floor flat in South Kensington—the residence they would occupy until their respective deaths. Though Compton- Burnett realized she was becoming well known as a novelist and well reviewed as a writer, she began to worry about the sales of her books. She grew concerned about her earning power as a novelist, becoming dissatisfied with more than one publisher because her novels, though they sold steadily, continued to sell in only a small market.

Gap in Writing during World War II. Between Parents and Children (1941) and Elders and Betters (1944), there is a gap in Compton-Burnett’s writing brought about by England’s involvement in World War II. In Europe, the war was primarily fought to thwart the territorial ambitions of Nazi Germany and its dictator, Adolf Hitler, who sought to control the whole of the continent. Germany had nearly achieved its goal by 1941 and then subjected Great Britain to intense bombing in preparation for what was believed to be an invasion to take over the island nation. To escape the intense bombing of London in 1941, Compton-Burnett and Jourdain went to Hartley Court, near Reading, for the duration of the war. Elders and Betters, her only novel of the war period, is one of her darkest works—in which every character but one (Jenney) is marred by selfishness and greed, and every action tends to deceit and cruelty.

After World War II ended in the mid-1940s with a victory for Great Britain and its allies, Compton-Burnett’s country faced rebuilding challenges with vigor and the author was able to write again. Manservant and Maidservant (1947) represented the zenith of her career as a writer of comic fiction. In contrast, however, Darkness and Day (1951) was published ten days after Margaret Jourdain’s death from a lung ailment, marking the moment when Compton-Burnett’s life again returned to the shadow of loneliness, recalling the years of despair that followed the breakup of her own family.

New Recognition. By the 1950s, the brilliant middle period of Compton-Burnett’s creativity had passed. It was in these later years of her life, though, that she was discovered and appreciated by other writers and literary officials. The 1960s marked a decade of national and international recognition of her work. She was named a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 1967. Compton-Burnett spent the last years of her life with only the closest of friends. She suffered from a weak heart and two broken hips, the effects of several bad falls that made entertaining and traveling nearly impossible. She died of bronchitis on August 29, 1969, leaving unfinished the manuscript of her last novel, whose title suggests her keen awareness of its place in the canon of her writings: The Last and the First.



Compton-Burnett's famous contemporaries include:

Wallis Simpson (1895-1986): An American socialite who married King Edward of England. Edward had to abdicate in order to marry the twice-divorced woman, and they lived as the Duke and Duchess of Windsor thereafter.

Jane Edna Hunter (1882-1971): The African-American attorney and social worker renowned for founding the Phyllis Wheatley Association of Cleveland, Ohio.

Alice Paul (1885-1977): An American suffragette remembered as the one who was most instrumental in ensuring the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which gave women the right to vote.

A. A. Milne (1882-1956): British author best known for his beloved children’s books about Winnie the Pooh.


Works in Literary Context

Influences. Novelist Samuel Butler’s philosophy and prose style heavily influenced Compton-Burnett’s works. Among the various passages she underlined from Butler’s Note-Books several point to her attitude toward the tyrannical and claustrophobic aspects of family life that constitute her artistic subject matter. She also discovered in Butler’s work a succinct and skeletal prose style that she imitated, refining it to an elegance previously unknown in the English novel.

Unique Style. Difficult to classify, either in terms of genre or historical period, Compton-Burnett’s works are both modern and outdated, both typical and atypical of the English novel tradition in which she wrote. Her novels expose various characters’ efforts to attain and maintain power in the family. They also often dissect the artificiality of the society they examine in an equally artificial speech. In addition, her works reveal the secret passions of family members through acts of theft, murder, blackmail, incest, and violence.

Men and Wives demonstrates her introduction of the more heinous crimes central to her fiction—matricide, fratricide, and infanticide—showing that while such crimes may never result in retribution (no Compton-Burnett criminal is ever brought to court, as such secrets are kept within the family), neither do they succeed in significantly altering the balance of power. The author introduces here the first of a long series of charming baronets (Sir Godfrey Haslam) and the first of her articulate, comic, and irrepressible butlers (Buttermere). Buttermere begins the long line of servants whose pungent observations on events and ability to ‘‘manage’’ their managers, constitute a classic level of Compton-Burnett comedy.

Complicated Themes. In many of Compton-Burnett’s novels, there seems to be no easily extractable moral from the story. Indeed, the inversion of moral values is perhaps the central theme of her work. Rather than providing solutions to moral dilemmas, she merely sets in motion events that lead to such dilemmas, allowing the reader to juggle and balance ethical distinctions. Instead of ignoring or displacing legal and religious strictures that would ordinarily be placed upon the actions of characters like those she creates, she pushes the moral questions of her novels beyond the limits imposed on human action by church and state. Her novels complicate the ethical issues they treat, making it impossible to find easy solutions to the problems posed by her characters’ efforts to establish power and dominion over other human beings.



Here are a few works by writers who have also scrutinized family values:

Agnes Grey (1847), a novel by Anne Bronte. In this Victorian novel, the author explores her own family as well as those families for which she served as governess.

Long Day's Journey into Night (1956), a play by Eugene O'Neill. In this modern drama, excruciatingly close focus is put on the dysfunctional Tyrone family.

Song of Solomon (1977), a novel by Toni Morrison. This contemporary tale focuses on the dynamics of the Southern African American family.

Wuthering Heights (1847), by Emily Bronte. In this Gothic romance, the family itself plays a predominant role in the tale.


Works in Critical Context

Compton-Burnett shared nothing with other novelists of her time, and she remained as highly individualistic and anachronistic as her fictional subjects. This rendered her works nearly impossible to classify. Scholar Pamela Hansford Johnson has suggested that it is this very impossibility of classifying her work that has ensured a continuing interest in it. Johnson wrote, ‘‘Miss Compton-Burnett’s great strength lies in the fact that we cannot place her; and so also does her weakness.’’ Of such works as Pastors and Masters, for example, critics agreed with Johnson.

While Compton-Burnett’s readership was limited in the early years, perhaps more than any other critic, Robert Liddell was responsible for bringing Compton-Burnett’s work to a larger reading public. In 1953, he addressed the problems of her novels and excused her style and choice of themes (of family tyranny). He wrote, ‘‘She is ... able to depict a world unshaken by modern warfare, a community rooted in a single place, and lives still ruled, and even laid waste, by family tyranny. She can do this, because she need only take a period of fifty years ago, when she was herself already alive—therefore she can recreate this age without the artificiality and falsity of the historical novelist.’’

Pastors and Masters. When Compton-Burnett increased the complexity and enhanced the action, she also increased the passion with which critics reviewed that work. Pastors and Masters is the most complicated of the early novels, exploiting the tensions of family life through a fast-paced plot that relies almost solely on dialogue. Critical response reflected the strains that Compton-Burnett placed on her readers. The New Statesman review of the book acclaimed it a ‘‘work of genius,’’ while the reviewer admitted that there was ‘‘nothing ofwhich to take hold’’ in the work, that there was virtually no ‘‘story’’ in the novel.


Responses to Literature

1. Compton-Burnett scholars believe that the writers’ work and life are inextricably bound. Consider the comments and excerpted dialogue by Compton- Burnett that follow. How do you interpret each comment? If you didn’t know her general life story, what do you think the comments say about the woman herself?

‘‘Time has too much credit. ...It is not a great healer. It is an indifferent and perfunctory one. Sometimes it does not heal at all. And sometimes when it seems to, no healing has been necessary.’’

‘‘You are clutching at a straw. And when people do that, it does sometimes save them.’’

‘‘You cannot eat your cake and have it.’’ ‘‘That is a mean saying. You could, if you had enough cake. It is sad that it has become established. It throws a dark light on human nature.’’

‘‘Pride may go before a fall. But it may also continue after.’’

‘‘I think it nearly always rains. We only notice when it pours.’’

‘‘People are only human. But it really does not seem much for them to be.’’

‘‘To know all is to forgive all, and that would spoil everything.’’

2. Compton-Burnett wrote about the late-Victorian family. Research the nature of the typical family in the late 1800s and early 1900s in England, and compare the Victorian family to a typical family in your culture. What do the two still have in common? What to you seems drastically different? To what do you attribute these differences?




Johnson, Pamela Hansford. I. Compton-Burnett. London: Longmans, Green, 1951.

Liddell, Robert. The Novels of I. Compton-Burnett. London: Gollancz, 1955.

Sprigge, Elizabeth. The Life of Ivy Compton-Burnett. New York: Braziller, 1973.


Blackman, Ruth. Review. Christian Science Monitor (September 7, 1929).

Crane, Milton. Review. Saturday Review (March 26, 1955).

Web Sites

BrightLights Film. Ivy Compton-Burnett, English Novelist, 1884-1969. Retrieved March 14, 2008, from http://www.brightlightsfilm.com/ivy/. Malcolm Ingram. Ivy Compton-Burnett. Retrieved March 14, 2008, from http://www.malcolmingram.com/icbframe.htm.

Washington University in Saint Louis Libraries. Finding Aid for the Ivy Compton-Burnett Papers. Retrieved March 14, 2008, from http://library.wustl.edu/units/spec/manuscripts/mlc/findingaidshtml/wtu00029.html.