Ivy Compton-Burnett

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Ivy Compton-Burnett
Ivy Compton-Burnett.jpg
Born (1884-06-05)5 June 1884
Pinner, Middlesex, England (now in London)
Died 27 August 1969(1969-08-27) (aged 85)
Kensington, London, England
Occupation Novelist

Dame Ivy Compton-Burnett, DBE (/ˈkʌmptən/; 5 June 1884 – 27 August 1969) was an English novelist, published in the original editions as I. Compton-Burnett. She was awarded the 1955 James Tait Black Memorial Prize for her novel Mother and Son. Her works consist mainly of dialogue and focus on family life among the late Victorian or Edwardian upper middle class. Manservant and Maidservant (1947) is considered one of her best.

Early life[edit]

Ivy Compton-Burnett was born in Pinner, Middlesex, on 5 June 1884, as the seventh of twelve children of a well-known homeopathic physician Dr James Compton-Burnett (pronounced 'Cumpton-Burnit'), by his second wife, Katharine (1855–1911), daughter of Rowland Rees, Mayor of Dover.[1] Her first cousin was Margery Blackie, a homeopathic physician. Ivy grew up in Hove and London. She was educated at home with two brothers until the age of 14. She attended Addiscombe College, Hove, in 1898–1901, then boarded for two terms in 1901–02 at Howard College, Bedford, before embarking on a university degree in Classics. After graduating she in turn tutored four younger sisters at home.[2]

Ivy's mother sent all her stepchildren away to boarding-school as soon as possible. According to the scholar Patrick Lyons, "In widowhood Compton-Burnett's mother provided her with an early model for the line of outrageous domestic bullies that appear in her novels, anticipating the grief-stricken and over-demanding Sophia Stace (Brothers and Sisters, 1929) and the more shamelessly lucid Harriet Haslem (Men and Wives, 1931), who declares candidly: "I see my children's faces, and am urged by the hurt in them to go further, and driven on to the worse." Four of Ivy's sisters rebelled against home life in 1915 and moved up to London to live in a flat with the pianist Myra Hess. Ivy successfully managed the considerable family fortune after her mother's death.[2]

In the author blurb of the old Penguin editions of her novels there was a paragraph written by Compton-Burnett herself: "I have had such an uneventful life that there is little information to give. I was educated with my brothers in the country as a child, and later went to Holloway College, and took a degree in Classics. I lived with my family when I was quite young but for most of my life have had my own flat in London. I see a good deal of a good many friends, not all of them writing people. And there is really no more to say." This omits the facts that her favourite brother, Guy, died of pneumonia; another, Noel, was killed on the Somme, and her two youngest sisters, Stephanie Primrose and Catharine (called "Baby" and "Topsy"), died in a suicide pact by taking veronal in their locked bedroom on Christmas Day, 1917. Not one of the twelve siblings had children, and all eight girls remained unmarried.[3]


Compton-Burnett spent much of her life as a companion to Margaret Jourdain (1876–1951), a leading authority and writer on the decorative arts and the history of furniture, who shared the author's Kensington flat from 1919. For the first ten years, Compton-Burnett seems to have remained unobtrusively in the background, always severely dressed in black. When Pastors and Masters appeared in 1925, Jourdain said she had been unaware that her friend was writing a novel.[2]


Compton-Burnett was appointed a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire (DBE) in 1967.


Ivy Compton-Burnett held no religious beliefs; she was a "fierce Victorian atheist".[4] She died at her Kensington home on 27 August 1969 and was cremated at Putney Vale Crematorium.[2]


Apart from Dolores (1911), a traditional novel she later rejected as something "one wrote as a girl," Compton-Burnett's fiction deals with domestic situations in large households which, to all intents and purposes, invariably seem Edwardian. The description of human weaknesses and foibles of all sorts pervades her work, and the family that emerges from each of her novels must be seen as dysfunctional in one way or another, with parents struggling with children, or sibling rivalries producing malicious, if covert, power struggles.[5]

Starting with Pastors and Masters (1925), Compton-Burnett developed a highly individualistic style. Her fiction relies heavily on formal dialogue (in strong contrast to the often melodramatic plots),[5] and demands constant attention on the reader's part: there are instances in her work where important information is casually mentioned in a half sentence, and her use of punctuation is deliberately perfunctory. The result is to create a deliberately claustrophobic fictional world, dominated by the psychological exploration of small-scale power-abuse and persecution.[6]

Critical reception[edit]

There has been longstanding appreciation of Compton-Burnett's novels. Of Pastors and Masters the New Statesman wrote: "It is astonishing, amazing. It is like nothing else in the world. It is a work of genius".[7] In her essay collection L'Ère du soupçon (1956), an early manifesto for the French nouveau roman, Nathalie Sarraute hails Compton-Burnett as "one of the greatest novelists England has ever had."

Elizabeth Bowen said of the wartime Parents and Children, "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."[8] Patrick Lyons wrote over 30 years later, "These are witty and often demanding novels, peopled with alert sceptics who are devoted to epigrammatic talk and edgily precise analysis of talk."[2]


*Published in the United States as Bullivant and the Lambs.

There has been a recovery of UK and US interest in her novels in the 2000s.[9] There were several translations into French, Italian, Spanish and other languages.


  1. ^ Rowland Rees, Mayor of Dover profile, doverlife.co.uk; accessed 7 April 2016.
  2. ^ a b c d e Patrick Lyons, "Burnett, Dame Ivy Compton- (1884–1969)", ODNB entry. Retrieved 9 July 2014.
  3. ^ Janik, Viki K. Modern British Women Writers: an A-to-Z guide. ISBN 978-0-313-31030-0
  4. ^ A N Wilson (25 February 2008). "As if by magic, Spurling's young Ivy appears". The Telegraph. Retrieved 18 February 2017. 
  5. ^ a b D. Daiches (ed.), The Penguin Companion to Literature 1 (1971) p. 114
  6. ^ I. Ousby ed., The Cambridge Guide to Literature in English (1993) p. 197
  7. ^ Quoted in Spragge, Elizabeth (1975). The Life of Ivy Compton-Burnett. George Braziller. p. 73. ISBN 978-0807606858. Retrieved 1 May 2018. 
  8. ^ Quoted in Charles Burkhart (ed.), The Art of I. Compton-Burnett (London: Gollancz, 1972), p. 55.
  9. ^ Ten out of the twenty were available or shortly to be available again in the UK in printed form at end May 2012: Pastors and Masters, Men and Wives, A House and Its Head, A Family and a Fortune, Parents and Children, Elders and Betters, Manservant and Maidservant, Two Worlds and Their Ways, The Present and the Past, and The Last and the First – collated results from The Book Depository, retrieved 31 May 2012, and Amazon UK, retrieved 31 May 2012. Some others were available in electronic editions.

Further reading[edit]

  • Hilary Spurling: Ivy: The Life of I. Compton-Burnett (1995). Combines two volumes originally published separately in 1974 and 1984 (ISBN 978-1860660269).
  • Cicely Greig: Ivy Compton-Burnett: a memoir. London: Garnstone Press, 1972. ISBN 0-85511-060-0
  • Frederick R. Karl: "The Intimate World of Ivy Compton-Burnett", A Reader's Guide to the Contemporary English Novel (1961), 201-219.

External links[edit]