Ivy Compton-Burnett
Ivy Compton-Burnett; drawing by David Levine

What have the following in common: Chaucer, Francis Bacon, Donne, Bunyan, Herrick, Jonathan Swift, Smollett, Lamb, Keats, and Shelley? They are the names of characters in the novels of Ivy Compton-Burnett. In her final novel, now posthumously published as The Last and the First, there is even a Miss Murdoch. Yet the pregnant exchange about Miss Murdoch’s portentous verbal mannerisms cries out (silently, of course, as always in this mistress of the tacit) to be applied rather to the novels of Miss Compton-Burnett herself, those skeletons from family cupboards which between 1925 and 1963, from Pastors and Masters to A God and His Gifts,1 have daunted and delighted with their finely bony family likeness. From beyond the grave—as so often in the novels themselves, where the human will has its last joyless fling when it makes its will—there now comes this disconcerting admonition, a concession which is disarming yet armed; taking the words out of one’s mouth and having them as the last word.

“Miss Murdoch seems in her way an unusual woman,” said Madeline.

“She does,” said Sir Robert. “It is a safe thing to say.”

“She is not unusual in herself,” said Eliza. “She has invented a way to seem so. And I daresay it deceives many people, including herself and Madeline.”

“It is true,” said Hermia. “And people are perceiving the truth. She may have done better at first, when the method was more alive. Before it was an echo of itself.”

Yet those names, Chaucer and others: what is she up to? It is characteristically taunting, a persistent insinuation which we are by no means sure how to take. One way to take it is humbly, as before a goddess and her gifts. Charles Burkhart’s book2 on Miss Compton-Burnett can hardly bring itself to look her gift horses in the eye, let alone in the mouth. He too much substitutes gratitude, about which the novels happen to be bitterly acute, for thinking, and so feels no qualms about saying simply this: “A minor, quite meaningless, but amusing convention is that many of the characters’ names are those of literary figures.”

He ought to have taken note of, and not just noted, the somber injunction in The Present and the Past: “It is a mistake to ignore conventions. There is always a reason behind them.” For as Mary McCarthy observed in her incisively intelligent inquiry into “The Inventions of I. Compton-Burnett,”3 such nomenclature is one of the unignorable ways by which the novels establish their uneasy complicity—for better and worse—with the family of authors, a family whose rivalries, closing of the ranks, pressures, and passions are no less intimidating than those of the domestic family. From first to last the novels are alive with writers, professional and amateur (Daughters and Sons and A God and His Gifts each have an infernal trinity).

The novels—which are tinglingly self-conscious about being novels, and are in important respects about themselves—do not take a blithe or benign view of imagination and of the creative drive, including their own. They brood—a creative process but a glowering stationary one. They ponder the puns buried like time bombs within words like dictate. Or deep-rooted derivations, such as affiliate authors to authority and to authoritarian. They speak often of Oedipus—in The Last and the First it is said of Jocasta Grimstone and her Osbert that she “felt to him as her son, but had her own view of him as a man, and was in no danger of her namesake’s history.” But we scent in the novels a doubt whether Oedipus’s option was not somewhat on the soft side, since all he had to guess was the answer and not first the riddle.

The Last and the First was complete, though not finally revised, at Dame Ivy’s death in 1969, aged eighty-five. It is the mixture as before, the only problem being the usual one that the label is mysteriously missing from the bottle and so there seems to be no telling what the mixture is. Poison or antidote? The constituents, which are at once cool ingredients and close obsessions, are the familiar family ones such as fermented the previous eighteen phials from Dame Ivy’s dark laboratory. (There, too, in that odd first novel, Dolores, published in 1911, which is a fascinating compendium both of what she subsequently most grasped and what she most came to repudiate.)

“How the first can be last, and the last first!” Hermia Heriot, at thirty-four, braves her stepmother’s wrath, and invests her father’s money and her own self-esteem in a local school so that she may find scope for her talents. She fails to find it and perhaps even them. A proposal of marriage is no substitute, and is rejected. But her suitor opportunely dies and leaves her all, to his mother’s incredulous perturbation. Will Hermia embrace her good fortune or take a high moral line? And will she anyway do the right thing by her father and stepmother, now impecunious? Or will she—a last-minute bolthole—accept a new suitor whose letter had been feloniously intercepted by that stepmother for whom nothing had always been the obvious point to stop at? And if so….


What we are reading is another chapter in that long day’s dying which is the death of the family (death dealt by it and to it). The opening at a family breakfast which is both lurid and chilling; the setting, assured but vague, within late Victorian England; the domestic tyrants; stepchildren and crossed loyalties; a school in decay; the two households which are in collision and in collusion; the unheralded proposal of marriage; the flabbergasting last will and testament, the purloined letter, the misplaced secret, and the overheard conversation; the self-righteous perfidy and chic chicanery of the powerful, and the witty muttering of the put-upon: these constitute The Last and the First, as they have constituted the novels from first to last. Likewise the moral and linguistic preoccupations: with innocence (a steely quality not at all incompatible with its opposite, nocence, harmfulness), gratitude, courage, mystery and secrecy, people’s sphere, people’s place, people’s scale.

The atmosphere does not change in this world where few windows are opened and where even the melodramatic smashing of them brings no freshness but merely a revelation of the ingenious triple glazing. It is a heavy atmosphere, in which sayings hang like Damoclean swords, or like unmoving mobiles, or like stale smoke left over from a previous book as from a previous day (one reason why the books begin with daybreak). You don’t only hear the sayings, or see them in the dun air sublime, you snuff them. “Nothing goes deeper than manners.” “It might be as well to forget it.” “That is a thing she will have to face.” “Speaking a true word, if hardly in jest.” “There are things that have to be said. Or they might really go without saying.” “Silence can say more than words.” “I have done my best.”

As always, there is the preternatural alertness not only to locutions and elocutions, but also to the way we elocute about locutions. ” ‘I suppose this is a thing I should not say,’ said Madeline, as she prepared to say it.” Or: ” ‘But she would not have accepted him,’ said Amy unthinkingly, or rather saying what she thought.”

“Hear yourself as others hear you”: that renovation intimates a world in which people pay each other the sweetly lethal compliment of listening hard. Ears are cocked, like pistols. For no utterance is perfectly armored, and even pinpricks may with time and luck be fatal. There are some bracing duels in The Last and the First. The housekeeper, Mrs. Duff, exacts her revenge, her pound of flesh made word, by remorselessly describing as a “lodge” the smaller house near to the main gates (or lodge, indeed) to which the newly impoverished family will now have to move. Again, Mrs. Grimstone and her grandson are out to slice more than the literal breakfast ham—logic finds itself not chopped but sliced. (“Do you expect other people to eat the fat you have left?” “Is it any good to expect it? Do you think they would?”) Again, Eliza rebukes her thirty-four-year-old stepdaughter:

“Did you have a fire in your room last night, Hermia? I saw the ashes in the grate as I passed the door.”

“Then you know I had one. And you must have opened the door. I shut it when I came down.”

“I open any door in my house when and where I please. That is not what I said. I asked if you had a fire in your room, and I am waiting for an answer.”

“There is no need of one. You have seen that I did. It was too cold to be without one.”

“Did you ask me if you could have a fire? You know my rule.”

“The words would have had no meaning.”

Or there are the novel’s opening words; Miss Compton-Burnett has always been exquisitely courteous to her readers, giving them ample warning not to expect the ample.

“What an unbecoming light this is!” said Eliza Heriot, looking from the globe above the table to the faces round it.

“Are we expected to agree?” said her son, as the light fell on her own face. “Or is it a moment for silence?”

“The effect is worse with every day. I hardly dare look at any of you.”

“You have found the courage,” said her daughter, “and it is fair that you should show it. You appointed the breakfast hour yourself.”

Lady Heriot did not suggest that anyone else should appoint it.

Ivy Compton-Burnett was given her cult—an ambiguous gift, as what gods give must be. She was rather toadied to, and it is no accident that probably the best pieces of criticism are by writers in whose throats toads would especially stick: Mary McCarthy and Kingsley Amis. 4 As often, cults interlock; her affinities with Jane Austen (of which too much is made if almost anything is made—the novels of George Meredith would be more like it) have hinderingly helped to give her loyaler attendants even than the Janeites, and she shares with the cults of, say, Sherlock Holmes and of P. G. Wodehouse’s Jeeves some features which too much lend themselves to charades and chortles. Still, though her admirers tend to be snobbish about her books, her books are not snobbish.


How good are they? As with Jane Austen, the answer often takes the form of coming out for a particular novel by means of some quasi-judicious comparisons; and in those terms I’d plump for A House and Its Head (1935) and A Family and a Fortune (1939), adding that The Last and the First now forms an honorable unstartling pendant to the whole sequence and glimmers with a wintry generosity. But such comparisons within the oeuvre don’t get far. They don’t, for instance, help with the crucial question of range. Her books are not without intense joys and sorrows, and if the events are cloistered it is with the full-blooded hatreds of a soliloquy in a Spanish cloister.

But it remains true that there are a myriad ways in which human beings think, feel, and act such as never gain entrance to the Compton-Burnett world—not even as haunting absentees. To those who offer as a retort or critical argument the name again of Jane Austen, an answer might begin in the belief that Tolstoy is a greater writer than Jane Austen, among other reasons because range, scope, amplitude are relevant—though not punitive or dismissive—critical considerations.

It is true that special effects—of allusive economy, of taunting sobriety—are achieved by Miss Compton-Burnett’s very exclusions. She earns much by her basic decisions about how to make her artistic living (decisions which are of course human and not merely technical)—and she pays a price. Of certain poets it may be said (and has best been by Donald Davie) that they command a diction, with the accompanying sense of otherwise feasible words being fended off from the poem, not given admission but making their absence felt; of other poets, that the whole resources of the language are newly open to them and through them, and that they have a language, not a diction. Justice and a proper pleasure ask that we see how much a diction can truly effect, which is a great deal.

Nevertheless the greatest writers have a magnanimity and width which are less predictable while yet involving the greatest expectations. One can be confident that Miss Compton-Burnett’s gifts were original, altogether genuine (genuinely obsessional), strictly inimitable, and distinctively exhilarating, without averting one’s eyes from the severe limits within which such severe excellence was achieved. She is to the modern novel as A. E. Housman is to the modern poem; we should be sufficiently grateful to such finely frugal artists as not to visit upon them the specially unbecoming gesture of being inordinate on their behalf.

The stubborn puzzle, though, is that of the relationship of the books’ manner to their matter. Is the novels’ substance—family feelings and what they imply and implicate—affected by the weird means by which it all is brought to our attention? In art, the how and the what together create the why; and it is the why of Ivy Compton-Burnett that is centrally enigmatic.

Much of the dialogue is unearthly; her admirers intone the word “stylization” and pace on. But what is the point of such stylization, and what does it do to—or for—the meaning of what such novels say? Most of the characters are character types (autocratic stepmother, feckless drawler, bright child, and so on). What do the novels mean to say to us about the relationship of the idea of type to psychological truth?

Is one of their reticent insistences the embodied proposition that—despite the implicit claims of most novels—we can know a great deal about how people feel and think without much knowing them as people? Certainly the novels stand in a bizarrely antithetical relationship to those Victorian novels, unwearyingly patient in the exploration of individual psychology, which the Compton-Burnett settings and subject matter cannot but summon up. And the plots: how are we to take their fantastic coincidences, their bolts from the blue, their unremitting confidence that every machine will have its attendant god waiting to come down and sort things out? Does such a method of construction ask us to put upon what the novel seems to say a different construction?

Dialogue, character, plot: in each case there springs to every critic’s mind the word “convention.” But this word, though an essential start to the critical argument, is hopeless as any kind of useful conclusion to it. There are three distinct positions once improbability is admitted to burgeon in these novels. (The admission is often grudging, and critics wriggle in order to make out that such things do happen but don’t much come to light. True, but arguing about undiscovered murders is a cloudy business, and it is not only myopic realists who find the events in Compton-Burnett strange beyond belief.)

You can claim that in Compton-Burnett the plot, for instance, is blankly neutral. “The novels employ the Greek paraphernalia just as they employ any other convention, as a vehicle not as an end” (Burkhart). The “vehicle” simply, and not the artistic medium; the medium, after all, affects the message, whereas a vehicle delivers the goods. So Burkhart’s critical epilogue says of The Last and the First: “The plot, never very important in these novels, seems as usual arbitrarily imposed, a mere mechanical framework for the ceaseless talk.” Such a conception of plot—or indeed of any of the elements that together constitute a work of art—is radically mistaken, though one often despairs of curing anyone hooked on it.

Secondly, you can simply deplore the incongruity by which these novels yoke together truth of feeling with falsity (that is, laxity) of convention. Kingsley Amis candidly praises the realistic passions of hatred and pity, while candidly deploring the means by which these passions are mediated: “They work not through, but alongside and apart from, an arbitrary method of construction and a technique of dialogue which is too often de-individualizing and at times undisciplined.”

Third, you can accept Amis’s description of the disjunction (Miss McCarthy similarly remarks that the novels “do not ‘relate’ to their material in the ordinary literary way, but crab-wise”), but then ponder whether such a disjunction is necessarily a bad thing—that is, whether it cannot make its own point. The ambition both of comedy and of melodrama (mingled in Compton-Burnett, as in Wilde or as in Shakespeare’s last plays) is to hold up to nature not just a mirror but a distorting mirror. That the mirror indeed distort is not something that one is supposed, with misguided magnanimity, to avert one’s eyes from. Do Miss Compton-Burnett’s extraordinary novels really think of themselves as showing us the way that things are, or even were? Or are they not meant to tease us into thought, by a cryptic combination—as in surrealism—of lifelikeness and lifeunlikeness? ” ‘Well, it shows that all things are possible,’ said Madeline. ‘And it is sometimes hard to believe that that is true.’ ”

But comedy, though rooted in our wish to believe that all things are possible, is committed to assisting us, gently, not to succumb to such a wish. “We have art that we may not perish of the truth”; we have comedy that we may not perish of the truth that not all things are possible. A comedy in which a character (or, implicitly, the plot) says otherwise is not necessarily asking to be believed. Ivy Compton-Burnett was not naïve but properly deep when she said oracularly (and oracles act out their truthful comedy) that “as regards plots, I find real life no help at all. Real life seems to have no plots, and as I think a plot desirable and almost necessary, I have this extra grudge against life.” Such umbrageous comedy as hers is to help us not to take such umbrage against life.

This Issue

October 21, 1971