Inscrutable as an owl, Ivy Compton-Burnett sits out on a limb of literature, singular, eccentric, and keeping herself to herself. “Her work…seems to encourage false generalizations…. Though easy to read, she is a hard writer to grasp,” wrote Mary McCarthy; and she went on to compare her to “a giant footprint or a flying saucer,” baffling her critics. “Doubtless by her own wish, she remains a phenomenon, an occurrence in the history of letters. It would appear to be hubris to try to guess her riddle.”1

Pamela Hansford Johnson did not even find her easy to read. “The ease with which the persons of her novels may be confused in the memory,” she complained, “is a genuine flaw, a flaw which above all must make Miss Compton-Burnett always a writer for the ‘few,’ as only few are able to make the concentrated intellectual effort.”2 Compton-Burnett is not so much hard to understand as exhausting. Sometimes one feels like saying, as her friend the actor Ernest Thesiger is supposed to have done when asked about his experiences at the battle of Ypres: “My dear, the noise!! and the people!!!”—only in Compton-Burnett’s novels the carnage is mental, not physical, and the noise is the machine-gun fire of relentless, incredibly articulate, compressed talk. Perhaps finding it wearying is just a sign of British laziness and lack of fiber: Nathalie Sarraute had no such problem and admired Compton-Burnett precisely for “the monotonous obstinacy with which, during forty years of labor, and throughout twenty books, she has posed and solved, in an identical manner, the same problems.”3

To Sarraute, Compton-Burnett was an innovator, carrying on where Proust and Woolf left off. Her most striking innovation was to write almost entirely in dialogue. The dialogue is not remotely naturalistic. “Those long stilted sentences, rigid yet sinuous,” says Sarraute, “are not like any conversation one has ever heard. Nevertheless, though they may seem strange, they never give the impression of being false or gratuitous. That is because they happen not in some imaginary place, but in a real one: on the fluctuating border between conversation and subconversation.” By conversation she appears to mean what people actually say, which is like bubbles rising to the surface of a pool in whose depths thoughts and feelings wriggle about; the subconversation, on the other hand, follows, describes, expresses, or actually is the wriggles. Compton-Burnett’s dialogue is “a close-fought, subtle, ferocious game between conversation and subconversation.” That is what makes it so funny, though Sarraute does not seem to notice.

What strikes her is that Compton-Burnett’s technique enabled her to achieve instant perfection. Certainly the novels give the impression of being exactly what was intended, and if the plots are often hammy, full of locked drawers, lost wills, stolen letters, and suddenly discovered relationships, like incest, that must be due to unconcern rather than ineptitude. Compton-Burnett’s idiosyncratic perfection produces an alienation effect. Readers can never stop noticing how oddly but aptly things are put, and that makes a barrier between them and the characters. They can’t be carried away except by the cleverness of the performance—but that is immensely exhilarating.

All the same, there is something gaunt and gawky about the novels. They reminded Mary McCarthy of “some naive realist: the Douanier Rousseau or Grandma Moses,” Hilary Spurling says that English critics have tended to compare Compton-Burnett with Impressionist and post-Impressionist painters. It is hard to see a resemblance, except perhaps with Cubism in its strictest phase, since Compton-Burnett’s palette is all black and gray. Benjamin Britten said that “if Giacometti sculptures could talk, they would speak like the characters in [Compton-Burnett’s] books.” A brilliantly evocative remark: the voices one hears in the books are sepulchral Dalek voices, even the children’s. Funny and witty though the novels are, they remain bleak and sad.

They resemble one another like members of a family, and families are what they are about—late Victorian families of the upper middle class or country gentry. There are children, servants, tutors, governesses, and celibate, dependent poor relations; sometimes doctors, lawyers, or clergymen make an appearance, but the main characters tend to be rentiers, unemployed except for talking, tyrannizing, and being tyrannized. Occasionally one or the other makes a journey, but only for things to happen behind his back; the reader is never allowed to go along, or indeed to leave the house and grounds except perhaps for a trip to the village post office or to attend a funeral. Sooner or later every critic is forced to use the word “hermetic.”

It is not only the oeuvre as a whole that is monotonous, but each individual novel: the hairsplitting, paradoxical talk never lets up, the stilted speech and abstract diction never vary from one character to another. Even the children have total command of grammar, syntax, and cliché. There is never a change in the measured pace as each player unhurriedly picks up his cue in a relentless stichomythia for any number of speakers whose lines are not always easy to disentangle. Slang, colloquialisms, and even contractions like “don’t” and “he’ll” are banned. The vocabulary is small: “This is not an accident,” Mary McCarthy said. “The same reductive, puritan discipline is at work. She is teaching her vocabulary not to be idle. In the same way, she has boiled down narrative to a few basic plot elements not unlike the statements of symbolic logic…. It is impossible to imagine her coining a word. The fewer the better.” The Compton-Burnett idiom is catching: after putting down a novel one needs a few minutes to get one’s own speech back to normal, like the audience after a Pinter play still conversing by pregnant silence as they fumble for their car keys.


There are no descriptive or contemplative passages in the novels; no character is ever alone, and neither is the reader—another tiring element. Strictly serviceable sketches introduce each character on first appearance:

Ninian Middleton was a tall, almost handsome man of fifty-six, with the family features in another mould, a difference in the same dark eyes, long, supple hands and nervous movements. His voice was high and uncontrolled, in contrast to Selina’s deep and steady one, and he seemed to hear his own words and measure their effect.

The last words amount almost to a stage direction, and it is in these that Compton-Burnett’s brilliance is most artfully encapsulated. Asked about the family’s taste in food, ” ‘I am conversant with their preferences,’ said Cook, with nothing in her tone to indicate that she would be influenced by these.” Or, in a tricky social situation (endemic in Compton-Burnett): “Tilly acted on her knowledge that glancing at her brother would be going too far.” Both of these quotations are examples of Compton-Burnett’s pince sans rire humor—there is no English word that fits, perhaps because there is something un-English about the mordant intelligence of this so insular and insulated writer.

It will be clear by now that Compton-Burnett is an acquired taste. Once it has been acquired one may still feel that a little goes a long way; or else it can become an addiction and even something of a cult, as it did during the last two decades of Compton-Burnett’s life (she died in 1969, aged eighty-five). “For more than forty years,” Spurling writes, “Ivy used the domestic novel, distanced by her ostensibly Victorian style and setting, to explore atrocity, violence, the corruption of language and the totalitarian abuse of power.” In real life she never discussed any of these topics; with her friends she stuck to gossip, and strangers were relentlessly kept at buy with talk about her troubles with her refrigerator or the exorbitant price of strawberries, which she adored—her greed for these and expensive chocolates being legendary.

Of the enormities on Spurling’s list, corruption of language is the most interesting because language is the instrument for committing the others. Compton-Burnett had no interest in abroad and when she went there it was to Italy and France. It is not easily conceivable that she had heard of Die Fackel: nevertheless, she is the English Karl Kraus, shining her torch into dark corners where words are tortured until they tell lies.

Sometimes she takes them by the hand and leads them back into the daylight. In Manservant and Maidservant, for instance, Magdalen has behaved badly to Mortimer Lamb, whom she wants to marry. “We must both forget it,” she says. “People never succeed in doing that,” he replies. “It is only a way of saying that it is a dangerous thing to remember.” Manservant and Maidservant was Compton-Burnett’s own favorite among her novels. The chief figure in it is Mortimer’s brother Horace, a domestic tyrant and miser who takes burning coals off the fire, rations the family’s cutlets, and sends his children to church in shamingly shabby clothes; then, by twisting words, he makes their desire for normal amounts of food and comfort appear to be vulgar ostentation. But they are not deceived and understand perfectly what he does to language. “Shut that book, Tamasin,” he says. “Do not sit apart, just putting in a word when you choose….” “Why do you make things sound wrong, that are not wrong?” says Tamasin’s brother.

Compton-Burnett’s is very much an upstairs-downstairs world. Downstairs the corruption of language is parodied in the way the servants solemnly bandy banalities. Manservant and Maidservant opens with the breakfast-room fire smoking. The butler removes a dead jackdaw from the chimney, and Mortimer teases him gently by asking if he put it there. “So far am I, sir, from being connected with the presence of the fowl, that I was not confident, when I took the matter into my own hands, of any outcome. I merely hoped that my intervention might lead to a result.” It might almost be Jeeves speaking, but in spite of his pompous manner, the butler is one of the good characters in the novel, tolerant, forbearing, kindly. Mortimer is another, a bachelor living with his cousin’s family on an insufficient allowance. “He would have been disappointed not to have a profession, if he had thought of having so expensive a thing.” The Wildean description echoes the way Mortimer himself talks: “I have so often resisted temptation, and always without success. When people resist it with success, I always wonder how they know they have had any.” No wonder someone—it was Princess Bibesco—said about Compton-Burnett, “Wilde is not so much borrowed from as contributed to.”


Mortimer is typical of Compton-Burnett’s good characters, even though he does seduce his cousin’s wife. Cynical, without power or hope, he has no goal to pursue, no will to assert, and therefore hurts no one. He is intelligent—intelligence was Compton-Burnett’s most highly rated virtue. He is kind in so detached a way that his kindness does not oppress. The female good characters tend to be governesses, nurses, or companions, with even less hope or power than the male ones, and perhaps a more active and comforting sort of kindness. Both genders share the fate of having no “full normal life”—as one of them says, and several feel they do not want one. It seems as though Compton-Burnett had a Buddhist streak in her, believing that participation and action can only damage others.

Her readers and even her friends tended to assume that she came from the social class she wrote about. But this was not the case: her father was a well-to-do doctor of humble origins, and her mother the daughter of a civil engineer in Dover who eventually became the city’s mayor. The crushing respectability of the Compton-Burnett household was probably due precisely to the fact that the family did not belong to the gentry: they had to try harder. It was Mrs. Compton-Burnett who inserted the hyphen into their name.

In any case, they were doomed to extinction. Ivy was the seventh of Dr. Burnett’s thirteen children, the eldest of his second marriage. Of the twelve who survived him when he died in 1901 at the age of sixty, “one died young of pneumonia; another was killed in the first war; three committed suicide. Two of his four sons made brief, childless marriages, his eight daughters remained unmarried so that…his only legacy to posterity lies in the novels of his fourth daughter.” As gloomy a family monument as can be seen in any Victorian churchyard, this catalog does not mention that of the three suicides one was a double one: the two youngest daughters were found dead of an overdose in the same bed when they were twenty-three and eighteen years old respectively.

If none of the other girls married it can’t have been entirely because Britain lost a whole generation of young men in the First World War, as Ivy sometimes implied. She herself was already thirty when the war broke out. The sisters’ celibacy must have been at least partly a result of their grim and confined family life, which makes the Brontës’ seem a ball by comparison. Moreover, Haworth was an isolated moorland village, whereas the Compton-Burnetts lived in Hove, a booming, developing seaside town, physically attached to Brighton, if infinitely more staid spiritually, but not unsociable.

Ivy hated Hove, and she didn’t much care for her mother, while being a dutiful daughter. Mrs. Compton-Burnett was despotic, demanding, and hysterical, given to noisy outbursts of rage and grief. Ivy loved her father, but hardly saw him since he came to Hove only twice a week from his fashionable London practice. His first family was grown up, the second lived strictly in the nursery and schoolroom. It was divided into two sets without much rapport between them: Ivy and her two immediate juniors Guy and Noel formed one set, the four younger girls the other. Ivy loved Guy more than anyone else in the world, and her novels are full of intense love between siblings. The children seem to have had no friends, and when Ivy’s father died just before her seventeenth birthday, their mother’s tyrannical grief came down like an iron curtain between them and the world. “It was an incredibly clouded household—incredibly overshadowed,” Juliet Compton-Burnett said. “You ask about the days—they were completely uneventful. Nothing happened. Outwardly the same thing happened every day.”

Former classmates of the younger girls told Hilary Spurling that they never mixed with other children; they never visited or had visitors. They were always dressed in black and could be seen daily plodding to the cemetery with their mother to lay flowers on their father’s grave. Mrs. Compton-Burnett would not allow them to let up on their mourning even for an instant, but wanted it understood that her own sorrow was more tragic and profound—exactly like the widowed mother in Brothers and Sisters who tells her family: “We will…try to meet together our great, great sorrow. Great for you all, but infinitely greater for me. You will have to remember that, in all your future dealings with me.”

It was Guy, the second child, not Ivy, who protected the younger children as best he could against their mother’s exorbitant grief, and managed to be kind to her as well. In 1905 he died of pneumonia, not quite twenty years of age. Ivy was in her last year at Holloway College, a place that, for an academic institution, was as genteel, inward-looking, and sequestered as her family. When she graduated, the four youngest girls were taken from school for reasons of economy, and Ivy was made to teach them. Noel took over as his mother’s comforter, and “became Ivy’s inseparable companion.” The grief hanging over the hideous house in Hove became heavier than ever. Then Mrs. Compton-Burnett developed cancer and slowly, painfully, and exigently died.

The children were stunned by her death; they simply went on living according to the routine they had always known, only now—it was 1911—with Ivy in charge and Noel mostly away at Cambridge, where he was first a student and then a fellow of King’s College. “Ivy, unlike her mother,” Spurling writes, “never made scenes and was rarely seen to be angry. Her rule was quiet, orderly and cruel.” She had changed from victim to tyrant. All her novels are, in a sense, written against tyranny. But the tyrants in them are seen with a certain sympathy, and their self-pity appeals for it with repellent yet almost irresistible intensity.

Ivy’s own rule lasted four years. Then one day Vera and Juliet Compton-Burnett invited their music teacher, the pianist Myra Hess, to come down to Hove. “She couldn’t believe the household she’d come into. She said, ‘You’re all in fetters. You must get away.’ The astonishment was mutual. ‘When we saw other people who hadn’t been brought up in that way,’ said Vera Compton-Burnett, ‘we perceived for the first time what an astonishing situation ours was.’ ” After drawing lots to see who should tell Ivy of their decision, the four younger girls left to set up in two flats in London, and the Hove house was sold.

Ivy was left high and dry, but eventually shared another London flat with Dorothy Beresford, whose sister Tertia married Noel Compton-Burnett just in time to be widowed when he was killed at the front in 1916. Ivy had been jealous of Tertia and extremely attached to Dorothy, who was willful and beautiful and deserted her by getting married in 1917. Later that year Ivy’s two youngest sisters killed themselves. But it was her two brothers “dying like that,” she would repeat again and again in later life, that “quite smashed my life up, it quite smashed my life up.” She never betrayed any of her feelings at the time but carried on stony-faced and efficient until the Spanish influenza of 1918 laid her low. She was ill for months, and when her body more or less recovered, her mind and spirit did not. She was burnt out, apathetic. It was probably at this time that she read Samuel Butler’s Note-Books, which Spurling thinks was the one great influence on her thought. Below the words, “The whole life of some people is a kind of partial death—a long, lingering death-bed, so to speak, of stagnation and nonentity,” she wrote: “I am a living witniss of this crushing lifless stagnation of the spirit.” The uncharacteristic misspellings poignantly bear out her disarray.

In the autumn of the following year, Dorothy’s place in Ivy’s flat was taken by Margaret Jourdain, a poet, writer, journalist, and expert on antiques and country houses. She is now remembered only for the last of these interests. In 1919 she was forty-three and Ivy was thirty-five. Though older, Jourdain was more of a “new woman” than Ivy, living independently on what she could earn by working extremely hard, while Ivy had means. Outwardly she was Ivy’s complete opposite: sociable, jolly, rumbustious, enormously energetic. She had an idiosyncratic way of talking. “Margaret talked like a character out of Ivy’s books,” a mutual friend reported on the time the two women first met. “Ivy couldn’t do it then. In the end she learnt to talk like one of her own characters.”

Margaret’s family was almost as gnarled as Ivy’s, but in a different way. They were well-born, poor, and proud. Mr. Jourdain was a country parson. Mrs. Jourdain was snobbish and aloof and did not care much for her ten clever, sharptongued children. There was no hope of marrying for the plain daughters. The three eldest went into teaching at the governess end of the profession. One eventually became an Anglican nun, another the head of an Oxford women’s college. The two younger daughters, Margaret and Melicent, both wrote. There was a brother between them—Philip, who became a mathematician. Philip and Melicent suffered from a form of multiple sclerosis and died in early middle age.

Margaret and Ivy became lifelong flatmates and friends: there was a period when their names were as inseparable as Laurel and Hardy’s. At the start of their relationship it was Jourdain who was the dominant and better-known partner; she was quite famous in her field which was not then as overcultivated as it is now. As Ivy began to write again (her first, later disowned novel, Dolores, had been published in 1911 at her own expense) and her literary reputation grew, the balance gradually changed. Ivy’s fallow period came to an end in 1925 when she published Pastors and Masters, and after that there was a steady stream of novels, nineteen in all, the last published posthumously after her death at eighty-five in 1969.

After Jourdain’s arrival in 1919 there were no more events in Ivy’s life (except for Jourdain’s death in 1951, tragic for Ivy, but not, for once in her experience of death, premature or unnatural). Instead of events, there was development—her development as a writer and personality, and the development of her friendship with Jourdain and with the members of their circle.

Spurling’s biography divides at this point: the first part, Ivy When Young, was first published in England in 1974, the second, Secrets of a Woman’s Heart, earlier this year.

You might think that part 2 would be duller than part 1, but it is equally absorbing. Apart from regular holidays and weekends in the country and short bouts of evacuation during the Second World War, part 2 takes place in Ivy and Margaret’s austere flat in one of London’s gloomiest streets, Cornwall Gardens in South Kensington. Every feature on this small canvas, down to the menus and the petunias in the window boxes (bought when at their cheapest), is as vivid and telling as the details of St. Jerome’s study in Carpaccio’s painting. If one is going to complain of too much detail, it would have to be over part 1, where Spurling rather overdoes the genealogy, and one gets the antecedents in depth not only of Ivy’s father, mother, sister-in-law, and closest friend (Jourdain), but even of the Compton-Burnett’s lawyer. (His name was Worsfold Mowll; so perhaps going on about him was one of those temptations impossible to resist.)

Ivy and Margaret gradually shared a small circle of intimate friends and admirers whom they entertained regularly. Their apartment block was called Braemar Mansions, and the friends, naturally, “the Braemar gathering.” A number of writers belonged to it: Arthur Waley, Elizabeth Taylor, Robert Liddell, Rosamond Lehmann, Rose Macaulay, James Lees-Milne, Lettice Cooper, Francis Wyndham, Olivia Manning, and Julian Mitchell, who very successfully dramatized two of Ivy’s novels. But her dearest cronies, apart from Margaret and Dorothy, were the enchanting, Firbankian Ernest Thesiger and Herman Schrijver, a witty, gossipy, high-camp, Dutch-Jewish homosexual decorator. Ivy was the housewife at Braemar Mansions and fed the guests enormous dining-room teas. She demanded strict punctuality. Michael Holroyd said that if you were more than five minutes late, the doorbell was not answered.

Hilary Spurling is so much at home in this scene that it is a surprise to learn she never knew Compton-Burnett herself. Ivy’s “public image was so intimidating that, when I started talking to her friends…I found it hard at first to credit the gentle, considerate, affectionate and amusing private person many of them described…. Ivy was frightening, and she knew it.” She was also as deliberately enigmatic as the lady in the Thurber cartoon. She never changed the style of her clothes or hair, which were those of an Edwardian governess (Spurling says Victorian; but to judge by the fascinating photographs, that is going too far back). Her demeanor and speech were old-fashioned and prim, though she could say of a friend: “He’s homosexual, so of course he had to get married.”

“The only hope of solving the many puzzles she set in fact and fiction lay in some attempt to see what Ivy saw in her own heart.” Spurling sets out to discover what it was by relating the life to the work. She is not very much concerned with Compton-Burnett’s startling technique, but then neither was Compton-Burnett. When the young writer Kay Dick asked about her work, she simply said: “It’s quite unique, isn’t it? Yes, it isn’t like anyone else’s. One perhaps unconsciously makes a world gradually, by writing always in the same way. Some people write first in one way and then in another. I’ve always written in the same way, insofar as anyone ever does, you know.”4

Compton-Burnett was as much of a moralist as George Eliot. “You must recognize certain moral laws,” she said to Dick. “Otherwise you couldn’t have any human life, any literature or anything…. If we had no moral laws nobody could break them. And no action would have any meaning.” She specialized in the exposure of false morality posing as public spirit and altruism when in fact it cloaked vile and illegitimate manipulations of other people. She had no use for religion, having lost her faith quite painlessly and without the usual Victorian trauma while still in the schoolroom. Her attitude was simply, even simplistically, rationalist: “She goes to church,” one of the characters in Daughters and Sons says of another. “And she does not have to go, does she?” “If she were religious, she would not go,” comes the reply. “She would have thought about her religion and lost it.”

So much for religion. What about sex? The Jourdain–Compton-Burnett circle was rich in bi- and homosexuals, both male and female; so are the novels, and there is incest as well. None of this is shocking. Sex only gets bad when it becomes an obsession and makes people cruel and false. As for Compton-Burnett’s own sex life, she and Jourdain were often assumed to be a lesbian couple. Spurling is sure they were not, and that Compton-Burnett never had any sexual experience at all. She knew what the passion of love was, though, having felt it for her brothers and later for Jourdain, although their relationship had begun as a marriage of convenience. “Few writers have celebrated the single state more cordially than Ivy,” Spurling writes and cites Men and Wives:

“Of course I see how civilised it is to be a spinster,” said Rachel. “I shouldn’t think savage countries have spinsters. I never know why marriage goes on in civilised countries, goes on openly. Think what would happen if it were really looked at, or regarded as impossible to look at. In the marriage service, where both are done, it does happen.”

Spurling quotes so much and so well that one gets a Compton-Burnett anthology thrown in with the life. Being so dense and aphoristic, the novels are particularly suitable for anthologizing. This is very much a literary biography, but it is quite self-contained and can be read purely for pleasure and almost as a novel—a Victorian novel full of death-beds and pathos, but also full of wonderfully gothic and baroque characters surrounding the bizarre and ultimately touching central figure. It is a marvelous book, intelligent, gripping, funny, and fastidiously well written.

This Issue

December 20, 1984