Compton Mackenzie Essay - Critical Essays

Mackenzie, Compton

Introduction

Compton Mackenzie 1883-1972

(Born Compton Edward Montague Mackenzie) English novelist, memoirist, playwright, author of children's books, poet, and nonfiction writer.

One of the most prolific British authors of the twentieth century, Mackenzie published at least one hundred books during his writing career. He is remembered for his romantic novels.

Biographical Information

Mackenzie was born in Durham, England, on January 17, 1883. He was the eldest son of Edward Compton and Virginia Bateman, two of the most popular actors of the late Victorian era. Raised in a privileged household, Mackenzie showed a precocious interest in reading and foreign languages, especially Latin and Greek. In 1901 he entered Magdalen College, Oxford, and founded the Oxford Point of View. During his senior year at Oxford, he decided to become a writer; by 1907 he had written and produced a play entitled The Gentleman in Grey. In 1911 he revised the play into a popular novel, The Passionate Elopement. With this initial success, Mackenzie became a well-known personality in England. At the outbreak of World War I, he obtained a commission in the Royal Marines and was sent to the Dardanelles. Later, he was assigned to a high-level position in the British Secret Service in Athens. His time in Greece gathering intelligence information for England inspired his war memoirs, Greek Memories (1932) and Aegean Memories (1940). During the 1920s, Mackenzie's lavish life on the island of Capri forced the author to write prolifically in order to earn money. In 1930 he moved to Scotland and a year later was appointed rector of Glasgow University. Until his death, Mackenzie lived primarily in Edinburgh and involved himself in Scottish political issues, including the nationalism movement. In the 1960s, he devoted himself to writing his multivolume memoirs, My Life and Times (1963-1971).He died on November 30, 1972.

Major Works

Although Mackenzie published children's stories, histories, poetry, and memoirs, he is best known for his novels. In one of his early best-sellers, Carnival (1912), a young, innocent ballerina is eventually corrupted by the superficiality and promiscuity of show business. Sinister Street (1914) chronicles the adventures of Michael Fane, an upper-middle-class boy. The story begins at Fane's birth, follows his life through prep school and Oxford University, to his young adulthood in London. Fane reappears in The Early Life and Adventures of Sylvia Scarlett (1918) and Sylvia and Michael (1919), two novels that portray the life of a beautiful and headstrong young lady who ultimately falls in love with him. In 1956, he published a highly praised account of the life of an English politician, Henry Fortescue, entitled Thin Ice. Once considered a promising politician, Fortescue's career suffers as his homosexuality becomes known. A trilogy of novels, The Altar Steps (1922), The Parson's Progress (1923), and The Heavenly Ladder (1924), explore religious concerns, which stem from Mackenzie's own conversion from Anglicanism to Roman Catholicism in 1914. His Water on the Brain (1933) is perceived as a biting satire on the British intelligence services and is said to be inspired by his own experiences in the British Secret Service during World War I.

Critical Reception

During his lifetime, Mackenzie's novels were commercially popular but critically disparaged; many reviewers asserted that he had squandered his talent by writing potboilers and publishing too prolifically. Moreover, others perceived the novels as melodramatic, full of such narrative devices as coincidences, superfluous scenes, and tedious conversations. His memoirs are considered highly readable and entertaining, but too self-indulgent and self-involved. Yet many commentators appreciate Mackenzie's accomplishments in the twentieth century. They praise his descriptive powers, as well as his biting, satirical wit. Critics note that he did not hesitate to explore controversial and topical issues, particularly such themes as homosexuality, infidelity, religion, Scottish nationalism, and espionage activities during World War I.

Principal Works

Poems (poetry) 1907

The Passionate Elopement (novel) 1911

Carnival (novel) 1912

Kensington Rhymes (poetry) 1912

Youth's Encounter (novel) 1913

Sinister Street (novel) 1914

Guy and Pauline (novel) 1915

The Early Life and Adventures of Sylvia Scarlett (novel) 1918

Poor Relations (novel) 1919

Sylvia and Michael: The Later Adventures of Sylvia Scarlett (novel) 1919

The Vanity Girl (novel) 1920

Rich Relatives (novel) 1921

The Altar Steps (novel) 1922

Gramophone Nights [with Archibald Marshall] (essays) 1923

The Parson's Progress (novel) 1923

The Seven Ages of Women (novel) 1923

The Heavenly Ladder (novel) 1924

Santa Claus in Summer (juvenilia) 1924

Coral (novel) 1925

Fairy Gold (novel) 1926

Mabel in Queer Street (juvenilia) 1927

Rogues and Vagabonds (novel) 1927

Vestal Fire (novel) 1927

Extraordinary Women: Theme and Variation (novel) 1928

Extremes Meet (novel)...

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Criticism

Frederic Taber Cooper (review date February 1915)

SOURCE: “Some Novels of the Month,” in The Bookman, New York, Vol. 40, February, 1915, pp. 676-77.

[In the following review, Cooper praises the wealth of cultural and sociological information found in Sinister Street.]

Arnold Bennett recently wrote, “the older I grow, the less attention I pay to technique in fiction.” The same words might apply to a majority of the younger English novelists who have come into vogue within the last decade, and among others, to Ian Hay. To this younger school, the essential thing is not a certain closely correlated series of events, uniting to make a strongly constructed drama. Events, of course, there must be, or there could be no narrative; but to these later craftsmen the essential is first, last and all the time human character, and events are interesting, not in themselves, but because of the way in which they cause certain given characters and temperaments to react. A Knight on Wheels, Ian Hay's latest novel, is an admirable instance of the newer tendency. Throughout the whole series of adventures that make up the life of Philip Meldrum, from early boyhood down to the time when the course of true love suddenly reconciles itself to running smoothly, there is not one that is glaringly false or unlikely, but neither is there any that seems inevitable. Things, we are told, simply happened in such-and-such a way, and Philip reacted in such-and-such other ways. It is all very carefully done, and without being very keenly interested in Philip's joys and sorrows, we do come to feel that we know him with an almost unjustifiable intimacy; we know beforehand just what he must inevitably say or do under given circumstances, the kind of clothes he will buy, the sort of girl he will love. But of his life, as a whole, we get no structural pattern; the author's ultimate purpose, assuming that he has one, eludes us. Ten days after reading the volume, our memory is already hazy; what stand out are, not the ground plan of the book, but isolated episodes, whimsical characters. A year from now, the name and personality of the hero himself will have become a mere wraith of memory, while on the contrary, a minor character, Philip's Uncle Joseph, will remain unforgettable,—Uncle Joseph, professed cynic and misanthrope, with his twisted morality and incurable philanthropy. Of money to spare in charity Uncle Joseph has none; but he sees that the world is filled with well-meaning, credulous souls, whose happiness lies in giving away their pounds, shillings and pence to any plausible scoundrel with a clever tale of woe. Accordingly, Uncle Joseph spends his days in concocting the most ingenious and...

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Edward E. Hale (review date 3 February 1916)

SOURCE: “Recent Fiction,” in Dial, Vol. 60, No. 711 February 3, 1916, pp. 122-25.

[In the following favorable review of Plashers Mead, [published as Guy and Pauline], Hale asserts that the story is “so entirely fused in the imagination that it makes its impression definitely and surely as the writer would wish.”]

The name Plashers Mead will not mean much to many, but some will recall that, at a certain season, Michael Fane went into the country with Guy Hazlewood, who wanted to find a place where he might devote himself to poetry. They found a place called Plashers Mead. Here Guy established himself, and here Michael came later and wrote...

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Virginia Woolf (review date 29 August 1918)

SOURCE: “The ‘Movie’ Novel,” in Times Literary Supplement, August 29, 1918, p. 403.

[In the following review, Woolf maintains that the characters in The Early Life and Adventures of Sylvia Scarlett are better-suited for films than for fiction.]

When we say that the adventures of Sylvia Scarlett are much more interesting than Sylvia Scarlett herself, we are recommending the book [The Early Life and Adventures of Sylvia Scarlett] to half the reading public and condemning it in the eyes of the other half. There are people who require the heroines of their novels to be interesting, and they know by experience that the adventurous heroine is apt to be...

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Francis Hackett (review date 9 November 1918)

SOURCE: “The Scarlett Woman,” in New Republic, Vol. 17, No. 210, November 9, 1918, p. 48.

[In the following review, Hackett contends that The Early Life and Adventures of Sylvia Scarlett is full of cheap puns and slapstick and exhibits a lack of didacticism.]

For a long time the best novelists have written novels of motive. They haven't aimed to tell a story and left it at that. They have sought, practically all of them, to act omnisciently about their children, to give the how and the why of everything. The object hasn't been moral so much as psychological.

Out of this tendency Mr. Compton Mackenzie comes to narrate the early life and...

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Virginia Woolf (review date 20 March 1919)

SOURCE: “New Novels,” in Times Literary Supplement, March 20, 1919, p. 150.

[In the following negative assessment of Sylvia and Michael, Woolf deems the novel boring.]

The feat that no reviewer of Mr. Mackenzie's books can possibly attempt is to explain even in the most compressed form what happens. In Sylvia and Michael the reader must be content with the assurance that Sylvia Scarlett is, in the familiar phrase, “still running.” We leave her, indeed, seated upon the shore of a Greek island with her hand in the hand of Michael Fane: but figuratively speaking she is still running as hard as she can; and when the book is shut the eye of imagination...

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Rebecca West (review date 17 May 1919)

SOURCE: “Sylvia and Michael,” in New Republic, Vol. 19, No. 237, May 17, 1919, p. 91.

[In the following essay, West offers a favorable review of Sylvia and Michael.]

This sequel to Sylvia Scarlett [Sylvia and Michael]—or rather this concluding half of Sylvia Scarlett which the publisher's regard for the limited weight-lifting powers of the average library subscriber has led him to issue separately—is by far the best thing Mr. Compton Mackenzie has done since Carnival. It gives scope to his gift for the vivacious rendering of quaint idioms and the recording of picturesque incongruities; and that is a very real gift and one which is to...

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Rebecca West (review date 18 February 1920)

SOURCE: “Poor Relations,” in New Republic, Vol. 21, No. 272, February 18, 1920, p. 362.

[In the following review, West traces Mackenzie's improvement as an author and describes Poor Relations as “a coherent and beautiful farce.”]

It was not that one really disliked Mr. Compton Mackenzie's previous books. But they were so much more like expensive cushions than like books that it seemed a social solecism, like drinking out of a finger-bowl, to be reading what was so obviously meant to be sat on. They appeared not to be created out of separate sweatings of the spirit, as books should be, but to be made up from bales of rich materials, gleaming with...

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Douglas Goldring (essay date 1920)

SOURCE: “Three Georgian Novelists,” in Reputations: Essays in Criticism, Chapman & Hall, 1920, pp. 39-63.

[In the following excerpt, Goldring places Mackenzie within the context of two other popular British novelists, Hugh Walpole and Gilbert Cannan.]

If the ordinary circulating library subscriber were asked for the names of the three English novelists still under forty who have most definitely “arrived,” ten to one he (or she) would mention Mr. Compton Mackenzie, Mr. Hugh Walpole and Mr. Gilbert Cannan. The success of this triumvirate when—their apprenticeship served—they assembled under the banner of Mr. Martin Secker to make their respective bids for...

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S. P. B. Mais (essay date 1920)

SOURCE: “The Genius of Compton Mackenzie,” in Books and Their Writers, Grant Richard Ltd., 1920, pp. 19-26.

[In the following essay, Mais evaluates the flaws and strengths of Mackenzie's fiction.]

In Sylvia Scarlett Compton Mackenzie carries on his Balzac scheme of economical selection by continuing the histories of men and women whose acquaintance we have already made in earlier books. In attempting, therefore, a general survey of his work one is bound to come to the conclusion that his first book, The Passionate Elopement, was simply a magnificent tour de force, an exquisite “essay in literary bravura,” a piece of loveliness thrown off by...

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Frances Newman (essay date October 1921)

SOURCE: “Avoiding the Abbey,” in Reviewer, Vol. 2, No. 1, October, 1921, pp. 30-36.

[In the following essay, Newman discusses the critical reaction to Mackenzie's work.]

When Mr. F. Scott Fitzgerald was twenty-one and his literary taste was yet unformed, he had a marked admiration for Sinister Street: the title of his second novel—The Beautiful and Damned—would seem to indicate that his maturer taste has turned from the smooth octavos of Mr. Martin Secker to the more fragile volumes of Messrs. Street and Smith. When Mr. Henry James was seventy-one and his literary taste was presumably definitive, he wrote his famous article on the younger...

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R. Brimley Johnson (essay date 1922)

SOURCE: “Compton Mackenzie,” in Some Contemporary Novelists (Men), Leonard Parsons, 1922, pp. 131-53.

[In the following essay, Johnson considers Mackenzie as a romantic and a realist.]

Modern criticism has decided that, for all his outspoken revelations of the underworld, Mr Compton Mackenzie is essentially romantic. He does not, in fact, see life as it is, but as he desires it to be; that is, as it will best illustrate the characters of his imagination, best occupy the light splendour and swift precision of his most opulent vocabulary. As he says of his own Michael, even his conception of irregularity is essentially romantic. He has invented London and peopled it...

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J. W. Krutch (review date 31 January 1923)

SOURCE: “Divertissements,” in Nation, Vol. 116, January 31, 1923, p. 124.

[In the following derogatory review of The Seven Ages of Woman, Krutch asserts that Mackenzie has “no philosophy to give significance to his work and no depths in himself to be moved, for he inhabits an essentially trivial world.”]

Of these three divertissements The Enchanted April is the best because it is the most frankly what it is, and The Seven Ages of Woman the most disappointing because it was so evidently intended to be something else, while Mr. Bennett's Lilian falls somewhere between the two. The latter little tale of a beautiful typist who breaks the...

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Arthur St. John Adcock (essay date 1923)

SOURCE: “Compton Mackenzie,” in Gods of Modern Grub Street: Impressions of Contemporary Authors, Frederick A. Stokes Co., 1923, pp. 183-89.

[In the following essay, Adcock offers a brief overview of Mackenzie's life and career.]

From a literary and dramatic point of view, Compton Mackenzie may almost be said to have been born in the purple. Even a quite modest minor prophet who had stood by his cradle at West Hartlepool, in January, 1883, might have ventured to predict a future for him. For his father was the well-known actor Edward Compton, author of several plays and founder of the Compton Comedy Company, and his aunt was “Leah” Bateman, one of the most...

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Cuthbert Wright (review date July 1924)

SOURCE: “Ecclesia Anglicana,” in Double Dealer, Vol. 6, No. 36, July, 1924, pp. 171-73.

[In the following essay, Wright contends that the humor in The Parson's Progress “will save it for the unimaginative people who are bored by its ecclesiasticism, and the long-faced people who are interested exclusively in the ecclesiasticism will contrive to swallow the humor.”]

The thing I like most about Mr. Compton Mackenzie's latest phase as a novelist is the capacity it must contain to annoy most of his former admirers. He is an author who owed much of his original vogue to the exploitation of what was, after all, a rather shallow art on the part of a great...

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Gilbert H. Doane (essay date April 1927)

SOURCE: “Books and Authors,” in Prairie Schooner, Vol. 1, No. 2, April, 1927, pp. 170-79.

[In the following essay, Doane traces Mackenzie's stylistic maturation as evinced in his fiction.]

In this short study of the earlier work of Mr. Compton Mackenzie let us judge according to his own criteria. Speaking before the Poets' Club of London in 1912, he made this statement: “Poetry, for me, is the quintessence of life displayed and preserved in a reliquary of beautiful words … [and] life consists of action, emotion and thought, together with their corollaries of experience, tranquility and contemplation, against a background of human beauty. To me great beauty...

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Peter Quennell (review date 16 January 1937)

SOURCE: “New Novels,” in New Statesman & Nation, Vol. 13, No. 308, January 16, 1937, p. 86.

[In the following favorable review of The East Wind of Love, Quennell asserts that although the novel is too long, it is “decidedly readable.”]

In the list of books that have influenced one's early development—aroused one to the possibilities of literature or egged one on to probe the mysteries of adult life—books one now considers memorable are extremely few. It is not until much later that the fascination of an Education Sentimentale or the retrospective beauty of a Dominique begins to make itself felt. Meanwhile, we absorb our intellectual...

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Leo Robertson (essay date 1954)

SOURCE: “The Religious Trilogy,” in Compton Mackenzie: An Appraisal of His Literary Work, The Richards Press, 1954, pp. 107-14.

[In the following essay, Robertson explores the main features of Mackenzie's religious trilogy—The Altar Steps, The Parson's Progress, and The Heavenly Ladder.]

In 1922 Compton Mackenzie published The Altar Steps, the first of a trilogy of novels of which the remaining two are The Parson's Progress (1923) and The Heavenly Ladder (1924), in which he tells the life-story of Mark Lidderdale, the son of James Lidderdale, a bigoted and dour Anglican clergyman who stubbornly refused to come to any compromise in...

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Evelyn Waugh (review date 1956)

SOURCE: “A Story with a Moral,” in The Essays, Articles and Reviews of Evelyn Waugh, edited by Donat Gallagher, Little, Brown, 1984, pp. 511-13.

[In the following favorable review, originally published in June 1956, Waugh asserts that Mackenzie “gently and wisely expounds the deterioration of a human character” in Thin Ice.]

For forty-five years, the full reading-life of most of us, there has been an unbroken series of novels by Sir Compton Mackenzie. He has written much else, but it is primarily as a novelist of great versatility, ranging from high romance, through satire to farce, that we honour him. This year he has given us something substantial and new and...

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Robert O. Bowen (review date Spring 1958)

SOURCE: “Agonies and Anesthetics,” in Renascence, Vol. 10, No. 3, Spring, 1958, pp. 144-49.

[In the following positive review of Thin Ice, Bowen deems the novel as an “extremely sympathetic history of an important homosexual in British public life written by a close family friend who is honest enough neither to deny nor to romanticize the most significant quality in his subject.”]

To be a Catholic writer today is fashionable, a fact which has earned at times highly questionable laurels for writers familiar with the outward and visible signs of Catholic dogma and with the intellectualizing of the Church fathers. Few would-be modern Catholics have had...

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Compton Mackenzie with John Freeman (interview date 25 January 1962)

SOURCE: “Sir Compton Mackenzie ‘Face to Face’,” in Listener, Vol. 67, January 25, 1962, pp. 165-67.

[In the following interview, Mackenzie discusses his childhood, his education, and the impact of World War I on his writing.]

[Freeman:] Sir Compton Mackenzie, in the course of a long life you have been, as far as I know, a writer, a soldier, a music critic; you have been a spy, you have been a religious convert, you have been a bon viveur all the time—I take it it is fair to say that you really have led the life of your choice?

[Mackenzie:] Absolutely.

Now, at the age of almost seventy-nine, you are...

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Maurice Richardson (review date 2 March 1962)

SOURCE: “Mental Fight,” in New Statesman, Vol. 63, No. 1616, March 2, 1962, p. 308.

[In the following essay, Richardson commends the personal recollections and tales of courage collected in Mackenzie's On Moral Courage.]

Oughtn't it, perhaps, to be mental courage, as the proper opposite of physical? Moral is so close to the body. It reminds you of those allegedly anaphrodisiac cold baths. And if moral, why not immoral courage? But if we hunt it into the psychological laboratory it will break down and metamorphose. We can agree roughly on what we mean by it and there are very few elders from whom we can tolerate a lecture on it. Sir Compton, always a champion...

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Kenneth Young (essay date 1968)

SOURCE: “Compton Mackenzie,” in Compton Mackenzie, Longmans, Green & Co., 1968, pp. 5-23.

[In the following essay, Young offers a biographical and critical overview of Mackenzie's life and work.]

I

It may seem superfluous, if not a presumption, to write about the life of Sir Compton Mackenzie when he has spent so much of it writing about it himself. To the five volumes of his first World War memories, Greece in My Life, books about his musical experiences and his cats, personal essays and broadcasts, he has recently added My Life and Times, an autobiography in ten volumes, seven of which will have appeared by January 1968,...

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Christopher Hollis (essay date 9 December 1972)

SOURCE: “Compton Mackenzie Remembered,” in Tablet, Vol. 226, December 9, 1972, pp. 1174-75.

[In the following obituary, Hollis provides personal reminiscences as well as a brief biography of Mackenzie's life.]

Few among Monty Mackenzie's innumerable friends and acquaintances would dispute the claim that he was one of the most generous men of our time. He was generous in his unstinted physical hospitality, which he offered to all who called at his flat in Edinburgh, whether with invitation or without invitation. The last time that I saw him I found there a young journalist whom he did not know and who had called without invitation on no very clear errand. This young...

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D. J. Dooley (essay date 1974)

SOURCE: “Satires on the Anthill and the Hive,” in Compton Mackenzie, Twayne Publishers, 1974, pp. 96-104.

[In the following essay, Dooley examines the subject matter of Mackenzie's satirical, topical novels.]

A traditional function of the writer of fiction has been to throw new light on questions of the day through imaginative treatment of them. Jonathan Swift ridicules the absurd predictions of the astrologer Partridge by foretelling the death of Partridge—and he follows it, at the appointed time, by an account of Partridge's sad ending; or he assumes the role of a Dublin drapier to oppose the patent given William Wood by the British Government to mint copper...

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Benny Green (review date 6 August 1977)

SOURCE: “OHMS,” in Spectator, Vol. 239, No. 7778, August 6, 1977, p. 31.

[In the following favorable review of Water on the Brain, Green praises the relevance and topicality of Mackenzie's novel.]

The republication of Water on the Brain could not have come at a more convenient moment. Only last month the British taxpayer learned with what acumen his money is being spent, in the following of Dr David Owen in mistake for Mr William Owen, and in the shadowing of Mrs Judith Hart in mistake for Mrs Tudor Hart; Sir Harold Wilson has now admitted: ‘I am not certain that for the last eight months when I was Prime Minister I knew what was happening, fully,...

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John Bayley (review date 21 May 1987)

SOURCE: “Azure Puddles,” in London Review of Books, Vol. 9, No. 10, May 21, 1987, p. 20.

[In the following review of Andro Linklater's biography of Mackenzie, Bayley reflects on Mackenzie's intriguing life.]

Staying at about the age of eleven with a friend whose father was a doctor, I was put in a room where the only reading-matter was a medical textbook and the first volume of what was to become Compton Mackenzie's quadrology, The East, West, South and North Winds of Love. I embarked on it with hope and confidence, but after only a few pages had to give up and turn for entertainment to the medical book. Considering myself a mature and experienced...

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Gerald Mangan (review date 29 May 1987)

SOURCE: “A Talent to Perform,” in Times Literary Supplement, May 29, 1987, pp. 572-73.

[In the following assessment of Andro Linklater's biography of Mackenzie, Mangan surveys Mackenzie's life and literary output.]

During the First World War, when Compton Mackenzie's reputation as a serious novelist was at its height, very few of his admirers would have believed that his posthumous fame would rest largely on a pot-boiler written in his sixties. Whisky Galore (1947) and other Highland farces have now effectively eclipsed the greater part of his gargantuan output, both serious and comic; but it may well be their continuing popularity that has ensured the...

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Anthony Masters (essay date 1987)

SOURCE: “Compton Mackenzie: The Indiscreet Spy,” in Literary Agents: The Novelist as Spy, Oxford: Basil Blackwell Ltd., 1987, pp. 66-76.

[In the following essay, Masters recounts Mackenzie's espionage activities in Greece, his trial for revealing sensitive intelligence information, and publication of his “revenge” novel, the satirical Water on the Brain.]

From the first moment I saw the little man with his mousy hair and pale, ragged moustache, his very pale blue eyes filmed by suspicion and furtiveness almost as if by a visible cataract, I recognized in him the authentic spy, the spy by nature.

—Compton...

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Harold Orel (essay date 1992)

SOURCE: “Compton Mackenzie's The Early Life and Adventures of Sylvia Scarlett (1918),” in Popular Fiction in England, 1914-1918, Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1992, pp. 91-103.

[In the following essay, Orel evaluates the major strengths and flaws of The Early Life and Adventures of Sylvia Scarlett and concludes that “the incidental pleasures and the overall readability” of the novel are apparent to the reader.]

Compton Edward Montague Mackenzie, born on 17 January 1883, died at a venerable age, on 30 November 1972. His parents were theatrical people: his father an actor-manager in charge of the Compton Comedy Company, and his mother an American actress....

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