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.
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.
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.
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.
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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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...
(The entire section is 1101 words.)
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 something on the window with Guy's diamond pencil, and then looking out of the window saw Guy in a canoe with a very charming girl like a wild rose or a fairy child. It was later still while Michael was moving strangely in the extraordinary netherworld of London, that he heard from Guy that there were difficulties which led him to think he would have to choose between love and art. So much of a glimpse of Plashers Mead there was in Sinister Street; we now have a fully realized view of a very beautiful and exquisite imagination. Whether Mr. Compton Mackenzie had in earlier days conceived the story more fully, or whether, in the hours of idleness that must come even to those on an expeditionary force, he picked up the loose threads and...
(The entire section is 2138 words.)
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 as dull in fiction as she is in life. It is true that adventurers are not dull in the ordinary sense of the word; they are monotonous, self-centred, serious, rather than dull. They have spun all their substance into adventure, and nothing remains of them but a frail shell inhabited by a very small creature with an enormous egotism and an overweening vanity. The charge may be just, yet there is a great deal to be said in praise of adventures themselves, and not a little relief in finding occasionally that people are not quite so interesting as writers are in the habit of insisting, in novels, that we shall find them. Perhaps Sylvia might have been interesting if she had ever had the time to set about it. She had her moments of introspection,...
(The entire section is 1112 words.)
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 adventures of a vivid creature named Sylvia Scarlett [in his The Early Life and Adventures of Sylvia Scarlett]. She is not such a creature as the disengaged James Stephens might dance away with. She belongs to the very same world from which the realists cut their slices of life. The difference is the difference between a penal institution and a free lunch. Mr. Mackenzie feels no dietetical responsibility. He carves his slice in the spirit of sheer hospitality, the reader may take it or leave it. The fact that it is common stuff, the stuff of our own generation, marks all the more firmly Mr. Mackenzie's disavowal of motive. He is not arguing with his reader, he is telling him, and what he is telling is a story without a touch of...
(The entire section is 1478 words.)
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 sees her whisking over the skyline attended by the usual troupe of chorus girls and nondescript young men doing their best to keep up with her, but more and more hopelessly outdistanced by the speed of her legs and the astonishing volubility of her tongue. The number of volumes still to be run through we guess to be considerable. The race which ends in the Greek island begins in Potrograd and is continued under every condition of discomfort and danger, since not only is she periodically reduced to her last penny, but the European war is blazing and roaring all round her and never ceases to harry her and her companions much as a relentless mowing machine will drive all the small deer of a cornfield into the open.
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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 be welcomed in this generation of earnest workers in monotone. For there is at present loose among people who write not out of any urgent personal impulse but according to literary fashion a belief, a quite fallacious belief, that if one keeps to neutral tints one is safe. It is a belief of some decades' standing. The world's fiction grew gray at Gissing's breath. He slightly falsified life in the direction of misery, for, bad as the English climate and the London suburbs are, they are not so bad as he describes them; and he continued this falsification for so long and so convincingly that a physical atmosphere more humid than any yet recorded by the Meteorological Society and a spiritual atmosphere of gloom never yet attained by any human...
(The entire section is 1684 words.)
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 stiff inorganic gorgeousness, which were stored in Mr. Mackenzie's brain as gold tissue and the like might be stored in a draper's warehouse. Plumply written descriptions of scenery lay embedded in the glittering general texture even as padded fruits on the modern plutocratic cushion. Queer characters of queer trades and queer crimes hung round the edge of each like a tinsel fringe; and each was weighted as by a heavy gilded tassel with the enormous elaborated egotism of some Michael Fane or Sylvia Scarlett. There was no doubt but that Mr. Mackenzie had a bright vitality which was not always wholly febrile, and a real gift for reproducing those Cockney idioms, those rich fantasies of speech, which are the modern city people's way of singing...
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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 fame, was immediate, and in some ways perhaps unprecedented. For theirs was not merely a success of vulgar popularity, it was a succès d'estime as well. Novel readers who borrowed the works of these writers from their libraries felt that they were not quite as other novel readers, that they were displaying kultur. And, thanks either to their eminent social qualifications, to the skill and tact of their impresario, or to their own undoubted talents, these three pretty men very soon came to stand for the “younger generation” whenever the “older generation” wished to patronise their juniors or to pontificate about them. Even Mr. Henry James spun a stately web of words around them in The Times Literary...
(The entire section is 2934 words.)
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 the artist as a young man while he was feeling his way.
The six novels which followed it all deal with the same little coterie of principals, and there is no reason why the number should not be extended indefinitely. He himself computes it at thirty.
There is no question of our getting tired of them, once we take into account certain definite limitations that are peculiar to Mackenzie's genius. In the first place, he possesses a memory which is almost Macaulayesque. I know of no author who can re-create our earliest years so accurately or so sympathetically: unfortunately this leads him into the error of believing implicitly in a gospel he has made his own: “Childhood makes the instrument, youth tunes...
(The entire section is 2073 words.)
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 generation which set a few hearts beating and so many burning, and wherein he suggested that this interesting young novelist positively cared for his phrase as a fondly foreseeing parent for a child, and that he was even then uncontrollably on his way to style. Mr. Fitzgerald's adolescent emulation has certainly affected his own career more markedly than it has Mr. Mackenzie's, but Mr. James's amiable paper has done Mr. Mackenzie more ultimate disservice than the virtuous Joseph suffered from the coat of many colors; that gracious wave toward Parnassus has provided an amazing number of his fellow men of letters with the most exalted motive for disapproving Mr. Mackenzie's failure to choose the narrowest and straightest path.
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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 with marionettes. Maybe the fact should not diminish our admiration as, certainly, it cannot decrease our enjoyment. The credit is all his own; he is quite irresistible. The keen vitality of his work, its sublime self-confidence, its youth, its colour and its movement, positively forbid reflection. We forgive the melodrama and condone the hysteria. The swift rush of ideas carry us captive; the brilliant pictures intoxicate; the narrative marches triumphant through a thousand fine threads—crossing each other again and again, darting hither and thither, yet never knotted or ravelled, ragged or in confusion, never broken in loose ends.
Superficially Mr Mackenzie reveals many of the characteristics we associate with his...
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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 seventh commandment without, quite properly, receiving the full measure of retribution which would conventionally be supposed her due, is quite up to the minute in atmosphere and phrase, and it is by no means heavily burdened by its weight of one of those bits of “pocket philosophy” which its author loves to bestow upon the public. A pretty girl, so he implies, is not to be expected to waste her time in typing, and there's an end of it. But quite frankly, Lilian, in spite of its breezy competence, is neither much better nor much worse than the stories constantly turned out by providers of popular entertainment who have never attained Mr. Bennett's fame.
“Elizabeth's” new story is so frankly the optimistic...
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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 famous Lady Macbeth's who ever walked the stage; his uncle C. G. Compton was a novelist of parts; and he numbers among his distant relations the poet and critic John Addington Symonds and that brilliant and, nowadays, too little appreciated novelist and playwright “George Paston” (Miss E. M. Symonds). Nor did he absorb all the gifts of the family, for that distinguished actress Miss Fay Compton is his sister.
From St. Paul's School, Mackenzie went to Oxford in the early years of this century, and if he did not break any scholarship records at Magdalen, he edited The Oxford Point of View, which he helped to found, and became business manager of the Oxford Union Dramatic Society, and on occasion showed himself an actor...
(The entire section is 1849 words.)
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 number of rather shallow people. So long as universities and undergraduates exist, Mr. Mackenzie, in his original manner, was bound to be widely read and callowly imitated. He was the novelist of the freshman, just as Thackeray, say, is the novelist of the middle-class clubman and Petronius the novelist of the amiable lecher. The effect of his rather too suave and heady, yet intensely immature, way of writing upon sophomores with literary ambitions was something awful; the transference of Mr. Mackenzie's dreaming spires and mock-sinister underworld, in the New Jersey mind, to the placid landscapes of Princeton University or the provincial Boston slum, was like projecting Beauvais Cathedral upon the side-street of a New England town, peopled with...
(The entire section is 1232 words.)
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 seems to happen when a perfection of utterance or expression completely coincides with the capacity for experience, the sense of tranquility and the power of contemplation.” By this he would convey the impression that poetry—that is, poetry as differentiated from verse—is merely the meaning of life expressed in poetic language and in good style, regardless of the literary form. Consequently, a novel, when its author takes as his theme the motif of life, as he sees it, and artistically expresses its constituents of action, emotion, and thought, in terms of experience, tranquility and contemplation, is poetry, quite as much as the most delicate lyric of Keats or Shelley.
As in ancient and medieval periods the life...
(The entire section is 6802 words.)
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 nourishment at second hand; and between thirteen and fourteen I myself fell deeply under the spell of Mr. Compton Mackenzie and, encouraged by the belief that my parents and my friends' parents had voted it a dangerous and improper work, read Sinister Street from cover to cover with delighted attention. Since that time, I have never re-read the story in full, yet have continued to think that I owed the novelist a considerable debt of gratitude. “Great novel” Sinister Street is not; but it is a book admirably suited to the consumption of an adolescent reader, which, though it may start him off on numerous false trails—one soon discovers, for example, that Oxford to-day is not quite the idyllic haunt of immemorial peace...
(The entire section is 795 words.)
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 regard to certain High Church ceremonies and observances in which he indulged in his Mission Church in Lima Street, Notting Hill Dale.
The external events of Mark's life are simple enough, consisting chiefly of his part in the daily routine of clerical work in the various parishes tried out by him, with an occasional holiday visit to Wych-on-the-Wold, when the full breath and beauty of the countryside bears upon us as, formerly, in Guy and Pauline. But this work is really a history of a soul in its quest for God, and therefore a tale of spiritual adventure which Compton Mackenzie succeeds in making as interesting as one of exciting adventures in the world of physical happenings.
In The Altar...
(The entire section is 2360 words.)
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 ambitious; a morality. Everything he writes sets us an example of elegance and sound workmanship. In Thin Ice he points a moral and an apt one. He has taken as his theme one which, despite the strenuous discussion it always arouses, has contributed little to English literature: that of the homosexual male.
There are many highly competent English books by homosexuals, but until very lately their authors cautiously falsified their emotions and experiences by transposing them into terms of the relations between men and women. Their influence has been malign, for many young people have got their first ideas of love from these novels and plays, believing they were reading realistic studies of the normal processes of...
(The entire section is 1048 words.)
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 either the courage or the insight to cope with that aspect of Catholic truth which distinguishes the Church from very nearly all other modern institutions, namely the consideration of death and its inevitable association with His agony. “Catholic” novels have offered the faith as a happiness pill, as a retirement plan, as a theological puzzle; they seldom offer Catholicism in one of its most effective roles: a way to die. Though few moderns have conveyed effectively a faith that death can be “a good thing,” the writer who does realize the need for suffering and for death as a part of the Divine plan places his work in a firm tradition two thousand years old.
Sound of a Distant Horn is a first novel by a young...
(The entire section is 3671 words.)
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?
Now, at the age of almost seventy-nine, you are living the life of an elderly Scottish gentleman, in Edinburgh. Perhaps you had better explain to me why you are in your present situation.
Actually, I really should apologize, John, for being in bed, but the point is that I am writing my autobiography at the moment and I have to do a great deal of reading for it—very small print, my great-grandfather's autobiography; and I can only read in bed. If I read in a chair I go to sleep, and so from time to time I have to take long days reading in bed.
Would it be a fair question to ask you if you go to bed in your chair afterwards?
No, I'm a jolly good sleeper. I read till about four in the morning.
(The entire section is 3906 words.)
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 anti-prig, is almost the only one. His is the authentic natural idiosyncratic quixoticism, free from subservience to any establishment of fixed pattern. You can tell this from some of his examples. Socrates, of course. And the friends of Wilde who saw him through the trials—the Leversons who had him to stay and the Rev. Stewart Headlam who went to court with him every day and suffered quite a lot for doing so. And Lord Russell, who was giving yet another display at the Old Bailey only the other day. And Lady Louis Mountbatten for her behaviour in India. Suddenly we come upon the name of Neville Chamberlain. How typical of Sir Compton [in On Moral Courage], himself a convinced anti-Municheer, to give the baleful old Birmingham...
(The entire section is 928 words.)
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.]
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, when he reaches the age of eighty-five. Nevertheless, such profusion—in which, incidentally, there is no breath of self-conceit—calls for a brief abstract of the biography, a highlighting of the salient characteristics, of this fecund and famous man who has written a hundred books and about three thousand articles, broadcasts and reviews.
Here goes: Edward Montague Compton Mackenzie, born on January 17, 1883, is the eldest son of Edward Compton, a successful actor-manager, and of Virginia Bateman, an American actress, both descended from families partially though not exclusively connected with the theatre. Mackenzie's sister is a well-known actress using, according to the family tradition, ‘Compton’ as her stage...
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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 man announced that he had to catch a train to Glasgow and that he could only stay a minute. He accepted a drink and another drink and, hinting when the time for the Glasgow train came, made no attempt to move. He stayed on until without complaint Monty offered him dinner. Yet his generosity was far more than a merely physical generosity. Monty was a man of infinite kindness, unstinted in encouragement of all who appealed to him for help and, brilliant raconteur as he was, never made the mistake which is made by so many raconteurs, of talking down and not listening to his audience. He was a lover of the night, hating to go to bed and hating to get up in the morning. In London he stayed at the Saville Club. It was his custom when it got...
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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 coins for Ireland. Charles Dickens hears accounts of the mistreatment of boys in Yorkshire schools, goes there himself to investigate, and writes Nicholas Nickleby. Upton Sinclair attacks the Chicago meat-packing industry in The Jungle; Frank Norris, the operations of grain speculators in The Pit; Sinclair Lewis, the philanthropic medical foundations in Arrowsmith. Now fiction seems to be surrendering this function to the documentary, yet it is safe to say that novels like George Orwell's Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-four will always have a greater impact than books like Truman Capote's In Cold Blood.
Mackenzie displayed a remarkable ability to turn today's headlines into...
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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, in security.’ I have an idea that the richness of the comic diversion provided by all this bumbling more than compensates for the quantities of public money frittered away in providing it, but the challenge which this presents to the writer of comic fiction is a desperate one indeed: how to make the fiction more laughable than the fact? When Mackenzie wrote Water on the Brain in 1933 the problem exercised his mind deeply. For reasons which I will come to in a moment, he was obliged at the time of publication to pretend that the book was a tissue of moonshine; later he wrote a preface which has been included in the new Penguin edition:
I have little hope that the public's wider experience of the...
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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 reader, I was much chagrined at this and confessed my defeat to no one—it was too shaming. Mackenzie's novels were a household word at the time. Everybody devoured them. What was wrong with me? It is a slight consolation after this lapse of time to feel that I may have been right.
How could such a colourful and remarkable personality have written such an unabsorbing novel? Perhaps by an unexpected but logical consequence. Mackenzie himself once said that he thought he would give up writing ‘because living is so much more enjoyable.’ Neither a best-seller nor a serious author—and the aspired to be both—could afford to know that was true. Born into a well-known acting family—his energetic and successful parents ran...
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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 renewed editions of his sombre early Sinister Street (1914). It was that immense Bildungsroman that inspired Henry James to welcome him as “by far the greatest talent of the new generation”, and later exerted an acknowledged influence on the young Scott Fitzgerald.
From those high judgment-seats, the young Oxford dandy who dazzled Edwardian London would now have to be considered, by and large, as a spectacular disappointment. “A perfectionist who took a wrong turning” was Raymond Mortimer's view of him; but his rise and fall as a novelist, to the point where he frankly deprecated himself as a mere “entertainer”, makes an absorbing story that encourages a more equivocal verdict. In the course of a...
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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 Mackenzie, describing Davy Jones, his contact in Athens
Compton Mackenzie was the only novelist in his time employed by British Intelligence who quite naïvely disclosed secret information in his fictitious writings. As a consequence of the trial resulting from the Mansfield Cumming case, which found him guilty and fined him £100 plus costs, Mackenzie nearly went bankrupt and was forced to sell precious manuscripts and books. So angry was he that he decided, in order to recoup his finances, to take a sweet revenge on the Secret Service by satirizing them in a novel.
Compton Edward Morgan Mackenzie was born in Hartlepool, County Durham, in north-east England, on 17 January 1883, the eldest son of Edward...
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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. The grandfather on the paternal side had also been a well-known actor, and his grandparents on the maternal side had run the Lyceum Theatre in London, where Henry Irving had appeared; and by blood the family was related to the Siddons, the Kembles and a number of other distinguished acting families. Fay Compton, Compton Mackenzie's sister, enjoyed a long list of theatrical successes, and indeed Compton, alone of the two sons and three daughters of Edward and Virginia Compton, decided not to try the stage as a career. (Nevertheless, he wrote several novels about actors, actresses and the theatre. Sylvia Scarlett, the heroine of the novel we are considering, is continually involved with footlights and theatrical fancies.)
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Brooks, Phillips V. A Bibliography of and about the Works of Anthony Edward Montague Compton Mackenzie: Sir Compton Mackenzie, 1883-1972. Norwood, Penn.: Norwood Editions, 1984, 274 p.
Primary and secondary bibliography.
Linklater, Andro. Compton Mackenzie: A Life. London: Chatto & Windus, 1987, 354 p.
Comprehensive biography written by a family friend.
Thomas, David and Joyce Thomas. Compton Mackenzie: A Bibliography. London: Mansell Publishing Ltd., 1986, 309 p.
Lists Mackenzie's works, contributions to other books, and radio and television broadcasts.
Dooley, D. J. Compton Mackenzie. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1974, 171 p.
Critical and biographical study.
Hart, Francis Russell. “Highlands of the Humorists.” The Scottish Novel: From Smollett to Spark. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1978, pp. 374-84.
Discusses the defining characteristics of Mackenzie's Scottish farces.
James, Henry. “The Younger Generation.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 637 (2 April 1914): 157-58.
Counts Mackenzie in the vanguard of promising young novelists.
Phelps, William Lyon. “As I Like...
(The entire section is 240 words.)