Ivy: The Life of I. Compton-Burnett presents in a single volume a massive biography that originally was published in Great Britain in two volumes: Ivy When Young: The Early Life of I. Compton-Burnett, 1884-1919 (1974) and Secrets of a Woman’s Heart: The Later Life of Ivy Compton-Burnett, 1920-1969 (1984). Hilary Spurling presents a complete and complex picture of Ivy Compton-Burnett and the family and friends who shaped her life and writings. In her attempt to solve “the central puzzle” of Compton-Burnett’s life, she consulted friends, acquaintances, written sources (unfortunately, Ivy Compton-Burnett did not keep a journal), taped interviews, letters, and publishers, and even investigated word-of-mouth rumors and anecdotes. Spurling’s immersion in her subject’s life and times allows her the familiarity of referring to Compton-Burnett as Ivy throughout the book; Ivy referred to herself this way, and it is certainly more convenient than the repeated use of Compton-Burnett. The result of all of this research is an almost overwhelming collection of information about Ivy Compton-Burnett as a writer and as a person.
In a traditional manner, Spurling begins her work with an introduction and investigation into the Compton-Burnett family lineage. She arranges the material chronologically with separate chapters devoted to parents and grand-parents; James Compton-Burnett, Ivy’s father, Katharine Compton-Burnett, Ivy’s mother; Margaret Jourdain, her longtime friend and companion; and one to Ivy herself. In addition to factual biographical details about Ivy and her family, Spurling draws parallels and comparisons between the people in Ivy’s life and the characters in her twenty published novels.
Spurling contends that to understand and appreciate the woman and writer that Compton-Burnett became, one must first understand the family and forces that shaped her. Providing ample opportunity for the kind of family turbulence that would dominate Compton-Burnett’s novels was a large, traditional Edwardian family composed of James Compton-Burnett, a rebellious homeopathic physician who was fiery and political in his professional life, kind but distant with his family; Katharine Rees Compton-Burnett, his second wife, stepmother to his first six children and mother to seven of their own (of whom Ivy was the first); and the uneasy mixture of thirteen siblings from two families. Although deeply devoted to her two younger brothers, Noel and Guy, Ivy was closer to her governess, Miss Minnie, than to her mother. A strange, close, intense family, the Compton-Burnetts did not have or seem to need friends or connections with other people.
Ivy, however, was close to and respected her father. His philosophy set a standard for all of Ivy’s life and a determination to be self-sufficient and independent: “If you want roasted pigeon for dinner you must procure the pigeon and roast it; it will not fall ready roasted into your mouth.” The death of her father and her mother’s melancholy withdrawal from the family, the deaths of both her beloved brothers, Noel and Guy, and the subsequent conflicts and responsibilities of family life provided Ivy with a body of “mythic” material that would last a lifetime. The dark side of the repression of emotions and intensity in the Compton-Burnett household shaped her attitude toward marriage and family: “I believe that more unhappiness comes from this source than from any other.”
According to Spurling, Ivy absorbed during these early years attitudes, behavior, and a considerable amount of information that were evident in her life and writings. Never close to her mother, Ivy nevertheless became like her after her death, which left Ivy in charge of both the family household and the younger children. Her patterns of grief, withdrawal, and resurrection, her moodiness, and her passivity reflected the behavior she had observed in her own mother. Spurling notes the repeated emphasis on tyranny, repression of emotion, suppressed violence, and intense relationships and rivalries in Compton-Burnett’s novels; although her fiction was not consciously autobiographical or personally revealing, it reveals, Ivy’s near obsession with understanding and exposing the complexities and destructiveness in family relationships. Spurling provides brief life histories of all the Compton-Burnett children, including the stepchildren,...
(The entire section is 1805 words.)