Compton Mackenzie Critical Essays


(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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.