(Edward Montague) Compton Mackenzie Essay - Critical Essays

Mackenzie, (Edward Montague) Compton


Mackenzie, (Edward Montague) Compton 1882–1972

Mackenzie was a prolific English novelist, memoirist, essayist, and writer of books and stories for children. He began his career as a serious novelist whose work won praise from Henry James. Soon after, however, he began writing lighter entertainment novels. His chef d'oeuvre in fiction, The Four Winds of Love, is a fictional chronicle of an upper-middle class Scotsman in the first forty years of this century. Mackenzie was knighted in 1952. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 21-22; obituary, Vols. 37-40, rev. ed.; Contemporary Authors Permanent Series, Vol. 2.)

[In Carnival Mr. Compton Mackenzie] is bent on telling us everything about the life of a dancing girl [Jenny Raeburn]—its hardships, amenities, and temptations—and, as he does not understand or believe in the art of omission, the record is full enough to satisfy the most exacting curiosity. It is not a book for squeamish palates, or for young persons, or for readers who are in search of innocent refreshment or food for mirth. It is not the allurement but the corruption of the theatrical atmosphere on which he insists, and the impression created on the present reader is one in which pity is largely swallowed up in disgust. It is the old duel of sex, but the dice are always loaded on the side of the man. Jenny's life is one long struggle with male enemies in various forms, mostly of the type of satyr…. The last scenes are laid in Cornwall, where Trewhella—the farmer—develops insane jealousy, as well as religious mania, and, after employing his farm hands to spy on his wife, shoots her at the very moment that she is repelling the renewed overtures of her faithless lover.

We have reviewed Mr. Mackenzie's novel at length not because it has given us any pleasure to read or because we can recommend it without reserves. But it deserves notice for its unquestioned if undisciplined talent and occasional brilliancy of presentation, for its frank disregard of the conventional canons of taste, and for the curious hostility towards the male sex betrayed by the author. There is only one of the prominent male characters in whom there is a spark of chivalry or who inspires the reader with any respect in his relations with womankind, and his interventions are wholly ineffectual. For the rest the motto is homo feminae lupus. Mr. Mackenzie evidently writes with a considerable first-hand knowledge of theatrical life and its parasites. To that extent his book may serve as a warning to those who are drawn by the lure of the footlights. But we should be very sorry to accept his picture as a faithful study of humanity seen steadily and whole. (pp. 278-79)

"Novels: 'Carnival'," in The Spectator (© 1912 by The Spectator; reprinted by permission of The Spectator), Vol. 108, No. 4364, February 17, 1912, pp. 278-79.

A certain subtle beauty pervades this novel of stage life. The story itself is not very distinctive, and it has not the recommendation of a happy ending. But what entitles "Carnival" to high rating is its unerring estimate of human character—an estimate which raises the incidents above the commonplace. One cannot skim such a book…. There is much to ponder, much to analyze, much to remember. Page after page of Mr. Mackenzie's book is enriched by word painting that fits in precisely with the tone and temperament of the story….

[Without] making it too apparent, the author pictures in that girl an innate refinement, an exquisite sentiment, a never-failing honesty, which is her eventual salvation. Jenny is not a bad girl in the sociological sense…. She is simply a girl out for fun, with a certain feminine intuition to protect her. And through it all, her refinement grows and her sentiment increases, until in the end she stands a woman rich in a certain untutored understanding.

It is not too much to claim for Mr. Mackenzie that his delineation is as minute and as thorough as anything to be found, let us say, in Mrs. Wharton's "Ethan Fromme." "Carnival" should be carefully examined because of its artistic construction and its artistic wording….

Each chapter is thorough, complete, whole. Mr. Mackenzie leaves nothing untouched, and his touch adds color and value to the picture. The account of Jenny's birth is a bit of psychology hardly to be surpassed, unless by the details of Jenny's dawning recognition of things. The description of Jenny's pious aunts, who are higher up in the world and who are consumed with the religious spirit, is worthy of Dickens…. We find in these initial chapters certain exquisite pastel effects which are gained by the particular use of words and similes. And, let it be noted, that the author makes use of the art of repetition which the present reviewer remembers to have seen skillfully used also in Frank Norris's "The Octopus."…

Mr. Mackenzie's power seems to be in making one feel the importance of the soul's attitude among events. He has no false excuses for Jenny; he simply states in concrete terms what Jenny herself felt in inexpressed ways.

But this high vision of the author does not keep him from picturing life in very real terms; his characters are nearly all coarse and common, and he makes you feel their coarseness and commonness….

Mr. Mackenzie is a writer who sees infinitely and well, who says fearlessly what he believes and relates it to life about him.

"A Good Novel," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1912 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), April 28, 1912, p. 256.

Cuthbert Wright

"Sinister Street" is the second and final volume of that study in adolescence of which "Youth's Encounter" was the prologue…. The theme of the two stories, the author himself explains, is "the youth of a man who presumably will be a priest." If the presumption is correct, vocational training for that office has altered in startling fashion within our experience, for the hero, after some rather uncommon boyhood experiments in sensation, makes the most of his youth in the fastest college of dreaming Oxford. The Michael of St. Mary's and Cheyne Walk is not intagliated so perfectly as the schoolboy of Carlington Road, but one does not lose the sense that the slim, fair, picturesque youth is a vivid contribution to the literature of intuition. The Oxford episodes are charmingly wrought, with an effect as haunting and insubstantial as the unreal landscape pricked with visionary spires which forms their background….

Michael emerges from Oxford only to plunge voluntarily into the nethermost halls of London harlotry and black-guardism by way of reconciling classic with vital education. It is then that the somewhat cryptic connotation of the title begins to reveal itself. "Sinister Street" is simply the interval that occurs in certain temperaments, when there is a definite, imaginative hunger for the sordid and hideous possibilities which life holds out of the voyager in spiritual adventures. (p. 53)

The ostensible cause of...

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V. S. Pritchett

Mr. Compton Mackenzie's novel [The Four Winds of Love], when he has gone round the weathercock, will be in four volumes. [The South Wind of Love] is the second. The first volume I have not read, but by its title I suppose the emotional weather to have been keen, easterly and liverish. Now it has become kinder. John Ogilvie, through whom this story is mainly seen, has become a successful dramatist and is trying to break his liaison with a famous and luscious French actress who has an alarming look of marriage in her eye. Ogilvie believes in l'amour, not in marriage, and the comedy of his break with Gabrielle, turned temporarily sentimental, is excellent. If you break with an actress you get the thing twice over, lived and acted, and Mr. Mackenzie, who has drawn some good actresses in his time, may be called a specialist in this situation. It is all better that the people concerned are fluent and intelligent. Ogilvie perhaps knows his Gabrielle a shade too well; but the moments of sentiment are well in hand and the conclusion is marked with great acuteness: "in the admission that each had been able to wound the other recrimination was quenched." A fitting end to the love of two egoists. But John, to the book's disadvantage as a novel, is too great an egoist. A great deal of the book is seen through his eyes and he is really not interested in anyone but himself. This flattens people; they are the figures of a book of brilliant memoirs and you feel that there is more to them than Mr. Mackenzie tells. Still the book is not complete yet; as the intelligent but superficial tide of discussion and chronicle pictures recedes, certain figures are bound to stand out solid if forlorn. (p. 377)

V. S. Pritchett, "New Novels: 'The South Wind of Love'," in The New Statesman & Nation (© 1937 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), Vol. 14, No. 342, September 11, 1937, pp. 377-78.

George Dangerfield

I cannot help thinking that "Again to the North" is a somewhat unnecessary book. It is an example of what Coleridge called the cacoethes notandi. It is a series of agreeable footnotes, a tieing up of loose ends which might better be left untied….

"Again to the North" is set, as to time, in the middle of the 1930s, and, as to place, all over the place. John Ogilvie and his daughter wander up and down between England, France, Italy, and Greece. John talks all the time. He talks about the iniquities of Hitler and Mussolini, and the sinister ambivalence of Stanley Baldwin in the matter of the air estimates, the abdication of Edward VIII. He talks about the biography of Beethoven and the...

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Kenneth Young

[The story of Jenny in Carnival] is an amalgam of Mackenzie's experience and observation. (p. 12)

The real tragedy … lies not in the murder of Jenny by gunshot, but in the gradual murder of her vivacity, sharp wit, and sheer brightness, her marvellous aliveness, by a kind of inertia in herself: it was too easy for her to stay in the chorus at the Orient with her friends and admirers around her rather than to move forward into the more taxing world of dancing…. It is this wastefulness—which lies in nature—that saddens the reader. But there would be no sadness, no sunt lacrimae rerum, without Mackenzie's astonishing insight into the character of a small child who grows into a...

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Stewart F. Sanderson

Complex in design and teeming with ideas, [The Four Winds of Love] is perhaps [Sir Compton Mackenzie's] greatest achievement as a novelist, and certainly the most likely to stand the test of time in company with Sinister Street…. This chronicle of John Pendarves Ogilvie's life as he grows from youth to manhood and maturity in the first forty years of our century is clearly a masterpiece…. The immediacy with which the changing social, artistic and political scene is presented; the way in which all this is interwoven with the story of John Ogilvie, his family and his friends; and the whole organization of the scale and sweep of the novel, represent a triumph of the craft of fiction. (p. 7)


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J.I.M. Stewart

Water on the Brain is a squib that in places is very funny indeed. It is also entirely unambitious, since loaded with nonsense reducing it well below the level of satire. But it will remain readable for so long as secret services exist—that sort of activity being, or being popularly supposed to be, exclusively carried on by button-headed bad hats superannuated from our very grandest public schools.

Compton Mackenzie, certainly, had found a new and delightful stamping ground which he could frequent during occasional periods of fatigue in his astoundingly prolific career. The Monarch of the Glen is perhaps the most successful of the frolics that resulted. It concerns the triumps and...

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Benny Green

The fate of Sinister Street is unique in that its virtues as a novel have been overshadowed by its accidental status as a germinating influence on a more solemnly regarded writer. The juxtaposition of Mackenzie with Scott Fitzgerald has always seemed a shade bizarre, for a multiplicity of literary, historical and cultural reasons, but the measuring of Sinister Street against Fitzgerald's This Side of Paradise, defined by Edmund Wilson as 'an American attempt to rewrite Sinister Street,' undertaken at a point in Fitzgerald's life when he was 'drunk with Mackenzie', soon reveals that these unlikely literary bedfellows were stalking the same quarry, the lost innocence and naivete of...

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