Ivy Compton-Burnett

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Ivy Compton-Burnett always thought she would write, even when she was quite young. She came from a well-to-do family: Her father, James Compton Burnett (no hyphen), was a doctor and direct descendant of the ecclesiastical writer Bishop Gilbert Burnett. Ivy adored her father and from him inherited a love of words and of nature. Her mother, Katharine Rees Compton-Burnett, was the second wife of her father: Katharine became stepmother to five children at marriage and mother of seven more, of whom Ivy was the eldest. Katharine seems to have been the prototype for several of the tyrants in Compton-Burnett’s works: She was beautiful, autocratic, indifferent to her stepchildren and distant to her own. The real mother to the children was their nurse, Minnie. Olive, the eldest of all the children, was bitterly jealous of her stepmother and of Ivy for her close relationship with their father.

Compton-Burnett’s closest companions were her two younger brothers, Guy and Noel (Jim). The three were educated together, first by a governess and then by a tutor, and Compton-Burnett always remained proud that she had had a boy’s education. She loved Latin and Greek. In 1902, she entered Royal Holloway College, London University; in 1904, she was awarded the Founder’s Scholarship; in 1906, she passed the bachelor of arts honors examination in the classics. Her love of the classics appears clearly in her works: Her plots, with their recurring motifs of incest and family murder, seem straight from Greek tragedy; her characters often allude to Greek tragedy; her view of life as cruel and ironic is the tragic view of the Greek dramatists, skewed by modern experience and by her own temperament.

Compton-Burnett claimed to have written very little before her first novel, Dolores, was published. She discounted Dolores entirely in later life, uncertain which parts were hers and which were the work of her overly enthusiastic brother Noel. Between the publication of Dolores and Pastors and Masters, her second novel, is a gap of fourteen years that was filled with family turbulence. After the deaths of both her parents, Ivy became head of the household and a bit of a tyrant herself. Her four younger sisters and Minnie moved out and set up their own household, which they refused to let Ivy visit. Compton-Burnett’s only remaining brother, Noel (Guy had died earlier), was killed in World War I, and the author cared for his brother’s widow after she took an overdose of sleeping pills. Around the same time, Ivy’s two youngest sisters committed suicide. She herself had a bout with Spanish influenza that drained her energy for some years.

In the early 1920’s, Compton-Burnett settled in a flat in London with her friend Margaret Jourdain, an authority on Regency furniture, with whom she lived for thirty years. Jourdain was the more famous and remained the dominant of the pair. The two women traveled abroad together every year, where Compton-Burnett pursued her passion of collecting wildflowers. Every odd-numbered year, with only a few exceptions, she produced a novel. World War II disturbed her greatly, and she and Jourdain fled to the country to escape the bombings in London. When Jourdain died in 1951, Compton-Burnett felt betrayed by her “desertion.”

In her later years, Compton-Burnett was the recipient of many honors. She was made a Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 1951 and was awarded the James Tait Black Memorial Prize in 1956. In 1960 she received an honorary doctor of letters degree from the University of Leeds, and in 1967 she was made a Dame Commander of the British Empire.

Compton-Burnett dedicated her life to her art, reading and working continually. She had little wish to reveal the details of her private life—“I haven’t been at all deedy”—and believed that all she had to offer the world could be found in her books.

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