Ivy Compton-Burnett

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Compton-Burnett, Ivy (Vol. 1)

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Compton-Burnett, Ivy 1884–1969

A British novelist, Miss Compton-Burnett wrote novels that take place in Victorian and Edwardian times and which consist mostly of dialogue. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.; obituary, Vols. 25-28.)

There are two things which decisively rescue a great part of Miss Compton-Burnett's work from [turning into a frivolous game]. One is her comic sense; the other a dyad composed of her hatred and her pity. To any of her readers, not only her devotees, her comedy will hardly need illustrating, though her liking for subject-matter generally considered tragic may obscure the importance and extent of the wonderfully amusing passages in even the more harrowing books, such as Manservant and Maidservant. Her hatred and her pity, her hatred for cruel irresponsible spite and sentimental righteous folly, her pity for their victims, for the down-trodden servant, the hounded companion and above all the child goaded to tears in the name of love and duty—these things too need no emphasis. The relevant point here is that these two passions are realistic passions. They work not through, but alongside and apart from, an arbitrary method of construction and a technique of dialogue which is too often de-individualizing and at times undisciplined. Miss Compton-Burnett is a writer of the wildest internal contradictions and not the least of these is her ability to turn out novels—two or more of which are masterpieces—that conceal under great homegeneity of tone a conglomeration of all but incongruous elements.

Kingsley Amis, "One World and Its Way" (1955), in his What Became of Jane Austen?, and Other Questions (reprinted by permission of A.D. Peters and Company), Jonathan Cape Ltd., 1970, pp. 41-50.

A novelist who can be said to have in some respects created a tradition of her own is Ivy Compton-Burnett, who constructs her terrifying novels almost entirely out of dialogue. The novels are terrifying because of the studied calm with which the facts about human cruelty and selfishness are revealed. The conversation which carries on the action and reveals bit by bit the disturbing truths about the characters is carried on with a poised stylization. [Miss Compton-Burnett] deals in closed societies, families whose mutual tormentings are covered by the most polite and conventional outward behaviour. Yet the same thing that covers the evil also reveals it, and it is the contrast between the tone of the conversation and what is actually said or indicated that gives the novels their uncanny power. The plots themselves are for the most part highly melodramatic, though this fact is obscured for the casual reader by the calm surface of the dialogue; but the novels have none of the poetic justice which traditional melodrama goes in for: the mutual destructiveness of men and women, the battening on the weak by the self-assertive and the unscrupulous and the exploitation of 'servants' by 'masters' (and everyone in Miss Compton-Burnett's novels is, symbolically if not literally, either a master or a servant) goes on until the end. It is a dark vision of life, conveyed through the medium of delicate and witty entertainment.

David Daiches, in his The Present Age in British Literature, Indiana University Press, 1958, pp. 116-17.

Miss Ivy Compton-Burnett is a family chronicler whose late-Victorian homebodies become possessive, sadistic mothers, destructive, self-willed fathers, and persecuted children who try to murder their parents. For her, family life is a jungle in which no holds are barred; tooth and nail are preferable to persuasion, and verbal wit helps one gain what rightfully belongs to another. Only the fittest survive throughout the in-fighting: the battle goes to...

(This entire section contains 3300 words.)

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the strong-willed and the deceptive. The weak and honest lose their fortunes as well as their self-possession, while the winner cheats with all the resources available to him…. The morality of Miss Compton-Burnett's work involves material values—how does one sustain himself in what amounts to a predatory jungle?… A person survives in the family group through conniving and competing….

Miss Compton-Burnett has of course taken the Victorian family novel and turned it inside out, revealing the dirt behind the romantic exterior. Although her subject matter seems close to that of the mid-Victorian novelists, unlike many of them she recognizes that below normal social behavior lies a swamp of discontent, mixed motives, and deception….

In nearly every one of the novels, there is movement toward a revelation that will, inevitably, make the characters aware of what they are and what the situation is. The revelation takes the form of a recognition scene (many critics have thus compared Miss Compton-Burnett's novels with Greek tragedy), but the recognition itself does not appear to change the characters…. True, she shares with the Greek tragedian his awareness of the importance of the recognition scene, but she has reworked the materials of the tragic vision so that further comparison is valueless. Frequently, the revelation amuses the reader more than it changes the character. Instead of facing the revelation, the character merely tries to hush up the news and live with it….

Furthermore, in Miss Compton-Burnett's world there is no repentance, no Christian charity which will reward the good person, no Christian revenge which will punish the bad. There are no amenities whatsoever…. The lack of repentance and salvation makes possible the comic play of the novels. If the amenities are meaningless, the law of the jungle must prevail. And all this against the background of a Christian society! The surface of behavior is impeccable, but beneath lie arrogance, vanity, jealousy, and excessive pride—all the characteristics of normal people. Miss Compton-Burnett's characters are always themselves. And just as no force from within can change them (only circumstances change, they remain the same), so no force from the outside can alter them. They are fixed by their characters and doomed, to some extent, by their heritage. They resist progress with the fierceness of people who recognize that change means death, although not to change is also a kind of death. Their death throes, however, are often comic….

Miss Compton-Burnett's method of narration is perfectly coordinated with the subject matter. By bringing two or three families together as the whole of society, she makes their interplay the sum of all essential forces in the world, until nothing else seems to matter. Her conversational method creates, as it were, an external stream of consciousness, in which the characters overtly voice what the traditional novelist usually explains about them. Consequently, in a literal way, we see what they are—there is nothing to hide, for the very nature of their communication forces complete disclosure of their thoughts. Only infrequently do the characters enter into a conspiracy to withhold information. More often, the characters reveal everything they know, and their disclosures suggest the limits of their cruelty. This aspect of the method is effective, for its very freakishness becomes a way of complementing the eccentricity of Miss Compton-Burnett's characters. The stream of consciousness has been transformed into a spray of epigrams….

Despite the virtues of the conversational method—its literalness, its sharp definition of issues, its penetration into the thoughts of the characters—despite these, its deficiencies are apparent. Miss Compton-Burnett's characters all seem cut from the same mold: the children all have the same awareness of evil, and the parents and grandparents all demonstrate the same predatory expedience…. Another factor, and one that drives to the heart of the creative process itself, is the lack of motivation in her characters. Here the novelist allows the surface to be definitive: either the character explains himself or he does not. There is no "background filler" to provide the explanatory material which the character himself is unaware of. Part of the unreality of the conception is that the character maintains almost total awareness of himself: what he is, how he got that way, what direction he is to take. There are no uncertainties. The author assumes that the background of the elders was the same as that of the children, and that the cycle perpetuates itself.

An almost total reliance on dialogue further weakens characterization by making people float, as it were, on the rhythms of their speech. Miss Compton-Burnett's characters seem to have no substance except what their words give them. They are little more than mouthpieces, wits, talking heads, disembodied streams of words. And yet strikingly, despite the brilliant flow of words, there are no characters who are expert in their work. Her writers are second-rate, her professionals marginal and uninvolved in their work, her "intellectuals" uninterested in pursuing ideas. Every ideal is in decline….

Miss Compton-Burnett's restrictions on the range of her novels seem an epitome of the contemporary English novel, which has forsaken adventurous forms and broad content for the small, intensive work. Often like the Greek tragedian in her attempt to convey the doom that waits for the successful man, she is unlike him in her inability to project individual ills upon the social framework. The "sickness" of her characters is theirs alone, a condition of their lives, and there is no other life. Perhaps this is her main point. Despite her fierce brightness, the inner world of her typical characters is as moribund as that of a Beckett bum; for both, love, hope, faith, and desire are meaningless values in a world that only language can define….

As her characters soon discover, life is destructive no matter how it is conceived; this is the one central truth that runs through Ivy Compton-Burnett's work, from her first mature work, Pastors and Masters (1925), to her [more] recent, A Heritage and Its History (1959)…. Miss Compton-Burnett's characters avoid nothing in order to assert themselves, and while they lack self-knowledge of a profound sort, they do know enough about life to recognize that to relent is to give themselves over to other equally monstrous people. They fight for what they are and for what they want with a tenacity that marks them as people for whom nothing has come cheaply. In their struggles, they revert to primitive passions, and for a novelist to bring back the primitive in a late-Victorian character indicates a special talent for the comic.

Frederick R. Karl, "The Intimate World of Ivy Compton-Burnett," in his A Reader's Guide to the Contemporary English Novel (reprinted with the permission of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Inc.; © 1962 by Frederick R. Karl), Farrar, Straus, 1962, pp. 201-19.

Miss Compton-Burnett's dialogue is extraordinarily flexible and subtle. It is often said that all her characters talk alike, irrespective of age, sex or class; but the comparison is not so much with prose dialogue as we normally think of it, as with blank verse or the heroic couplet in Elizabethan and seventeenth-century drama. It has a similar function. Abstracted from life as they are, Miss Compton-Burnett's characters are further abstracted by the dialogue. Through it, they expose themselves; their self-regard is stripped of its mask of high sentiments. But they are, every one of them, vehicles of style, and they have in turn a tremendous sense of style. They are a little larger than life, like characters in heroic drama. The dialogue from its very nature elevates both action and personages; and this is why, though her view of life is implacable and intransigent and she offers no comfort, nothing beyond a stoical acceptance of things as they are, she delights even as she scarifies. And she achieves a perfection in her work beyond anything reached by her contemporaries; and she does so because, like Jane Austen, she knows her limits and never transgresses them.

Walter Allen, in his The Modern Novel (© 1964 by Walter Allen; published by E.P. Dutton & Co., Inc. and used with their permission), Dutton, 1964, p. 191.

If expert contemporary judgments were faultless, the supreme place among women novelists of the second quarter of the century would be given to Ivy Compton Burnett. But the enthusiasm she excited among other novelists and the professional critics did not gain for her books a corresponding large body of readers. It would be rash to hail as evidence of genius certain literary idiosyncrasies which may subsequently be classed as products of talented oddity. The Compton Burnett formula combines a Victorian stuffiness of atmosphere and a Victorian appetite for melodrama with a twentieth-century ruthlessness in stripping off conventional veils of pretence in order to expose make-believers, hypocrites, and petty tyrants naked to their souls. Written in a prim style with dialogue in which vocabulary and syntax above and below stairs, in nursery and in drawing-room, are scarcely differentiated, the Compton Burnett novels appealed mainly to connoisseurs of mordant irony.

A. C. Ward, in his Twentieth-Century English Literature 1901–1960, Methuen-University Paperbacks, 1964, p. 79.

[Recognizing] the difficulty of classifying certain novelists, their methods of mining into the human spirit all different, let us [discuss] the most unclassifiable novelist of them all—Ivy Compton-Burnett….

The novels themselves [like their titles] are … reducible to a paradigm—the breaking of the more violent of the Ten Commandments in respectable upper-class homes, the setting always in late Victorian or Edwardian times. There is a kind of trickery, the sense of a formula, but one cannot read just a couple of Miss Compton-Burnett's novels and think one knows them all: one needs the whole corpus, not just the underlying pattern. The technique is deliberately formal, even stilted…. Usually the story is told almost entirely in dialogue, pithy, witty, strongly characteristic—in idiom and rhythm—of the speaker. Indeed, these novels cry out to be adapted for the stage….

Miss Compton-Burnett is totally self-effacing, offering no palliation, making no judgment. We never hear her voice, since her prose-style is carefully modelled on the bland cadences of an earlier age (very much earlier—Jane Austen is always coming to mind); it is itself one of the characters of the tragedy (if that term, with its loud heroic connotations, is really admissible here). She has deliberately narrowed her range, working over the same ground again and again, bringing no new surprises. But within her limits she is beyond criticism.

Anthony Burgess, in his The Novel Now: A Guide to Contemporary Fiction (reprinted by permission of W.W. Norton & Co., Inc.; © 1967 by Anthony Burgess), Norton, 1967, pp. 115-17.

The day may never come when Ivy Compton-Burnett has the audience in the United States that she deserves. Her work has been intermittently sponsored by American publishers, first in the early thirties…. There have been consequent small flurries of critical interest succeeded by periods of neglect. Though in England her reputation is formidable and secure and the debate is merely over whether she is a major novelist or not quite a major novelist, in this country her novels either excite zealous partisanship or are dismissed, somewhat thoughtlessly, as arid, repetitive, and willfully eccentric. There is it would seem, no temperate zone of response…. The situation is all the odder because she is not only one of the most interesting and original novelists of our century but one of the most relevant. Her novels, written during the cataclysmic years between 1925 and 1963, provide an obliquely penetrating commentary on the nature and abuses of power. Though their conflicts are limited to the domestic arena and though with one exception their actions occur between 1885 and 1902, the internecine struggle which defines her world takes place in a timeless present…. Ironically … what for our time should be the most salutary trait of her novels, their astringent moral quality, probably has helped limit their appeal quite as much as their close texture, their stylization, and their determined intellectuality. (pp. 3-4)

She owes a great deal, as some critics have noted, to the great nineteenth-century novelists of her own sex, Jane Austen, the Brontës, Mrs. Gaskell, and George Eliot, though she seems to have espoused them in a solemnly feminist mood. Her plot, for one thing, takes its cue from the most familiar theme in their fiction, the claims of passion versus those of duty. (p. 4)

[She] gives the impression of being not quite serious about her plots, and it is equally tempting to see in this attitude merely a reflection of those other idiosyncrasies such as borrowing her titles from the stock of minor Victorian fiction, naming her characters after the great and not-so-great writers in the history of English literature, and exploiting unashamedly such melodramatic devices as lost earrings, suppressed wills, overheard conversations, and concealed identities. The structure of her plots is always prominent but at the same time disproportionate; it follows no customary curve of development. Individual scenes are often unreasonably attenuated. And yet it is in the individual scenes that Miss Compton-Burnett's sense of drama is most acute. (p. 11)

Miss Compton-Burnett's style betrays none of the tensions or uncertainties of modern life, and it appears untroubled by an awareness of the subconscious. Physically, Miss Compton-Burnett's world is bounded by the walls of the country house and, in three novels at least, the public school. Though the scene may be broadened occasionally to include the village shop, the rectory lawn, or the neighbor's parlor, the locomotive impulse of her characters; like the range of their interests, is so severely limited that a walk in the park unexpectedly enlarges our horizon. It is this confinement to the narrow provincial sphere, and the capacity at the same time to transcend it, that has led so many critics to couple Miss Compton-Burnett's name with that of Jane Austen … before it was conceded that the comparison, like so many to which Miss Compton-Burnett has been subjected, is not very helpful and on the whole misleading. (pp. 12-13)

In their almost total reliance on dialogue, these novels—and particularly the later novels—read like scenarios, and like scenarios they seem to demand the contribution of the theater to enhance their values. But dialogue here is made to bear a greater burden than in either the drama or the conventional novel. It has usurped almost completely the functions of exposition, narrative, and description. And this is possible only because Miss Compton-Burnett's characters are forced to be aware of themselves as both actors in and spectators of the drama. One of their functions is to comment on the action, revealing its implications at any given point. (p. 20)

Miss Compton-Burnett's characters, as she herself admitted, are static, and her plots, which serve as a developing illustration of character, are usually resolved by a return to the status quo. Her people do not grow, they merely emerge…. (p. 33)

Blake Nevius, in his Ivy Compton-Burnett, Columbia University Press, 1970.

The difficulty with Compton-Burnett, for many people, is that her novels seem so insular, so involved in the polite intrigue of upper-class or at least genteel families. This sense of apartness tends to be heightened by the settings, usually unspecific as to time and place (this one is an exception; we know the town), by the barely perceptible action, by the almost nonexistent narrative, by the oddly formal conversation that carries the stories. The insularity is only apparent, a vehicle for a major theme….

Compton-Burnett's subject in The Last and the First, as in the rest of her novels, is power, its use and abuse; wherever two or three people are gathered together, a pecking order is immediately established. To emphasize her thematic seriousness, however, is not to catch the essential qualities of her fiction. For me, the most important things about her work are the intricacy of her verbal play and the surprising and sometimes frightening funniness that the books manifest. Although she seems an unlikely author to compare to Samuel Beckett, she uses language with the same kind of deliberation, asking that you listen to the real meaning of words, the complete implications of a sentence. Reading her, I find myself suddenly laughing aloud, caught by the appropriateness of a particular line and the waves of possibility that fan out from it.

Gerald Weales, in Hudson Review, Winter, 1971–72, pp. 717-18.




Compton-Burnett, Ivy (Vol. 10)