Ivy Compton-Burnett Compton-Burnett, Ivy (Vol. 3) - Essay

Compton-Burnett, Ivy (Vol. 3)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Compton-Burnett, Ivy 1892–1969

Ms. Compton-Burnett was a British novelist whose books are almost entirely composed of dialogue. All of her novels are set in English country houses; all take place between 1885 and 1901; all are concerned with the cruelty and destructiveness of family life. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)

Miss Compton-Burnett is an extraordinarily accomplished and penetrating novelist of limited scope but unquestionable quality. The limitations are so obvious as to be scarcely worth emphasizing. The subject-matter of all her novels is as closely related as their titles; she deals with genteel but declining upper-middle-class families at about the turn of this century. She has said, quite frankly, that she has not been able sufficiently to come to terms with the post-1914 world to feel that she can write about it….

The merits of A Family and a Fortune are very remarkable. Miss Compton-Burnett is [witty] and her wit, like all true wit, is not a matter of superficial smartness or a cunning ornamentation of style. It springs from deep in her observation of life, from her critical consideration of the standards and values of the society she is presenting….

Miss Compton-Burnett is sometimes compared with Jane Austen and the comparison is not [inapt]. Like Jane Austen she examines with very little illusion and from a humane and critical basis a limited society and the quality of her novels, like Jane Austen's, lies in their concrete revelation of human relationships and behaviour in very precise contexts. Like Jane Austen she is materialist and sceptical and like Jane Austen she eschews the generalized symbol. We are not offered a comment on the nature of life as such….

The very technique which Miss Compton-Burnett has developed is an expression of the disintegration which has taken place within bourgeois life and values in the course of a century. Her novels are built on dialogue—they contain the very minimum of descriptive writing—but it is dialogue of an original and highly conventionalized kind….

What is new in Miss Compton-Burnett's novel is the continuous tension in the dialogue between what is actually said and what is expressed but only thought and the consequent ruthlessness in the exposure of the underlying issues and implications of a scene. Her conventionalized dialogue makes possible at the same time a sharpness of conflict, verbal, moral and psychological, of sometimes almost terrifying force and a fundamentally down-to-earth situation, unexaggerated in its essential qualities, which pins the conflict to reality and prevents … abstraction…. Miss Compton-Burnett's method is essentially the method of the poetic dramatist (T. S. Eliot's dialogue in The Family Reunion is technically not at all unlike a Compton-Burnett novel, though not nearly so closely integrated); the significance and originality of that method is still, I think, generally under-estimated.

Arnold Kettle, in his An Introduction to the English Novel, Volume Two (copyright © 1960 by Arnold Kettle; reprinted by permission of Hutchinson & Co., Publishers, and Harper & Row, Publishers, Inc.), Hutchinson, 1960, pp. 184-87.

Novels by Miss Compton-Burnett can no more be read for their narrative impetus or their development of character than those problems in which Harry is taller than Dick, who is shorter than Bill. Miss Compton-Burnett gives her characters more distinguished names but scarcely more distinguishing marks. You are not invited into their consciousness: you are set the problem of working out their relationships—including, as a rule, their blood relationships.

The dialogue—that is, virtually, the whole novel—is full of lesser conundrums of its own. It's not always easy to identify the speaker: Miss Compton-Burnett plays fair but close to the chest; she will give you the information only if it's absolutely impossible to deduce it from other sources. Whatever the clues you employ, they won't be individual tones of voice. Everyone in her novels speaks in the same idiom, and the idiom itself is instinct with conundrums. Miss Compton-Burnett's speakers seem to be applying a course of remedial exercises to the relaxed muscles of English syntax. They invent, as it were, private equivalents to a preceding direct object and test the reader's alertness to the agreement of the adjective….

To my senses, Miss Compton-Burnett is not exactly an artist. She is something less valuable but rarer—the inventor of a wholly original species of puzzle. It is probably the first invention of the kind since the crossword, which it far outdoes in imaginative depth. Indeed, it is only a touch less profoundly suggestive than chess or formal logic. An extra attraction is that, though her novels are not themselves works of art, the rules of the puzzle are allusions to literary forms and conventions. Reading them is like playing some Monopoly for Intellectuals, in which you can buy, as well as houses and hotels, plaques to set up on them recording that a great writer once lived there….

[The] resemblance to Jane Austen is never more than allusion-deep. The composure of Jane Austen's prose is adaptable to expressing every nuance of social and individual idiom, whereas the sedateness of Miss Compton-Burnett's is wooden-featured. Where Jane Austen is concerned above all with her heroines' consciousness, Miss Compton-Burnett shuns—indeed positively and in panic flees from—the idea of entering anyone's consciousness. Only one paragraph in A God and his Gifts makes any attempt (and it is a sketchy one) to give the reader direct access to what someone feels….

Miss Compton-Burnett's technique is all directed to avoiding the need for technique, just as her dialogue is to avoiding the need for a consciousness. It is, in fact, the technique of a faux naïf painter—one who, unable to render either adults or children, depicts both as charmingly wooden dolls. Miss Compton-Burnett's children and servants charm and astonish the reader by speaking as gravely and syntactically as her educated adults: the real sleight of hand is that her educated adults are not flesh and blood, either. Time Miss Compton-Burnett treats exactly as the neoprimitive painter treats perspective. Not only does she make no indications of period to start with: generations elapse at the turning of a page, and still Miss Compton-Burnett gives not the least sign or sense of change either in period or in personalities. Her eighteen novels make a pretty, quirky terrace inhabited by grave dolls, each villa an ingenious little puzzle box, depicted, without perspective and with a most meticulous absence of technique, by the cunningly naïf hand of a Grandma—no, Moses has the wrong connotations: Grandma Oedipus.

Brigid Brophy, "I. Compton-Burnett" (1963), in her Don't Never Forget: Collected Views and Reviews (copyright © 1966 by Brigid Brophy; reprinted by permission of Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Inc.), Holt, 1966, pp. 167-70.

A Compton-Burnett is a reliable make, as typical of British Isles workmanship as a tweed or Tiptree or an Agatha Christie. The styling does not change greatly from year to year; production is steady. The specifications for the current model (A God and His Gifts, 1963) are much the same as those for the original patent (Pastors and Masters, 1925). An earlier patent (Dolores, 1911) was allowed to lapse. The setting is standard: a large country house, capable of being converted into a school—with visiting days for parents. There are a great many stairs (hard on the help) and passages, suitable for eavesdropping. At the sound of a gong old and young, brothers and sisters, men and wives, masters and servants muster in the dining-room. Other points of assembly are the nursery, the kitchen, and the common room. The period is late Victorian; the subject is human nature, cut from the old block, ribbed in the Adam pattern of murder and incest. Felix Culpa, an androgyne bookworm, is in the schoolroom, curled up with a popular novel, the Book of Job. His sister, Maxima Culpa, is in the library; a sulphurous smell of will-burning proceeds from the grate….

The author, like all reliable old firms, is stressing the sameness of the formula: senior service. Her books have a magic ingredient—forgettability, which makes them just as good the second time. She has no imitators. The formula is a trade secret. When she consents to give interviews about her work, Compton-Burnett is cryptic, like an oracle or a hermit inventor….

There is something in her work that seems to encourage false generalizations about it. She has designed her books as curios, and the fate of a curio is to be ranged on a shelf. Though easy to read, she is a hard writer to grasp. Her books slip away from you, and the inclination, therefore, is to "place" them conveniently. Most criticism of her is replete with lists—of "good" characters and bad ones, flat characters and round ones, "likeable" persons and tyrants; her critics are prone to count, divide, and classify, not always accurately, to measure the ratio of dialogue to description on a page. This counting, these laborious measurements, as of an unknown object—a giant footprint or a flying saucer—denote critical bafflement. Doubtless by her own wish, she remains a phenomenon, an occurrence in the history of letters. It would appear to be hubris to try to guess her riddle….

Her books are not like other books; they are, as she might say, books apart. They do not "relate" to their material in the ordinary literary way, but crab-wise. The subject of any given Compton-Burnett is simply a cluster of associations and word-plays, while the plot is usually made up of arithmetical puzzles and brain-twisters….

Quotations and adages are the chief worldly provisions of Compton-Burnett's people and particularly valued by the lower orders, who have fewer of the other kind. It is this that gives her work a grim sadness, as well as monotony: the sense of a shipwrecked Band of Hope marooned on a desert island (England or the planet) with Bartlett's Familiar Quotations. Her people are survivors, battered floating bottles or time-capsules containing the remnants of human wisdom in aphoristic doses. "It is in the books," says a character in A God and His Gifts. "All human life is in them." As though this were not a credit to literature but a melancholy criticism of life….

Few thoughts remain hidden in Compton-Burnett. They betray their presence—this is the source of her humor. One of the charms of her characters is their transparency. You can follow what they are thinking as plainly as if they said it aloud, which often they dare not do. This is most striking in her hypocrites, who, true to their name, are always stage-performers….

[She] has boiled down narrative to a few basic plot elements not unlike the statements of symbolic logic. Her books never deal with individual destinies but with binomials plotted as if on a graph; that is why her people seem "all alike," although they are not. The logic of language, for her inescapable, works with the key principle of opposition, as stated in such simple pairs as here, there; this, that; now, then; more, less. Using these building blocks, what structure can be made? What can be said that has meaning? Compton-Burnett's people are striving to wring meaning out of language, where it must be if it is anywhere. Her books sometimes show an irritation with language and its propensity for abstraction, as though it were only words. Unlike Joyce, she does not care for nonsense, which to her ear would be simply non-sense. It is impossible to imagine her coining a word. The fewer the better….

What flashes out of her work is a spirited, unpardoning sense of injustice, which becomes even sharper in her later books. In her own eccentric way, Compton-Burnett is a radical thinker, one of the rare modern heretics. It is the eccentricity that has diverted attention from the fact that these small uniform volumes are subversive packets. If their contents had to be reduced still further, boiled down to a single word capable of yielding a diversity of meanings, the word might be "necessity." From strict to dire. From "constraint or compulsion having its basis in the natural constitution of things" to "the condition of being in difficulties or straits, esp. through lack of means; want; poverty." Not omitting its uses in phrases and proverbs or "a bond or tie between persons, Obs. rare." It is a deep word, like her works.

Mary McCarthy, "The Inventions of I. Compton-Burnett" (originally published in Encounter, November, 1966; © 1966 by Mary McCarthy), in her The Writing on the Wall and Other Literary Essays (reprinted by permission of Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc.), Harcourt, 1970, pp. 112-44.

Miss Compton-Burnett's major themes, it has been said, are power, money and death; and such is the continuity of her novels that when one opens a new one it is, as The Times Literary Supplement reviewer wrote, 'like resuming a conversation that had temporarily ceased but not ended.' The dialogues in mannered stichomythia convey as much in the silences as in words spoken and are quite unmistakably hers. The world created in these dialogues is that of England between 1885 (when she was three years old [Chapman has misread Miss Compton-Burnett's birthdate]) and 1910—an age, she said, of which she had 'organic knowledge'—and, almost invariably, the action centres around a large, rich, middle-class family which, under close scrutiny, reveals a skein of tensions and intrigues….

Commenting on her own intricate plots, she said, 'Anyone who picks up a Compton-Burnett finds it very hard not to put it down,' and, indeed, many readers over the years have found her too artificial, too 'heartless', and altogether too complex for their tastes. Ivy Compton-Burnett published twenty novels in all, and towards the end of her life she increasingly enjoyed the praise of the discerning. Critics stressed the modernity of her techniques: the similarity with Pinter was noted; Nathalie Sarraute suggested parallels with the nouveau roman; she was, stated Madame Sarraute, 'one of the greatest novelists that England has ever had'.

Robert Chapman, "Enigmatic Variations," in Books and Bookmen, May, 1973, p. 96.