Ivy Compton-Burnett Compton-Burnett, Ivy (Vol. 10) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Compton-Burnett, Ivy 1892–1969

A prolific British novelist who wrote exclusively of the late-Victorian upper middle class, Compton-Burnett is numbered among the best English women writers of her generation. Her work consists of psychological novels that deal with murder, incest, and forgery, and avoids the melodramatic or sentimental. Rather, she exposes, with cool, cynical wit, the cruelty and complexities of families and the tyranny of personal relationships. Though concerned with moral values, she allows wickedness to go unpunished and the good to suffer. Description is minimal in Compton-Burnett's novels, with plot revealed almost entirely through lengthy dialogue. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 3, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.; obituary, Vols. 25-28, rev. ed.)

Malcolm Pittock

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[The] non-conversational parts of [Compton-Burnett's prose] have the brevity and quality of stage directions….

The dialogue itself has certain obvious characteristics: each of the characters expresses himself or herself in the same elevated, stilted, and sententious diction … and in a formal fluently staccato speech rhythm which is itself removed from the rhythms of normal conversation. (p. 44)

The brief descriptions of action are deliberately reminiscent of stage directions because Miss Compton-Burnett wished to stress that her characters are not behaving naturally: they are acting: and each is acting not only for the benefit of the others but for himself or herself. The dialogue is unindividualised because it is thus capable of embodying the author's sense that the consciousness of self issuing in the individual's desire to act a part is a central truth about civilised man and underlies what she sees as superficial differences of temperament and character. A more naturalistic mode of dialogue would have brought the differences between people into prominence whereas it is the similarities that she wishes to emphasise. The formal elevation of the dialogue can also be explained as a means of conveying to us that it is civilisation which, constraining our egotism and our conflicts with others within a formal code of behaviour and speech, prevents us from expressing them directly while allowing us to do so obliquely, and provides us with a variety of roles to...

(The entire section is 617 words.)

Malcolm Bradbury

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

It was in Pastors and Masters in 1925 that [Compton-Burnett's] main work began, and you might say that like William Faulkner with Sartoris she discovered a universe of her own which she was always to continue populating. She … started publishing under the reticent name of "I. Compton-Burnett", sexually confusing to some of her readers, and most of the main sequence came out as slimmish, economical and very abstemiously-presented books,… all appearing very much kin among themselves, and all having a universe and a tone in common. The universe was reassuring, but the tone not. It was savagely aphoristic and ironic, and touched the world she handled with sensationalism and a devastating moral exposure which was less an attack on it than on life itself. The mixture of reticence and sensationalism, of nostalgia and irony, attracted much attention, and this finally became a high reputation…. However, the books were, and remain, ambiguous. One could see in them a kind of essential artlessness, or else a very high kind of artistic management, a precision of control both moral and technical of the most eminent sort. One could read them as an elegant camp game played with life, or as a harsh and cruel, almost a tragic, vision of experience. And one could find them either basically reassuring novels, nostalgic under the wit and malice, or else profoundly disturbing works. These questions raise others about the entire tone of her feelings about life, and about her technical assurance and her general contribution to the modern novel, in which she has undoubtedly played the part of a goad and an influence. (pp. 71-2)

I. Compton-Burnett is—in the very strict sense of the term—a conventional writer; she writes, that is, to her own made convention…. [She] early saw the uses of a persistent underplaying of explicit character detail, generating a drama of mystification in which the clear characteristics of persons are often subordinated to the total intercourse of the particular group or scene of which they are a part. But more important is the fact that the novels are set in a distinctive world of motives, principles, and experiences, a very sparse and cruel one, which is manifested in every novel as a single social world. In its historical place, this world can be dated and fixed: this is England, its landed gentry, in the period around 1880–1910, a period...

(The entire section is 982 words.)


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Ivy Compton-Burnett seems to be one of the undoubted classics to have emerged from the modern period. (p. 25)

Like anyone else, she had to learn her craft by experience, and her first book, Dolores (1911), is a dolorous thing indeed. It is stolid, conventional, without the imprint of Ivy's own peculiar nature. It could have been written by a dozen other beginners in the field of fiction. Time passed by until 1925 when Pastors and Masters appeared before the public. It, also, is not really vintage Ivy and is distinctly a minor work, but the book has the Ivy quality—the dry dialogue, the probing for secret motivations, the revelation of man's evil in the average mind, and, above all, an aphoristic turn of phrase. From then on Ivy is the wielder of the scalpel, the feared investigator of secret crime. (p. 26)

Reading a novel of Ivy's, one gets the impression that La Rochefoucauld is on the loose again, but this time he has taken to fiction. His salon is replaced by the closed family circle; his eye and ear monitor modern man; the impact of his maxims is diffused into the fictional matrix, and the blows come without the same quality of surprise. In fact, Ivy's famous syntatical control resembles that of a person who has labored assiduously over every word and phrase. This is the secret of her style; as we read we sense a listening group, acute and critical, who wait with amused expectation the hammer of a...

(The entire section is 429 words.)

Julian Mitchell

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The novels of I Compton-Burnett, as she always styled herself on the title-page, are quite unlike anyone else's, and she was proud of it—indeed, she was very scornful of critics who tried to compare her with other writers (usually Jane Austen, Euripides and Henry James). But her originality for many years repelled as many readers as it attracted. Though she was very much admired by a few, it was, to begin with, only a few. The main difficulty that readers had, and have, is that the books are written almost entirely in highly stylised dialogue. The conversations are so full of nuance and subtlety that it takes a new reader several chapters to get the hang of them, and sometimes he gives up in despair. There is no internalisation, no 'he thought' and 'she wondered', to help him understand what's going on or what the characters' motives are. Nor is there much description: each person is given a detailed portrait on his or her first appearance, but after that there is almost nothing. There is no description of landscape, either, or of the houses and rooms in which the characters talk and talk and talk. And, greatest difficulty of all, the characters seem at first reading, and sometimes at second, all to talk alike. This is an illusion: once one's ear is trained to Compton-Burnett one can hear that everyone speaks quite differently and individually. But new readers often get lost, can't work out who's speaking, and have to go back several pages and start...

(The entire section is 589 words.)