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. In 1967 she was made a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 3, 11, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.; obituary, Vols. 25-28, rev. ed.)
The world that [Miss Compton-Burnett and Jane Austen] depict is normally a limited one, the families at the big house, the rectory, and one or two other houses in an English village….
Why has [Miss Compton-Burnett] chosen this world, and why has she dated the action of her books some time between 1888 and 1902?
Not out of a desire to imitate—Jane Austen is inimitable, and Miss Compton-Burnett has a very original mind. Nor has she acted out of nostalgia for a quiet, old-fashioned world: there is nothing quaint about her work, any more than there is about Miss Austen's—no period properties and no local colour.
She herself claims that she is accepting her limitations: 'I do not feel that I have any real or organic knowledge of life later than about 1910. I should not write of later times with enough grasp or confidence…. When an age is ended, you see it as it is. And I have a dislike, which I cannot explain, of dealing with modern machinery and inventions. When war casts its shadow, I find that I recoil.'
Such a recognition of her range is in itself admirable, but it is impossible not to see more than that in the limitations within which she works. She is writing the pure novel, as Jane Austen did, concentrating upon human beings and their mutual reactions. So rare is such concentration in the English novel that any writer who conscientiously practises it is almost sure to be accused of 'imitating Jane Austen' whether their minds are alike or not…. (p. 147)
The isolation of her characters … brings them into clearer relief, and enables their creator to do her real business, the study and revelation of human nature, with greater freedom. This isolation of the characters, and their lack of interest in social conditions outside the family, or in economic problems apart from those of the family fortunes, is made more credible by isolating them in time as well as in place—situating them in a period when the impact of public events on private individuals was less immediate and crushing than at present. Therefore she has chosen the end of Queen Victoria's reign. A few years earlier, and she would have been obliged to weight down her books with the trappings of the historical novel: as it is, she has obtained a liberating absence of contemporaneity at the small cost of substituting carriages for cars….
Miss Compton-Burnett has freed herself from all irrelevances in order to write the pure novel. And like Miss Austen she has a dislike for merely descriptive writing, which she uses with even greater economy. The village which is to be the scene of action is undescribed and, except for Moreton Edge in Brothers and Sisters, is not even named. Characters are often tersely but completely described, in terms which do not remain in the memory, and it is necessary to turn back if we wish to remind ourselves of their appearance. (p. 148)
Dialogue, to which in Emma Jane Austen had begun to give a far more important place, is the staple of this writer's work. It is a dialogue of a power and brilliance unmatched in English prose fiction. In her early and immature book, Dolores , the machine creaked...
(The entire section is 8,638 words.)