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Compton-Burnett, Ivy 1892–1969

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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.)

Robert Liddell

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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 audibly at times, but already functioned with precision. The style of that book is crude, bare and rather alarming. It is not like real English: it is like the language of translation. It reminds one of English translations of Russian novels and of Greek tragedy, and one may conjecture that both of them had formed an important part of her reading. Such a style is uneuphonious and harsh, but conscientiously renders a meaning—and that is what, like a translator, Miss Compton-Burnett already did, with a remarkable exactitude.

This ungainly, but precise language was later evolved into a dialogue, more dramatic than narrative, which, whether in longer speeches, or in the nearest equivalent in English to Greek tragic stichomythia, is an unrealistic but extraordinarily intense vehicle for the characters' thoughts and emotions, and enables their creator to differentiate them sharply, and, whenever she wishes, to condemn them out of their own mouths….

[She] excels particularly at the revelation of insincerity on all its levels: from that of characters who tell flat lies, to that of characters who have deceived themselves into believing what they say. (p. 149)

Her idiom sometimes approximates to what one might actually say if one were in the character's skin and situation, but also to what one might think and conceal; to what one might think of saying and bite back; to what one might afterwards wish one had said; to what one would like other people to think; and to what one would like to think oneself. (pp. 149-50)

A resemblance to Jane Austen may be noted in the use of stilted or unmeaning language to indicate a bad or insincere character….

A speech of Dulcia Bode in A House and Its Head contains many of the worst horrors pilloried by Fowler in Modern English Usage. Fowler shows that such faults are not merely faults of expression, but generally spring from real faults in feeling and character; they are not merely due to faulty taste, but to moral faults—insincerity, vanity, cowardice, and more….

Many other characters betray themselves by their speech, and some in ways too subtle to be illustrated by a brief citation. This feature of her style, alone, would make Miss Compton-Burnett a most remarkable writer. (p. 150)

Since the short study Pastors and Masters, published in 1925 after a fourteen years' silence, Miss Compton-Burnett has been completely mistress of her unique style, which she has used in increasing perfection in the novels that have followed. The texture is so close and dramatic that quotation of isolated passages is almost impossible without leaving a misleading impression. The detachment by reviewers of some of her comic passages, which are the most easily quotable, has perhaps tended to give the impression that she is only a humorous writer, and to obscure the fact, intensely humorous though she often is, that her ironic view of family life is also serious, and even tragic. (p. 151)

The subject-matter of all her books—tyranny in family life—is … neither unreal nor unimportant. On the contrary, it is one of the most important that a novelist could choose. The desire for domination, which in a dictator can plunge the world into misery, can here be studied in a limited sphere. The courage of those who resist dictation, and the different motives which cause people to range themselves on the side of the dictator can be minutely studied. In avoiding contemporary chatter about public events, Miss Burnett has gone instead to the heart of the matter: her works provide one with more penetrating social criticism than all propagandist fiction put together. (pp. 151-52)

Tyranny in the family generates a tense electric atmosphere in which anything might happen. Every thought, however outrageous, is given full and clear expression—for not only do the tyrants say exactly what they think, so, oddly, do their victims as well. The equivalent of the play-scenes in Mansfield Park are invested with the grimness of the play-scenes in Hamlet. A family conversation at the breakfast table is so pregnant with horror, that one feels things cannot go on like this for long; the storm must break some time. One is quite right, it does break. This may happen in one of two ways, but there will probably be violent happenings. It is the great distinction of Miss Compton-Burnett among highly civilized writers that her violence is always entirely credible. (pp. 153-54)

[Miss Compton-Burnett] comes serenely to violence like the great tragic artist that she is. She has so effectively prepared the way for it that when it inevitably comes, like war after a crisis, it is immediately felt to be a clearing of the air. The crime or adultery is seen to be less shocking than the daily cruelty at the breakfast table….

The violent happenings are of two sorts, as in Greek tragedy: either there is a crime, or the discovery of something dreadful in the past. These respectable families, descendants it might be of Jane Austen's Bennets, Bertrams or Knightleys, have within them the same seeds of destruction as the houses of Oedipus or of Agamemnon. Those happenings in that setting produce the effect which Miss Elizabeth Bowen has well described as 'sinister cosiness'….

[Miss Compton-Burnett] shows us how strange things happen—she really shows us how. She traces them from their roots in the characters of the people to whom they happen. Therefore there is no vulgar melodrama, no matter how sensational the happenings are. (p. 154)

It is the mark of bad, stupid or insincere characters that they are wholly or partly on the tyrant's side, through weakness, cowardice, hope of personal profit, or through a conventional or sentimental veneration of the Family as an institution, and of the tyrant as the obvious head of a family…. The bad characters see virtues in the tyrants which have no objective existence; they do not dare to believe in the evil that is there, because they are too morally cowardly to take sides against it.

By contrast, and in themselves, the good characters are very good indeed. Where other novelists are often weak, Miss Compton-Burnett is strong, in the creation of likeable good characters. Her good people are intelligent and nice. They always have those qualities that we really most wish to find in our friends. Not that they are always conventionally irreproachable…. (pp. 155-56)

[Few] of the good characters are particularly brave, most of them are irreligious, none of them are at all public-spirited—certainly they are not perfect. But they are serious, honest and sensitive, their human values are always right, and they will, if necessary, defend them. They never talk in slang or clichés; they never tell lies to others or to themselves about their feelings or motives—the bad characters think them unfeeling and selfish because they scorn pretence. They have virtues that are rare and unconventional: while many of the bad characters pride themselves on speaking good of everyone, the good characters know that it may be a higher form of charity to abuse tyrants to their victims, or to allow the victims the rare indulgence of speaking against their tyrants. (p. 156)

Nor are the tyrants themselves incapable of goodness. Some of them are even capable of acts of almost heroic virtue, following hard upon others of extreme baseness. (p. 157)

Most of the tyrants receive and deserve some respect and affection, even from their victims: the tyranny never quite abolishes family feeling, and when a tyrant has a bad fall the victims are chivalrously ready to pick him up. Some of them secure friendship and deep affection from characters of complete integrity, who see their faults clearly, but are yet fond of them—and this friendship and affection is also at least in part deserved. The tyrants are never all bad, and therefore untragic. (pp. 157-58)

The tragic aspects of Miss Compton-Burnett's work have been dwelt on at this length, because of their immense significance. They mark her divergence from Jane Austen, and her unique position and stature as a novelist, and they indicate the importance which she attaches to her implied view of life. Briefly, she holds with Mr. Forster that, to be good, people must be serious and truthful, and had better be intelligent; but she differs from him in adding that Charity begins at home….

[Like] Miss Austen, Miss Compton-Burnett is a great comic writer….

As well as humorously exploiting situations, and making use of epigrammatic brilliance in dialogue, she is a great creator of comic characters. Many of them play an active part as the philanthropic busybodies or the tyrant's parasites …—roles which are often combined. (p. 159)

It is not to be supposed that the characters in Miss Compton-Burnett's novels are only types, because they are easily classifiable. They are in fact very subtly differentiated. They are limited on the whole to certain broad categories, because the plot is to deal with certain kinds of happenings. Since the happenings come out of the people, that entails certain kinds of people. Happenings cannot come out of types, they must come out of real characters. The twelve tyrants, for example, all stand out distinct in the memory: though similarity of situation may sometimes cause them to speak alike, one could in nearly every case pick out the speech of one from that of all the others.

Critics who are unwilling to take the trouble that this very difficult writer requires, or who are not sensitive to subtleties of speech, complain that all her people talk alike. (p. 161)

Each of her characters talks like the others in the sense that they all talk with maximum clarity and self-revelation, and in a polished bookish speech—in this they are all more alike than they are like any character by any other writer. But they have all been conceived with such clarity that with patience they are easily distinguishable. Moreover two practices of the author's which make her characters superficially more alike, in fact mark their difference. When one character tries to imitate another, who is a more brilliant conversationalist, we are at once aware of the imitation—this could not be the case unless both characters were very distinct in our minds. (pp. 161-62)

Her second device occurs in her later novels, and is an even greater tour de force. She brings out family resemblances, so that in A Family and A Fortune, the little boy, Aubrey, combines something of the peevishness of his maternal grandfather … with more of the clear-headed fineness of his paternal uncle…. Nevertheless all three characters remain entirely distinct in the reader's imagination, and Aubrey is one of the most moving child characters in fiction. This sort of achievement is perhaps unique—it is much more than mere technical virtuosity, it is real character creation.

Her treatment of children is particularly admirable. Children in fiction have been more sentimentalized, lied about and betrayed than any other class of being…. An author so unsentimental and intelligent as Miss Compton-Burnett might be expected either to leave them alone, or to deal with them perfectly, as she has done. Although her narrative takes place almost exclusively in the form of very highly developed conversation among remarkably articulate people, she has all the same managed to draw shy and even very young children brilliantly—and she knows, what most people forget, how extremely early the character is distinct. (p. 162)

Miss Compton-Burnett's novels are certainly of permanent value, though they may never be 'popular classics'…. Many will find her style rebarbative on a first approach: all must find it difficult. Only repeated re-reading can extract all the treasure from her finest work…. It does not seem too much, or nearly enough, to claim for her that, of all English novelists now writing she is the greatest and the most original artist. (p. 163)

Robert Liddell, "Appendices," in his A Treatise on the Novel (copyright © 1947, 1953 by Robert Liddell; reprinted by permission of the author and his agent, James Brown Associates, Inc.; in Canada by Jonathan Cape Ltd), Jonathan Cape, 1947 (and reprinted by University of Chicago Press, 1969), pp. 129-64.∗

Edward Sackville-West

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The family…. The disintegrating effect of two wars has tended to drive novelists away from the direct treatment of this subject. For Miss Compton-Burnett it is not only the source of her ideas—and therefore of her plots—but also the focus of all other relationships. Her characters are in the first place (as the titles of her novels imply) sons, daughters, wives, brothers, etc., and only in the second place separate individuals with lives of their own. Like the Greek dramatists, with whom she has sometimes been compared, Miss Compton-Burnett finds in the family the central meeting-place of love and hate; so that in the working out of her books tragedy takes the form of a tightening of the family tie, comedy that of a loosening of the same tie, when those who have enough courage escape into the world. (We never follow them into that world, the advantages of which are taken for granted.) … [In Daughters and Sons, Miss Marcon states that]:

families can seldom be explained, and they make better gossip without any explanation. To know all is to forgive all, and that would spoil everything.

In the end of these novels we do know all, and forgive all, and everything is spoilt, in the sense that nothing—absolutely nothing—further remains to be said. The material is exhausted and our satisfaction with the work of art is complete. (pp. 79-80)

So much [of what is in a character's mind is] said in these novels, which are nine-tenths dialogue, that the suppressed idea or emotion assumes the importance that in other novelists requires a whole scene, or sequence of scenes, to build up. One of the advantages of Miss Compton-Burnett's exquisite conversation is that any direct statement of feeling or intention has the force of a violent gesture. The 'cast' is always assembled in such a way that there is one character, and one only, who by making such statements carries the plot a step forward. Like flying bombs, these stories proceed by jet propulsion, and the explosion, when at last it occurs, hits those who were least prepared for it.

A society, the members of which are so highly conscious of their interdependence, creates its own destiny; and the flying bomb becomes a boomerang. If they could, they would leave stones unturned; but their circumstances make this impossible. To them, all life is one long process of more or less painful discovery…. [The] degree of articulateness displayed by everyone—from servants and children to the tyrant of the household (an invariable figure)—seems alleged, until it is realised that this is a stylistic convention such as every artist has the right to adopt. That everyone in these novels employs the same tone and the same large and scholarly vocabulary does not, strangely enough, impair the vigour of the characterisation, except in a few instances where the dimness of the outline is due to other causes as well. Indeed, Miss Compton-Burnett's signal triumph in this field seems to me quite sufficient to justify repudiation of the modern insistence on naturalistic dialogue. In Manservant and Maidservant, for example—a story in which the convention is carried to its furthest extreme—the characters whose idiom is least natural are precisely those who emerge as most real and pathetic. (pp. 80-1)

Murder, incest, suicide, theft, immolation …: the worst of which human nature is capable is examined on the level of a solecism, between the dropping of a teacup and the entrance of a parlour-maid to collect the fragments. Apart from physical violence and starvation, there is no feature of the totalitarian regime which has not its counterpart in the atrocious families depicted in these books. That this is not immediately obvious is due partly to the Cranfordian background…. These people live too intensely to have time for enjoying their material world…. Money is always important to them, but only in so far as it affects their relationships…. Perfect urbanity is the first rule of their intercourse. In these embowered, rook-enchanted concentration camps (the landscape is evoked, hardly ever described) the horrors are made acceptable, but not blunted, by Politeness and Wit. That is, after all, what manners are for; without them, men and women are incomplete. Self-control is rarely lost in these novels, but where it is lost the result is proportionately upsetting to everyone, the reader included. Anger, despair, exasperation, increase the loftiness of the speech, so that the characters seem to exult in the eloquence of their feelings. (pp. 83-4)

Miss Compton-Burnett's progress in her art has been more considerable than might appear, in view of the curious and no doubt deliberate uniformity of her novels. For, like a sculptor obsessed by the human figure, she recommences the same task in each successive book, and relies for variety on the endless combinations of spoken language. Her characters are comparatively few and reappear constantly under different names: but each incarnation reveals some new facet of experience. Her first book, Dolores (published in 1911), is indeed not very characteristic and is chiefly interesting for the few glimpses of her later style which it contains. A lachrymose, amateurish book, it occasionally startles one with things like this:

"How do you do, Mrs. Cassell?" said Mrs. Blackwood. "We were all beginning to wonder if anything had prevented your coming."

"How do you know we were, mother? We have none of us said so," said Elsa.

This foreshadows the portentous domestic tyrants of Brothers and Sisters, A House and Its Head and Daughters and Sons, as well as the disillusioned, completely intelligent, but dutiful children who suffer under them.

With Pastors and Masters (1925) the mature style is already formed in all essential features: it only remained for the artist to exploit the potentialities of so remarkable an invention…. [To] the present writer the effect of her art recalls the aims of the Cubist movement in painting, at its inception. Like a Picasso of 1913, a Compton-Burnett novel is not concerned with decoration or with observation of the merely contingent, nor is it interested in exhibiting the author's personality or in exploiting a romantic dream. It is constructive, ascetic, low in tone, classical. It enquires into the meanings—the syntactical force—of the things we all say, as the Cubist enquired into the significance of shapes and planes divorced from the incidence of light and the accidents of natural or utilitarian construction. (pp. 86-7)

I have described these novels as being nine-tenths dialogue, which gives the measure of the space Miss Compton-Burnett allows herself for noting the scene, the aspect and movement of persons, and any comment she may find necessary. All this is reduced to the absolute minimum and in its abrupt succinctness hardly amounts to more than what one expects to find in the stage directions of a play. The result is something unique, though it has affinities with the tradition of the dramatic legend which was instituted by Plato and includes Fontenelle, Diderot and W. S. Landor.

But it is her zeal for measuring the temperature of emotion—the graph described from moment to moment by the action of the plot on the alert sensibilities of her characters—which is responsible both for the continuously witty surface of her writing and the deeper truth of her picture. Like Henry James, Miss Compton-Burnett is much concerned to preserve an amusing surface, as well as a polite one; and this remains true of the tragic passages in her books. Indeed, in those which deal with the most frightful happenings (Brothers and Sisters, Men and Wives. More Women than Men, A House and Its Head) the comic relief is more pronounced and more evenly distributed than in the later novels, of which the plots are considerably less lurid. But it is her anxious attention to Truth which, more than anything else, gives to her books their quality of timeless relevance. Her wit has many sides, but it excludes absolutely the wisecrack, the smart epigram, the modish or private sally. (p. 87)

I do not want to give the impression that I consider these novels faultless. In common with other important artists Miss Compton-Burnett has a number of failings which are perhaps inherent in her very personal idiom. They are easily described:

(1) She tends to fill her canvas too rapidly, and this mistake is aggravated by the perfunctory way in which she describes her characters, so that we are in constant danger of forgetting or confusing them. It must, however, be pointed out that in her later novels this fault is less apparent.

(2) She cannot manage masculine men. Her males are either overtly effete (e.g. Alfred Marcon in Daughters and Sons), or possessed by a feline power-mania (e.g. Duncan Edgeworth in A House and Its Head).

(3) Her plots are not easily remembered in detail, or distinguished one from another. This is not a serious charge, for her emphasis lies elsewhere; but it argues a certain rigidity of imagination and probably has some connection with

(4) Her subsidiary characters are often (but by no means always) too 'flat'. Even regarded as a chorus, they are too dim in outline and tend, moreover, to be always of the same type.

(5) Her chief characters do not develop in the course of the book, they only loom larger or dwindle, according as the author lengthens or shortens her opera-glass.

(6) When Action supervenes, she skates over it as quickly as possible, in the manner of Jane Austen. At such moments a kind of deadly calm descends on the page: which is in a way effective, but tends to spoil what in music is called the balance of parts.

These faults, although they add up to something, do not seriously affect the brilliance and gravity of these amazing books, or the intense satisfaction that arises from submitting oneself to Miss Compton-Burnett's regime. If her novels are tiring to read, that is because the non-stop rallies, the wonderful patness, the immense logical sequences, make it difficult to decide where to put the book down, when it becomes necessary to attend to something else. Once launched on the stream one must attend completely to every word, until the end is reached. But although these difficulties render her work no light undertaking for the reader, the reward is proportionate—not only in the illumination of so much in life that other, and perhaps more scopious, novelists agree to ignore, but in irresistible laughter. For these books are, one and all, monumentally funny. (pp. 88-9)

Though [Miss Compton-Burnett's] scene is apparently so confined, the moral implications of her art reach into every corner, not only of her own world, but of those worlds the existence of which she only implies. That is the advantage of the high degree of 'abstraction' involved by her method: it achieves universality by dint of excluding what is not essential to the completeness of the design. Like an expert piquet player, she prefers the bird in her hand to the dubious number she might pick up in the talon. The results are self-evident, timeless, therefore proof against the hysteria of fashion and the blight of political theory. (p. 103)

Edward Sackville-West, "Ladies Whose Bright Pens …," in his Inclinations, Martin Secker & Warburg Ltd., 1949 (and reprinted by Charles Scribner's Sons, 1950), pp. 78-103.∗


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I think it's the natural way for me to write, the way I write naturally, but I think in some of the books, especially in some of the earlier ones, there is a certain amount of writing that isn't dialogue. But, my books seem to me to be something between a novel and a play. (p. 165)

[But the form of the novels] isn't exactly the structure of a play. It's longer than a play, isn't it, and gives me more scope than a play would. I think I should find the actual performance of a play, a play that has to be acted on the stage, too short. Though my books are short compared with some books, if you don't put any descriptive writing in, the book must be short as regards the number of words, but I think I should find the distinct form of a play too curtailing….

I shouldn't say that [I have a lack of interest in landscape or in the appearance of people, however,] because I enjoy Hardy's descriptions very much, and some descriptions very much, some of Conrad's descriptions—and I do describe my people once which seems to me to be enough….

[However] people describe their characters I think the readers—each reader—has his own conception, his own picture of the character. Don't you think so? I think he only wants just a little guidance to get his own picture which should be his anyhow, I don't think a page of description would help him. (p. 166)

I think [servants] used to be very much more literate than people realized. They used to listen a great deal to educated people's talk, and old-fashioned servants identified themselves with the family very much, you know, almost became a part of the family; and I think they had much more command of words, just as I think children often have much more command of words than is recognized by grown-up people….

[The beginning of this century] is the time I feel I know, or perhaps right up to 1914. When the war came and the world all got so disturbed and has gone on getting more and more disturbed ever since. I never feel I know it enough really to look back on it as a complete period….

I don't think I feel a detachment from [the world of 1950, 1960]—it is the world I live in, but for the very reason that one lives in the middle of it, one doesn't look at it and see it complete and organically—does one? (p. 167)

[So] many modern books seem to be just giving the sort of point of view of a few particular people, and generally a picture of busyness and discontent somehow, and not much else….

I think a great many of the kind of the people I write about were not very interested [in the politics of the time]. Of course they were interested in the sense that they talked about it at the breakfast table, and read the paper, but I don't think it bore on their lives….

[What I do feel bore on their lives was their family relationships] and their personal experiences, and I think that must always be so with every one in all countries and at all times, and in every case…. (p. 168)

[There is often a lot of destruction within the family], but there's a lot of family affection too. Especially between brothers and sisters I think, and in some cases between the parents. The books are not all the same in that way. I think there was a tendency for parents to misuse power, and I think there's always a tendency for power to be misused. Nothing's more corrupting than power. Very few people stand it, I think….

[Any likeness in my work to Greek Tragedy is accidental], but I was classically educated—so that you see something may have come through unconsciously. (p. 169)

[And] I have a great admiration for Jane Austen—I know her books very well….

[But] I shouldn't have thought that my books were very like Jane Austen's. They belong, I suppose, to the same sort of class of thing—but then such a lot of books do, don't they? (p. 170)

I don't think I have [developed technically]. I think perhaps my work may be a little smoother, but I don't think there's any real development….

I think perhaps it has got a little deeper, and even widened the ground in a sense—although not widened the scene, because I don't think my work is narrow—some people say it is, although I agree the scene is narrow. (p. 172)

Ivy Compton-Burnett, "An Interview with Ivy Compton-Burnett," an interview with John Bowen (originally broadcast on "BBC Home Programme," London, September 17, 1960), in Twentieth Century Literature, Special Issue: Ivy Compton-Burnett (copyright 1979, Hofstra University Press), Vol. 25, No. 2, Summer, 1979, pp. 165-72.

Joanne Hutchinson

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One of I. Compton-Burnett's richest novels, Manservant and Maidservant (1947), opens with this brief dialogue:

"Is that fire smoking?" said Horace Lamb.

"Yes, it appears to be, my dear boy."

"I am not asking what it appears to be doing. I asked if it was smoking."

"Appearances are not held to be a clue to the truth," said his cousin. "But we seem to have no other."

It is a typical beginning. The subject of conversation is ordinary in the extreme, the language is colorless, indeed the exchange seems pointless and a little dull…. [The] mild little observation about the nature of appearances turns out to be a leading theme not only of this novel but of all the author's work: the appearance of a thing may or may not help us toward the truth, but it is in any case all we shall ever have.

The point that we are dependent upon appearances seems obvious enough, but in terms of the theory of the novel it is almost revolutionary. That there is a difference between appearance and reality, and that we must learn to recognize that difference, are principles that inform most works of fiction and almost all criticism of the genre. Compton-Burnett does not overthrow these principles entirely, but she gives them a vigorous wrench. In her novels the appearance, the surface, is the reality, or at least the only reality available to us. Sometimes appearances change, hence reality changes; but no one sees beneath or behind the surface. Moreover, the surface is all talk; not only must her characters make what they can of one another's walls of words, her readers too are at the mercy of an author who writes almost nothing but dialogue and glosses it sparingly at best. These conversation-crammed pages create their own kind of reader: one who of necessity learns how to make sense of a surface laid before him with scrupulous care but interpreted not at all. The technique, as Mark Schorer says, discovers the theme; this constant dialogue, this impenetrable façade of words, discovers that, as in the case of her characters, all we can know of our world is what we can perceive with our senses and all we can understand of other people is what they choose to tell us.

Giving so much importance to appearances carries with it the obligation to render them with scientific precision…. [Her] meticulousness results in what must be the most tentative accounts in fiction…. Open any one of the novels and note the characteristic stage directions: "said Edgar, as if in reply" (we cannot assume on the face of it that he is indeed replying); "said his wife, her manner seeming to carry comfort" (comfort may or may not be intended);… and so on, one careful modifier after another. We observe also the lack of synonyms; here and elsewhere the preferred verb for recording speech is simply "said." The spoken words carry the full burden of meaning. Compton-Burnett invites us to use our own perceptions of experience to interpret what a very diffident narrator observes in the characters. (pp. 183-85)

That, however, there is more to life than what the surface of experience reveals is taken absolutely for granted…. We suspect everything, but we learn only what emerges…. [All] the wise characters understand this; her fools, however well-meaning, do not…. One comes to impute either stupidity or villainy to any character in the novels who, like Maria, or like Anna Donne in Elders and Betters (1944), professes openness and candor. And one sees that the author's spare introductory descriptions …, like the stage directions, function as an acknowledgment of limitations. Precise, acute, funny, they nevertheless tell us nothing important about the characters. (pp. 185-86)

Convinced though she is that people hide more than they reveal, Compton-Burnett sometimes seems to be of two minds about the consequences of concealment…. More often, however, the results of secrecy are dangerous or pathetic or even tragic. Incest is always threatening or occurring, and the suicide in Elders and Betters might be considered a new form of homicide to be termed murder-by-concealment. The pathos attaching to so many of the children in the novels is due to this same secrecy. Although forced by their circumstances to develop precocious powers of observation, the children, lacking experience, are peculiarly vulnerable to a convincing performance, with the result that they are forever being bewildered and betrayed. (p. 186)

[The] vision of the novels suggests that, however risky keeping a smooth exterior may be, doing so is on balance the wiser course, making for ease, contentment, above all civility. The virtue of restricting life's messier elements to the depths and preserving a serene surface appears early in the novels and persists to the end…. [Many of Compton-Burnett's novels] illustrate her conviction that perfect candor may be not merely careless but self-indulgent, less indecorous than dangerous. When, for instance, in Mother and Son Julius Hume yields to an impulse to reveal his past to his ailing wife, the shock kills her, but not before both of them recognize the enormity of his ill-timed truthfulness. Novels where a good many secrets come out, such as Two Worlds and Their Ways or A God and His Gifts, end with a general agreement among the characters that they would gladly return to the time before the revelation, when appearances were decently preserved.

But dangerous or not, desirable or not, concealment is for Compton-Burnett a fact of life, perhaps the dominant fact. Always aware of this limitation, her characters react to it according to their personalities. (pp. 186-87)

[Nearly] everyone in the novels is at times misled by appearances…. No one in Elders and Betters ever pierces Anna's mask of simple, indeed awkward, directness, not her malcontent but discerning brother Esmond, not even her Aunt Jessica, morbidly sensitive to others and suspicious of the immediate circumstances though she is. The confrontation scene between the two women, in which Jessica tries without success to learn what lies beneath Anna's manner of clumsy, belligerent self-righteousness, is a classic fictional study of the power of appearances.

Now to speak of appearances in novels of dialogue is to stretch the common metaphor even more than is usually done. Strictly speaking there are no appearances, we see nothing except words. As in the theater we listen, but without the help of the actors. Compton-Burnett obliges her readers to do the work of both actor and director and to help even with the conventional writing chores. But more remarkable than the degree of audience participation demanded is her insistence on the fundamental importance of language. Unformed thought is for her a meaningless notion: in the last novel published in her lifetime, one of her wisest characters, old Joanna, remarks, "'There would not be any subjects, if we had not discovered the power of speech.'" (p. 188)

[Disturbing] lapses in point of view … occur in some of the novels. There are not many, but they are disproportionately jarring when they appear….

We feel … misgivings [for example] when an omniscient voice suddenly intrudes in More Women Than Men to invite us to believe in Josephine Napier's "pang … not for Gabriel, but for Felix!" Nothing in Josephine's words or actions has suggested anything of the sort; she has been absorbed in Gabriel to the point of murdering for him. With Felix she has, like everyone else, been lightly charmed, but she has seemed hardly to know him. What seems especially wrong here is just the word "pang," quite inappropriate for this energetic, domineering, articulate woman. It is a word, moreover, that Compton-Burnett would ordinarily reserve for an ironic comment, not a serious or—as here—a sentimental one. (p. 189)

[One objects to such narrative] intrusions not from an academic insistence on purity of point of view, not even from a feeling that these insights are implausible …, but from one's sense that the author is being false to her carefully established epistemology. She has been teaching her reader to function within strict limits. It is not fair suddenly to remove or restore them in an arbitrary fashion. Since even these rare cases disappear from the later novels, we can assume that Compton-Burnett herself became aware of the difficulty. (p. 190)

[We come] to still another aspect of appearances; they conceal much, they can be both helpful and dangerous, and they are also very often true. The point is made by Oscar Jekyll in A House and Its Head: "'Have we not a way of maligning appearances? They tend to be an expression of the truth.'" A new set of appearances may replace the old, but we have no assurance that the one expresses truth and the other falsehood. Maybe both are false, but why not both true? Because the larger characters in the novels are capable of several kinds of appearance, expressing several kinds of truth …, the worst of them continue to command a measure of affection from those around them as well as the uneasy respect of the reader.

From the outset many a newcomer to Compton-Burnett has read a little way into her work and, finding himself in a small, middle-class, rural English society that seems largely unaware of the rest of the world and entirely dependent upon itself for entertainment, has thought to have come upon another Jane Austen. He has then read a little further and discovered his mistake, not without frustration. The frustration comes, one feels, from baffled expectation. For Jane Austen's recurring theme is that we live and, if we are the right sort, we learn that appearances are deceptive but that experience teaches us to get beneath them to the truth…. Compton-Burnett's theme, on the other hand, is that we live, that we learn very little, and that experience teaches the wary to be a bit warier. With luck and good parts our perceptions become sharper. That is all. In his important study of the author, Charles Burkhart finds that the "central theme of the novels can be regarded as the search for truth." Fair enough; but another theme is that, given the nature of life, the search as likely as not will fail. (p. 191)

Compton-Burnett has been described as compassionate. I do not think the word is apt; dispassionate, though not completely satisfactory, comes nearer to my sense of her work…. [Her] attitude toward her characters, and by extension toward men and women generally [is] curious, perceptive, amused, registering no shock and making no judgment…. She has looked at human nature's hidden side, and looked away; but not before writing it down. (p. 192)

Joanne Hutchinson, "Appearances Are All We Have," in Twentieth Century Literature, Special Issue: Ivy Compton-Burnett (copyright 1979, Hofstra University Press), Vol. 25, No. 2, Summer, 1979, pp. 183-93.

Constance Lewis

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Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1481

The novels of Ivy Compton-Burnett present intriguing problems of content and structure. They are distinctly not popular novels; yet, like many popular novels, they are written according to a few simple, undistinguished formulae. Scenes that are almost identical occur in several of the novels. The characters in one novel are often almost indistinguishable from those in another, and the crises that these characters encounter are often very similar and handled in the same ways. The locales of the novels might as well be the same, since they are usually described only specifically enough to be recognizably rural, English, and late Victorian.

Despite what may sound like the repetitious, monotonous, and unimaginative qualities that these novels have in abundance, they are, in fact, works of substance, fascinating in themselves, and lead the reader to think closely about human nature and human existence.

The major subject that runs throughout Dame Ivy's novels is egotism. The most odious characters are those who impose their egotistical views of the world on others who may be no less egotistical but who are less demanding, or who are in such dependent positions that they must restrain their egos lest others shatter them. Because the same basic characteristics appear throughout these novels in the personalities of children, men and women of every age, and occasionally in a cat, the reader may see the novels as creating a continuum…. (p. 224)

All these conflicting wills and desires must coexist in a very narrow world where egos are in continual collision and from which escape is almost impossible…. This narrowness is emphasized in Dame Ivy's novels because she keeps the crucial events of life—birth, marriage, death—within the confines of a very small, claustrophobic circle related by blood and/or propinquity; and all the ramifications and consequences of actions are minutely explored within this circle. (pp. 224-25)

[Manservant and Maidservant (1947)] seems to me a pivotal work. The impact of this novel depends in large measure on the intricate interplay of good and evil within most of the characters and among them…. [In] Manservant and Maidservant Dame Ivy comments much more than she usually does on what the characters think and feel…. (p. 227)

Although an occasional butler or nursemaid or governess has had a role in the novels before Manservant and Maidservant, this is the first of Dame Ivy's works in which a group of servants has shared center stage with the major family; indeed, by the end of the novel, they almost have the stage to themselves. In this novel the lives below stairs and above stairs are threaded together; for the first time the servants are presented as having lives of their own. In an earlier novel (Daughters and Sons, 1937) all the maids in the Ponsonby household have been called Gertrude because it "saves trouble," and until Manservant and Maidservant the level of individuality is not much greater even when they have their own names. From this novel forward, Dame Ivy often uses servants to point up indirectly the absurdity or emptiness of upstairs life.

Language, which has always been a prime subject of Dame Ivy's novels, takes on a new dimension beginning with this novel. From this point on, words themselves, what they mean, how they are used and intended, and what they reveal or veil, become increasingly the real subject of the novels; they have achieved a life almost independent of the plots and even of the characters who bandy them back and forth. More and more, crucial discussions revolve around what people mean when they say things; it is Bullivant's assistant George, more sensitive to language than he is to anything else, who says, "'If you alter words, you alter meanings'."… From Manservant and Maidservant on, the import of alterations—the sharing of words without the sharing of meanings—surfaces more and more and shows how difficult human communication is since words change people and people change words. (p. 228)

[George and Mrs. Selden] are not the first of Dame Ivy's characters to encounter semantic difficulties, but they do herald a shift away from word play toward word work: a view of words as a minefield that people trip gaily into as if for a picnic. Sometimes they get out relatively unscathed but increasingly the mines explode and people are badly shaken or worse. The world which characters know primarily through words turns out to be not nearly as stable and secure as they thought it to be.

Another important point in Manservant and Maidservant is that family servants for the first time have a friend from outside the house. And this friend, Miss Buchanan, turns out to be one of the most intriguing characters in all twenty novels because of her singularity: in these most verbal of novels she is completely illiterate, which puts her at the center of the language issue in a very particular way. (pp. 228-29)

Since language is a means by which human beings share with one another, her inability to decipher written language amounts, as she sees it, to exclusion from humanity. And this view is confirmed throughout the novel by the reactions of those who come to know of her inability. (p. 229)

Once Miss Buchanan's secret is out, it assumes an altogether different aspect, for it is now a condition to be dealt with rather than a secret. The conversation that ensues is echoed throughout Dame Ivy's other novels. The alliteration is not precisely functional, but it underlies and, therefore, underlines the meaning of the passage. Many of the important nouns begin with c—"curiosity." "confidence," "claims and conduct," "criminal," "concealment"—and many of them are repeated throughout the conversation so that they create a pattern of sound that underlies the pattern of meaning in these words, all of which have in some way to do with secrecy. Too much can be made of such small matters, which are really part of the texture of the novel; but, since Dame Ivy was unusually careful with her choice of words, the reader pays attention and notices…. (pp. 229-30)

Dame Ivy was born into a world that seemed settled and relatively static, but she was not very old when revolutions and convolutions began to alter that world completely…. In her novels she turned her back on the world that fostered such events and focused her attention on a way of life that seemed less ephemeral than life in the twentieth century if only because it was irrecoverable, except through memory. But she shows throughout her work an awareness that the world has changed radically since her childhood and that it had doubtless been changing even while she was living in childish ignorance. This awareness is nowhere more apparent than in the character of George. (pp. 231-32)

The major problem with George is he cannot fit into a world of secrets and hypocrisy. Whether he knows it or not, he really prefers a kind of openness for which here no room exists. He is an inept concealer….

In the world in which he lives it will always be too late for poor George because paradoxically it will always be too early: he does not belong to the world of servants and masters he has, because of his origins, ended up in, so that the lessons appropriate to his position as a servant are wasted on him…. George is hardly a harbinger of revolution, but he does prefigure a different world. (p. 232)

The structure of Manservant and Maidservant is problematical because, unlike most of Dame Ivy's novels, it does not follow a single set of family problems. Instead several separate spheres cross one another, and no single one is dominant. This may be one of the reasons why many of the characters are so sketchy. (p. 233)

That Dame Ivy is not wholly successful in meshing all the disparate aspects of Manservant and Maidservant is not surprising. She is making new combinations out of the elements of her fictional world here, and they do not all settle in the right way. But Manservant and Maidservant is still memorable because of what it forecasts in her fiction and because of such characters as one tyrant in whom fear of himself is the primary trait, a second, who happens this time to be a butler, in whose hands tyranny becomes a subtle and smooth art, two young boys who are so frightened of their father that they are momentarily willing to let him die, and a woman who is so afraid of her illiteracy that she has spent her entire life avoiding communion with other people. The realism of this novel like the realism of all Dame Ivy's novels goes far beyond verisimilitude to some psychologically consistent truth that transcends words. (p. 234)

Constance Lewis, "'Manservant and Maidservant': A Pivotal Novel," in Twentieth Century Literature, Special Issue: Ivy Compton-Burnett (copyright 1979, Hofstra University Press), Vol. 25, No. 2, Summer, 1979, pp. 224-34.

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Compton-Burnett, Ivy (Vol. 10)


Compton-Burnett, Ivy (Vol. 3)