Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Mother and Son employs an austere narrative style consisting mostly of dialogue to reveal unhealthy patterns within traditional English family life. As with all Compton-Burnett’s work, the subject of this novel is her own childhood in a rigid and autocratic Victorian environment. The narrative features two parallel sets of people; in this case, a household headed by Miranda Hume and another headed by Emma Greatheart. Although Miranda Hume is in failing health, she is still able to bully her husband and children. She seems to dote on her son Rosebery, but she has prevented him from having a life of his own. Her husband prefers the three children of his late brother, who serve as a kind of Greek chorus. The amused and bitter commentary of these children contrasts with the behavior of Rosebery, who basks in his role as his mother’s favorite.

Miranda’s rude and overbearing treatment of Miss Burke, who had hoped to become her paid companion, has led Burke to accept a position as a housekeeper to the neighboring Emma Greatheart. In a parallel move, Hester Wolsey, Emma’s friend, is forced by economic necessity to accept the post as Miranda’s companion. It is she who creates the relationship between the two households. As Miss Wolsey insinuates herself into the Hume family, Miranda declines in health. At a moment when Miranda is particularly unwell, Julius confesses that he is really the father of the three younger children. Miranda, who has...

(The entire section is 559 words.)


(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Ivy Compton-Burnett has gained the attention of feminists, who have praised her critique of the Victorian image of women as domestic angels, her demystification of motherhood, and her exposure of the inequitable power structures of the traditional family. All Compton-Burnett’s novels cover the same material—namely, her childhood in a large Victorian family. By her own admission, she never really entered modern life; in a sense, she was haunted by her childhood, which gave her her great subject. The perspective of her novels reflects the deep changes that overcame her psyche and her society in the wake of World War I. Within the narrow confines of her country houses and their old-fashioned denizens, she was able to write telling satires not only of the traditional family but also of other British institutions such as the class and educational systems. She also commented on political issues such as modern totalitarianism and the repression of human rights.

Reared in an artistic and intellectual atmosphere, Compton-Burnett took her vocation as a novelist quite seriously. Although she was deeply attached to the world of her childhood, she is ironically also one of its most effective critics. From her second novel through her twentieth, her work remained consistent in subject and treatment, so that there appears to be no distinctive “major phase.” All of her novels show her to be a pioneer in the art of modern fiction who broke free of conventional...

(The entire section is 465 words.)

Places Discussed

(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)

Miranda Hume’s house

Miranda Hume’s house. Typical of Ivy Compton-Burnett’s work, this novel is set in an old Victorian manor house in a respectable suburban British enclave. These large and ancestral estates represent the economic and social power usually associated with the south of England. But for all their solidity and security, the mansions in Compton-Burnett’s work inevitably isolate those who live within them.

Staffed by domestic servants who all sleep under the mansions’ roofs, run to rigid timetables, and organized into hierarchies over which parental figures have absolute control, these traditional stately homes reflect Victorian family life at its most crushing. While this world is modeled on that of Compton-Burnett’s own large and troubled Victorian family, the houses of her fiction are even larger and more traditional than the house in which the author herself lived. The enlargement and enhancement of her own childhood house enabled Compton-Burnett to use her mansions symbolically rather than literally—they became microcosms of Victorian society. This is particularly the case because Compton-Burnett almost completely dispenses with description, instead preferring dialogue to further her narrative.

In Mother and Son, a large Victorian household is presided over by the typically autocratic matriarch Miranda Hume. The presence of easily cowed servants in the house and the imperious manner of Miranda suggest that she feels that she is entitled by a kind of natural law to her present...

(The entire section is 639 words.)


(Great Characters in Literature)

Baldanza, Frank. Ivy Compton-Burnett. New York: Twayne, 1964. Includes an analysis of each novel, a chronology, and a bibliography up to 1963, as well as a treatment of Compton-Burnett’s techniques.

Burkhart, Charles, ed. The Art of I. Compton-Burnett. London: Victor Gollancz, 1972. A compilation of critical essays and interviews by leading critics of Compton-Burnett’s work. Examines the theme of domestic tyranny and includes the important essay on Compton-Burnett’s dialogue by French novelist Nathalie Sarraute.

Gentile, Kathy Justice. Ivy Compton-Burnett. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1991. Establishes Compton-Burnett as a feminist and adds new and important perspectives to her work, including feminist analysis of all of the novels. Excellent bibliography.

Greig, Cicely. Ivy Compton-Burnett: A Memoir. London: Garnstone, 1972. An affectionate but perceptive memoir by Compton-Burnett’s typist and friend. Includes some useful insights into Mother and Son.

Liddell, Robert. The Novels of I. Compton-Burnett. London: Victor Gollancz, 1955. The first important interpretation of Compton-Burnett, this remains the standard critical book. Includes a detailed and appreciative analysis of each work, with particular reference to the theme of domestic tyranny.

Nevius, Blake. Ivy Compton-Burnett. New York: Columbia University Press, 1970. A short, appreciative, general book for those unfamiliar with her work. Serves as a lively introduction for those who find her novels difficult and inaccessible.

Spurling, Hilary. Ivy: The Life of I. Compton-Burnett. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1984. The indispensable biography of Compton-Burnett, with much useful information about her childhood, the source material for all of her novels. Describes her happy and creative years with her companion, Margaret Jourdain.