Burnett, Dame Ivy Compton- (1884–1969), novelist
by Patrick Lyons

Burnett, Dame Ivy Compton- (1884–1969), novelist, was born on 5 June 1884 at 2 Onslow Gardens, Pinner, Middlesex, the seventh of the thirteen children of Dr James Compton Burnett (1840–1901), a distinguished and crusading homoeopath, and first child of his second wife, Katharine (1855–1911), daughter of Rowland Rees, civil engineer and mayor of Dover. Until the age of fourteen Ivy Compton-Burnett was educated at home by a governess and tutors, alongside her younger brothers, Guy (1885–1905) and Noel (1887–1916), to whom she was passionately attached. In 1891 her family moved to Hove, then a new and developing suburb of Brighton, and from 1898 to 1901 she was a day pupil at the nearby Addiscombe College, where she took university matriculation. In 1901–2 she spent two terms as a boarder at Howard College, Bedford, in preparation for living away from home; and in 1902 entered Royal Holloway College, Egham, where she studied classics, graduating in 1906. Nothing suggests that she enjoyed school; her university contemporaries recall her only as shy and withdrawn; educational institutions later provided an enclosed setting and hothouse atmosphere for several of her novels.

Compton-Burnett's father died suddenly in 1901 and there followed a series of misfortunes that brought increasing bleakness to her life. Her mother was already inclined to social posturing—the hyphenated form of the family name was her invention—and entered into extravagant mourning, which she sustained for ten years and imposed to the extent that even the baby in her pram was bedecked with black ribbons. In widowhood Compton-Burnett's mother provided her with an early model for the line of outrageous domestic bullies that appear in her novels, anticipating the grief-stricken and over-demanding Sophia Stace (Brothers and Sisters, 1929) and the more shamelessly lucid Harriet Haslem (Men and Wives, 1931), who declares candidly: ‘I see my children's faces, and am urged by the hurt in them to go further, and driven on to the worse’.

When her brother Guy died of pneumonia in 1905, Compton-Burnett became indifferent to her studies, and graduated without the first-class degree which had been expected for her. Back in Hove she was set to tutoring her four younger sisters, a duty she conducted lackadaisically. She was, however, observing, and from the mid-1930s her novels would more and more feature groups of put-upon children whose only independence in otherwise miserable confinements is their outspokenness. Intermittently encouraged by her brother Noel—for whom boarding-school and Cambridge were an escape from the Hove household—she wrote a novel about self-abnegation, Dolores (published in 1911), a book influenced by the work of George Eliot which she later dismissed as a false start. After her mother's death from protracted cancer in 1911, Compton-Burnett became head of the household, and in taking over her mother's role she took on too its rigour and despotism. She explored domestic tyranny with herself as its practitioner, until in 1915 her sisters mutinied, setting up home in London with the pianist Myra Hess, and leaving her alone and largely friendless. She was not, however, poor: her father had invested extensively in property, and after her mother's death Compton-Burnett managed his estate and trusts, which she administered judiciously and profitably over the next fifty years.

In 1916 Compton-Burnett's brother Noel was killed on the Somme, and his young wife attempted suicide. Though there was little liking between them, Compton-Burnett grimly set about nursing her brother's widow back to health. Late in 1917 her two youngest sisters were found in a locked bedroom, dead from a self-administered overdose of veronal. Considerably enervated after the inquest into their deaths, she fell victim to the influenza epidemic that swept England in 1918, and was herself for a time near death. Her luck changed in 1919, when the writer moved into Compton-Burnett's flat in Bayswater, London, beginning a lifelong relationship. Under Margaret's indulgent care Ivy slowly returned to brighter spirits, and in 1925 published Pastors and Masters, her second novel, and the first of her nineteen avant-gardist novels composed almost entirely in brisk dialogue.

These are witty and often demanding novels, peopled with alert sceptics who are devoted to epigrammatic talk and edgily precise analysis of talk. ‘Dear, dear, how you overwork your words! I feel quite sorry for them’—says a governess to her charges in The Mighty and their Fall (1961). Set in the home county residences of a fin de siècle gentry, they are claustrophobic in mood and concerned with the tyranny of family life; they are also often melodramatic. Elizabeth Bowen described the intensity of the characters' lives and the novelist's reliance on dialogue in her analysis of the novels printed in the Cornhill Magazine in 1944:
In space they move about very little: they go for short walks, which generally have an object, or advance on each other's houses in groups, like bomber formations. They speak of what they will do, and what they have done, but are seldom to be watched actually doing it. (Burkhart, Art, 62)
This dialogue method moved against the emphasis on segregated subjectivity favoured by writers such as Virginia Woolf, and instead foregrounded interaction and group dynamics, the territory of W. R. Bion and transactional analysis. Her probing into the springs of utterance is often kindred to the linguistic enquiries of Jacques Lacan's psychoanalytic studies, but is without parallel among her British contemporaries. Moralizing is largely absent, unless to be exposed as a ludicrous cover for low impulses that it could never itself sanction.

Jourdain was a freelance writer who specialized in the history of Regency furniture. She was vigorous and gregarious, and brought to their household a lively social circle, in which Compton-Burnett was mostly content to play second fiddle and pour tea. Neither woman married, and in 1934 they moved to a flat in 5 Braemar Mansions, Cornwall Gardens, Kensington, London, which remained Compton-Burnett's home until her death. Whether they enjoyed a lesbian partnership is disputed. ‘We are neutrals’, was how Compton-Burnett described herself and Margaret to one friend, and the biographer Hilary Spurling accepts this as meaning that theirs was not a sexual relationship. However, Herman Schrijver, a close friend who looked after Compton-Burnett on the day of Jourdain's funeral and the last friend to spend time with Compton-Burnett before her own death, had no doubt that in every way ‘their relationship was a marriage’ (Burkhart, Three Lives, 76). A fearless and very positive account of both lesbian and male homosexual relations recurs in Compton-Burnett's novels, as does mockery of conventional marriage. After Jourdain's death Compton-Burnett openly mourned her with an intensity not unlike that of her mother for Dr Burnett.

Compton-Burnett's persistent habit of setting her novels in an isolated country-house milieu, somewhat like Agatha Christie transposed back to the late years of Queen Victoria, did not, however, make her an anachronism to her younger contemporaries. On the contrary. Elizabeth Bowen, reviewing Parents and Children (1941), wrote that ‘to read in these days a page of Compton-Burnett dialogue is to think of the sound of glass being swept up, one of these London mornings after a blitz’ (Burkhart, Art, 55). In an obituary notice Angus Wilson argued that ‘In the age of the concentration camp … no writer did more to illumine the springs of human cruelty, suffering and bravery’ (ibid., 192). The French novelist Nathalie Sarraute, writing in the Nouvelle Revue Française in 1956, singled out Compton-Burnett as ‘one of the greatest novelists that England has ever had’, praising especially her location of dialogue ‘somewhere on the fluctuating frontier that separates conversation from sub-conversation’ (ibid., 154–5). In 1951 Compton-Burnett was appointed CBE, and in 1967 DBE.

Like Margaret Jourdain, and most of her characters who are not fools or knaves, Ivy Compton-Burnett was a firm atheist, dismissing religion because ‘No good can come of it’ (Spurling, Ivy when Young, 77). She died peacefully, at her home in Kensington, from bronchitis, on 27 August 1969, and was cremated at Putney Vale crematorium.

PATRICK LYONS

Sources  

I. Compton-Burnett, Collected works (1972) · H. Spurling, Ivy when young: the early life of I. Compton-Burnett, 1884–1919 (1974) · H. Spurling, Secrets of a woman's heart: the later life of I. Compton-Burnett, 1920–1969 (1984) · C. Burkhart, Herman and Nancy and Ivy: three lives in art (1977) · C. Burkhart, ed., The art of I. Compton-Burnett (1972) · B. Bałutowa, Nowe formy powieści: twórczość Ivy Compton-Burnett (Wrocław, 1975) · A. Light, Forever England: femininity, literature and conservatism between the wars (1990) · W. Iser, The implied reader (1974), 152–63 and 234–56

Archives  

King's AC Cam., corresp., engagement diaries, literary MSS, radio broadcasts · NRA, letters and literary MSS · Washington University, St Louis, letters and literary MSS |  BL, corresp. with Society of Authors, Add. MS 63222 · Bodl. Oxf., letters to J. R. Liddell · Bodl. Oxf., corresp. with Barbara Pym · Wightwick Manor [NT], Wolverhampton, letters to Lady Rosalie Mander

 

SOUND

 

BBC WAC


Likenesses  

H. Coster, photograph, 1942, NPG [see illus.] · B. Brandt, photograph, 1949, NPG · four photographs, 1955, Hult. Arch. · H. Beacham, photograph, 1960–69, repro. in Spurling, Secrets of a woman's heart, following p. 240 · J. V. Brown, photograph, 1960–69, repro. in Spurling, Secrets of a woman's heart, jacket · W. Bird, photograph, NPG · H. Coster, photographs, NPG · F. Topolski, portrait, NPG

Wealth at death  

£86,570: probate, 24 Oct 1969, CGPLA Eng. & Wales


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Dame Ivy Compton-Burnett (1884–1969): doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/32524