Hilary Spurling   Ivy: The Life of I. Compton-Burnett.
Knopf, 621 pages, $22.95

Ivy Compton-Burnett, the English novelist, died in 1969 at the age of eighty-five, known for her nineteen novels, but not well known. She wrote no memoirs or autobiography, no criticism, no short stories, no essays, poetry, or nonfictional reportage. She did not participate in panel discussions or teach or give lectures or read papers or speak at conferences on modern literature. She was rarely interviewed, not active in literary organizations, not on committees of writers or on radio and television programs. She did not organize petitions or protests, she was not seen in restaurants or pubs, or in Cornwall, St. Tropez, Gstaad, Ischia, Rhodes or Marrakech. She did not talk about her writing; when she and T. S. Eliot met, they discussed fishmongers and greengrocers. After she died, her private papers consisted of little more than a shoe box half full of engagement diaries and a few letters. There were no files of material about her career, no secretaries tending the archives, no elaborate machinery of publicity and self-promotion. When, at the end of her life, she was speaking with a young woman who had recently attempted suicide, Compton-Burnett remarked, “You’ve done a deed, haven’t you?” About herself she insisted, “I haven’t been at all deedy. Not at all.”

Was that true? And, without “deeds” to draw upon, what would a life of this writer be about? Hilary Spurling, Compton-Burnett’s latest biographer, confronts the problem successfully in Ivy: The Life of I. Compton-Burnett. Mrs. Spurling has added a full new volume, Secrets of a Woman’s Heart, to the first volume, Ivy When Young, which was published in 1974. Together they make a large methodical biography of more than six hundred pages which will surely stand as the definitive work on a mysterious and intriguing twentieth-century English writer. In working on her biography, Mrs. Spurling had lengthy conversations with two Compton-Burnett sisters, born in 1891 and 1893, and she seems to have spoken on numerous occasions with almost everyone who knew the person she refers to throughout the book as “Ivy.” The greater part of Mrs. Spur-ling’s information came from such conversations, although she has also consulted records and has traced the antecedents and explored the putative link to Bishop Burnet, the seventeenth-century historian. She knows all the novels thoroughly, and makes frequent use of the light they throw on their creator’s awareness and experience. Mrs. Spurling did not herself know the novelist, but she has had access to the memories of friends and relatives who did, so much so that she conveys an unusual sense of intimacy with her subject. The reliability of sources is not questioned, unless they openly and impossibly contradicted one another’s stories, as in the versions of a dinner with Ivy Compton-Burnett when a young man fell asleep over the soup and awoke to find that the novelist had finished dinner and gone to bed. Was it Francis Birrell, or David Garnett, or Philip Toynbee? And when did it happen, if at all? Or was it Ezra Pound and another situation entirely?

Perhaps Compton-Burnett’s life really did have few “deeds” in it, at least in the heroic or dramatic sense. It was a life lived in one of those large late Victorian families of many stages and branches and generations, which came to an end in 1919, although it could be seen breaking up in 1901, as the Edwardian years began. In fact, her father, an energetic and innovative homeopathic physician, died only a few months after the venerable Queen Victoria, leaving twelve children from his two marriages (one had died in a childhood accident). For the next eighteen years, Ivy Compton-Burnett’s life was punctuated and determined by family deaths. Late Victorian mourning customs had followed the Queen’s extravagant practice ever since 1862: black was decreed for all, even the littlest children, seclusion was mandatory, and the bereaved were encouraged to act out their losses inside the family with prolonged visible, audible lamentations; the withdrawal from the world reinforced emotional tyrannies. Henry James might have commented on the story of the Compton-Burnetts, if he had known them. The American writer was moved by a similar tragedy in the London household of Leslie Stephen between 1895 and 1906. He would have noted the complex resonance of the six successive deaths in this family, as he had earlier sighed over the four deaths among the Stephens. Of the twelve children, there were to be no descendants except for the nineteen novels produced by the eldest of the doctor’s second family; the only “deeds” to be recorded had to do with death. Mrs. Spurling responds to this biographical challenge by giving close attention to family relationships, organizing both volumes in terms of the dominant clusters of emotional experience before and after 1919.

Like the Stephenses, like innumerable other families in the late nineteenth century, the two families of Doctor Compton Burnett[1] exemplified the patterns of the period-—in parental mortality, in remarriages, in second and even third families, in stepmothers, half brothers and half sisters, step-uncles, aunts, cousins at every level, friends of relatives and relatives of friends. It is this representative life which Mrs. Spurling infers from Compton-Burnett’s novels, developing her biography by extrapolating the novelist’s own experience from her fictions about the “deeds” of others. Family matters offered a rich set of metaphors; questions of lineal descent, legitimate and illegitimate possession, rights and expectations, sovereignty and rebellion, love and power; the family setting provided a stage for action where varied interests could be set in motion. That material from late Victorian family life may be deceptive and misleading however: the paraphernalia of it, the wills and beneficiaries, constraints and customs, houses, marriages, and servants, may personify the terms in which these dramas of tyranny developed, but Compton-Burnett was not trying to do Jane Austen over again.

A Compton-Burnett novel doesn’t begin with a hero or heroine returning alone from a long trip abroad, or walking alone in a city, or leaving for a solitary mission of self-discovery, but usually with a scene at breakfast, when some people are waiting for others, and, as in a play, their complex relations and history are established in the first few lines. There are few descriptions either of people or places, the scenes are not set, there is little authorial comment or stream of consciousness or interior monologue, very little that could be called symbolic or lyrical or poetic. Characters are virtually never shown alone, always in relation to others. The actions are neither described nor fantasied, nor celebrated, but instead presented in dialogue. The dramatic quality of the novels has often been noted, and some of them have even been done successfully as television plays. They are as different as possible from the modern novel known to us in Proust, Mann, Joyce, Woolf, Lawrence, Kafka. There is no Jamesian “scene,” or Proustian ambiance, neither Mann’s thickness of texture, nor Woolf’s lyrical mysticism, nor Joyce’s symbolism, nor the evangelical emotionality of Lawrence. Instead, there are echoes of Ibsen, of Pirandello, of Chekhov. There are affinities with Samuel Butler, but crossed with the dramatic intentions of Ionesco and Beckett.

Compton-Burnett treated the novel as a kind of scientific experiment, as George Eliot thought it was, multiplying the complexities to test the possibilities. The novels do not present the novelist’s own story, though, and her biographer had to exercise care in inferring her experience from the fictional presentations. In other novels of the period, there is no difficulty in discerning the hero or heroine, the character standing for the novelist and complemented by the appropriate opponents. How easily readers can situate themselves in a novel by Lawrence or Woolf or Hemingway! It is more difficult in a Compton-Burnett novel, which is without those privileged alignments and agendas. None of the novels presents the First World War, despite its supreme importance for this novelist, nor the Second World War and its aftermath, although eleven of the novels were published between 1944 and 1969. Many of Compton-Burnett’s plots involve a county family, with either an old name or property, or a title (not aristocratic, but a baronetcy or perhaps a knighthood) and an assortment of contiguous occupations and households at different social levels. Compare the novelist’s own youth, which was spent very differently, in new housing put up on the outskirts of London as the Victorian railroads developed. Her father’s property consisted of small shops, small farms, and semi-detached houses acquired as his practice grew, not a mellow ancestral property, not the inherited glory of the rich. The house in which her own family dramas took root was a red brick monstrosity in Hove, the western end of Brighton, built up in the late 1890s. The doctor, no lord of the manor, commuted to his London office twice a week, staying in town at the Holborn Viaduct Hotel. His first father-in-law had been a homeopathic chemist; his second father-in-law was a powerful dominating man, an engineering surveyor, civic figure, Mayor of Dover, and a prominent Methodist. Nothing of this history is in the novels. Mrs. Spurling has dealt with it deftly, however, reading back from the fiction in feelings and possibilities, instead of reading from life to art.

The end of the First World War marked a punctuation in the novelist’s life, and Mrs. Spurling’s book appropriately divides there. By 1919, Compton-Burnett’s father had died, as had her closest brother, her mother, her most important adored brother (in the Battle of the Somme, after an exhilarating time at King’s College, Cambridge), and her two younger sisters (in a joint suicide). Other deaths in the surrounding family and other sufferings marked this time. Compton-Burnett’s own near fatal illness signalized the end of her life in the family, inaugurating the life she would live for more than thirty years with Margaret Jourdain, the writer on decorative arts, whom she met in the dark days of 1918-19. In London flats, first in Bayswater, then in South Kensington, they inhabited sparsely furnished rooms, pale austere places relieved only by Chippendale, Sheraton, and Hepplewhite tables, chairs, and fire screens, rooms without pictures, only mirrors, with a balcony where Compton-Burnett grew flowers. She began to write her characteristic novels in the Twenties (after a single uncharacteristic one of 1911), publishing them every two or three years, the first two at her own expense.

Margaret Jourdain’s many friends from the museums, galleries, auction houses, and society knew Compton-Burnett as the silent, inconspicuous companion of their “M.J.,” that ingenious woman who had lived by her wits from early days. The spirited daughter of a poor Derbyshire vicar with a large family and an ancient name, Margaret Jourdain went to Oxford and wanted to be a poet, but in order to earn a livelihood she made herself into an expert on furniture. She worked independently for most of her life, benefitting only later from retainers, and from a yearly allowance provided by an anonymous well-wisher. She wrote on lace, on chairs, on Regency furniture, on William Kent; she knew about Adam fireplaces, Coalport china, wallpaper, tapestries, jewelry, hangings, paneling—all those absorbing subjects covered in Apollo, The Connoisseur, The Art Journal, Country Life, and other journals. She advised the innumerable rich friends who adored her, she inspected collections in country houses, she consulted for decorators, she counseled curators, she knew the salesrooms, she was expert with her glass in detecting faked chairs or “married” tables. It was a propitious time for this work: in earlier days, such people were often the in-house advisers for aristocratic collectors, but in the late nineteenth century changes in the sources of wealth and concomitant social changes spurred the professionalization of taste. After the First World War, one fifth to one fourth of the land and property in England came on the market; the circulation of antiques, the interest in decoration, architecture, and design, soon produced professional occupations for gifted people like Margaret Jourdain.

“M.J.” was active, inventive, energetic, and enterprising; she surrounded herself with witty and clever young men, she was sociable, practical, irreverent, unself-conscious; her confidence in her own taste and sense was tremendous. The museum and auction-room friends were not very interested in her self-effacing companion, who knew little about furniture and cared little; nor, following “M.J.,” did they pay much attention to the novels she wrote. Certainly, “M.J.” had rescued the debilitated Ivy Compton-Burnett at the end of the First World War, and provided affection, stability, indulgent loyalty, and brisk cynicism in a non-familial relation which pleased them both. “M.J.” was the performing one, Compton-Burnett the silent observant one. Whether it was also a sexual relationship—Mrs. Spurling, as well as their close friends, believe it was not—the long association of the two women had a proto-familial character.[2]

When the older woman died in 1951 at the age of seventy-five, the loss renewed all Compton-Burnett’s losses of the past. Still, she survived another eighteen years, published six more novels, became more widely known, and gathered new friends. She was made a Dame and a Companion of Literature, she received prizes and honors, her reputation was enhanced, her books read. The absence of Margaret Jourdain from her life was never to be repaired. They had not even thought they would meet in Heaven, as both of them in late Victorian fashion had foregone the consolations of religion. Even as a vicar’s child, “M.J.” had refused to hear more about the suffering of Jesus—”that poor man”—and Ivy had early rejected what she saw only as a mystification, a theological buttressing of family tyranny. Neither one was revolutionary, nor did they actively or intellectually engage any of the aspects of family and social structure which had nearly crippled their lives. As educated women of spirit and independence they made their own lives once each had escaped from the network of late Victorian family obligation, but they maintained no programmatic or theoretical opposition to the world they had rejected. They accommodated themselves to it, in seemingly eccentric fashion, in what may seem a characteristically English fashion.

Accommodation and apparent eccentricity were of course facilitated by Compton-Burnett’s substantial income. Margaret Jourdain’s poor but clever father had no legacy to bequeath except for his ancient Huguenot name—Jourdains had fought in the First and Third Crusades—and his daughter’s income was modest if not at times precarious. In contrast, the homeopathic physician had left £67,000 in 1901. (Given the falling pound and the rise in the cost of living since 1901, the significance of that estate can be seen more clearly when the standard working-class wage of those days is recalled: “round about a pound a week”; that was a familiar music-hall phrase, providing the title for a famous Fabian study of incomes and living conditions. Of some 345,000 people who died in 1901, barely seventeen percent left any estate at all; of those, the largest number, about sixteen thousand, left estates of £1,000-£10,000- Throughout the entire country, less than three hundred people were in Doctor Compton Burnett’s category, that is, the category of those leaving estates between £50,000 and £75,000.) It was this estate, then, which maintained the widow and her seven children, and which came under Ivy Compton-Burnett’s control at her mother’s death in 1911. Even after some of the property was sold, some of the first family provided with incomes, and the estate divided among the surviving children of the second family, Compton-Burnett’s inheritance made possible a life of comfort and ease: £l50-£200 was a decent middle-class income, as it had been for much of the nineteenth century; £1000 for a single woman without dependents was considerable. There was no need to resort to that most shameful recourse of the middle class, dipping into capital. Later, she did begin to feel impoverished, especially when the Depression reduced her income to near £750, but it went up after that, and book sales also augmented it. When she was very ill in 1966, and burdened with hospital charges, surgeons' fees, and nurses,, the Royal Literary Fund, at the behest of her friends, sent an emergency grant of £500 but refused to make another one after an inquiry into her resources disclosed not penury but prudence. At Compton-Burnett’s own death, her estate was £86,000, which was disbursed in carefully thought out provisions and legacies. Friends were instructed to assemble at the fiat immediately after a bleak service, and the various articles bequeathed in the will were distributed methodically by Compton-Burnett’s solicitor. The occasion impressed everyone as a scene from one of her novels.

“It is useless to pursue the past,” says one of her characters; another replies, “It is needless ... It will pursue us.” That aphoristic style, sometimes witty or acutely revealing or disjunctive, is employed to disclose self-regard and lack of awareness. No one is protected or given sanctuary. Those readers who thought the novels were about the tyranny of the old over the young must be disabused of such comfortable notions. “Of course stepmothers are cruel,” someone observes about one of Compton-Burnett’s familiar types, “. . . then so are stepchildren, though they don’t have any of the discredit.” The experiment which each of the novels represents is not weighted in favor of the witty or the young or the passionately self-actualizing persons of the drama, nor, again, in favor of the old, or the withdrawn sacrificial ones, or the vulnerable and victimized. When a young person unhesitatingly asserts,

Truth is truth and a lie is a lie .... We ought not to mind a searchlight being turned on our inner selves, if we are honest about them,

another is sure to respond knowingly,

... “Know thyself” is a most superfluous direction. We can’t avoid it.

But, implicitly challenging them both, still another will observe,

We can only hope that no one else knows.

If one character insists that telling the truth is the kindest thing, another, whose life is intricately linked with the first, will wonder then what would be the unkindest, and in the exchange the conflicting purposes of each one will not only be revealed but the very disclosure will be what advances the action. Perhaps the novels need to be read with the sensibility of Stanislavsky, to illuminate the depth and intensity of dramatic encounter, or perhaps Bakhtin, especially the novels without authorial voice. When a young man teasingly challenges an older woman to relax her rules about dressing for dinner, their exchange may carry some echo of their milieu or of the tone of the time, but its interest lies more in the subtle deconstruction which the characters execute upon one another as well as on the novel itself:

Stay by all means. Your clothes do not matter at all.

I noticed that you thought that about clothes; and I see that your clothes did not matter; but I don’t think mine can be dismissed like that.

In Ivy Compton-Burnett’s later years, much was made of her eccentricity. Her crisp anti-romantic style was read as if it crystallized the look and character of an earlier, old-fashioned epoch. There was the Cecil Beaton photograph of a severe mysterious face with a velvet band across the forehead, as she sat in one of the old chairs placed between the fire screens. The teas at Braemar Mansions were well known, those “Braemar gatherings,” as they were called, when she and Margaret Jourdain entertained with cucumber sandwiches, oatcakes, meringues, a honeycomb; there were reports of wit, of cranky, fastidious remarks, of startling insights. The two women were devoted to their friends, warm and generous, but they could be sarcastic about those who ignored them or valued them lightly, and they could be cold to those who left them. Compton-Burnett felt that her publisher didn’t work actively enough on her behalf; her novels did not sell brilliantly, as did those of other writers, and she could be heard to say of Elizabeth Bowen, “People are always writing to tell her about the death of their hearts .... I suppose her publisher sends her peaches.” She could be rude about the Sitwells, caustic about T. S. Eliot, when he and his new wife moved into her Kensington neighborhood; she could chillingly silence that renowned “brilliant” talker Rebecca West. Lunch with Compton-Burnett was a little like lunch with General de Gaulle, according to the French ambassador’s wife: “Ce n’est pas facile.” Friends have generously provided such material for Mrs. Spurling. There are also accounts of the novelist’s warmth, charm, and thoughtfulness, but most of the stories illustrate her more distinctive late formidable manner. Thus, she is seen in the Fifties, when Blanche Knopf hesitated about an American edition of her thirteenth novel, The Present and the Past, because American sales had been disappointing: having decided against an American edition, Mrs. Knopf presented the novelist with a bouquet of flowers wrapped in cellophane—(“I thought she was going to give me a doll”)—and later thanked her for behaving like a lady. Compton-Burnett recounted it to friends, adding, “What did she expect me to do? Hit her?”

That eccentricity, those incisive characteristic rejoinders, like the earlier role of silent, self-effacing companion, provided a kind of incognito. As one of her complex ambiguous characters observed, in a novel of 1933, “The old-world atmosphere is so important, and I pay it strict attention.” When Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West first met Ivy Compton-Burnett, they were both well-known literary figures, and they patronized her as a shy nervous spinster. The Hogarth Press had rejected her second novel, Brothers and Sisters, which she published at her own expense in 1929, but for the next nine or ten years Woolf would be kept awake by the favorable reviews of Compton-Burnett’s novels. Of Woolf, two years older than herself, the spinster observed in the late 1950s, “She was a bit malicious, you know—she’d say the most dreadful things about people. Of course one does oneself. But one doesn’t expect it of Virginia Woolf.”

The biography is much less successful with Margaret Jourdain and the public self she cultivated; she never seems quite real, is seen too much from the outside, as a prodigious figure, and nothing inward can be inferred from her writing on lace and furniture. Her dazzled admirers were fond of her impertinences; if she asserted that no chair worth sitting in had been made since the Reform Bill, no one bothered to question whether it was the 1832 Bill or the 1867 Bill —actually a detail of great importance—but just applauded her severe taste. It is perhaps that spell which prevents the biographer from exploring in depth the question that would make “M.J.” a more realized person, that is, the meaning of the marked divergence in the work and life interests of the two women. The scene at Braemar Mansions, so often described, so bright and witty, might profit from a closer scrutiny of what these two stood for. Here was Margaret Jourdain, assessing artifacts of the past, professionally serving curators, collectors, and heirs, benefiting from that exigent and complex market, and there, sitting in her chair by the fire, was Compton-Burnett, silently producing her sparsely furnished novels, recording and at the same time deconstructing the very world in which artifacts are preserved and then transformed from aesthetic objects into commodities. Did one of them undo what the other did?

Compton-Burnett, young and old, remains somewhat mysterious, then. To reflect on what other writers might have done in that ambiance—or in fact have done!—and how her material might have been used differently, reinforces one’s sense of her unique accomplishment, which can be defined as much by what it does not do as by what it does. The absence of remembered and fantasied settings, the indifference to loving evocations of lawn, vista, and the mellow brick of country houses, speak by not being there. No poignant fountains are gravely apostrophized, no gardens where the peacock strayed, no energies expressing the rich abundance of civilization. Compton-Burnett was not really that kind of writer at all. She never, in fact, held to the reader’s ear a shell of the sea of the past. So the Cecil Beaton portrait is not much help; its image of the eccentric, fantastic, and formidable character of the vanished world is crucially misleading. A reader may feel that the woman in the biography couldn’t have written the novels, it must have been another person.


  1. The Doctor and his first family had no hyphen in their name. His second wife, socially ambitious for her homeopathic physician, added a hyphen, and the children of the second family maintained it. Go back to the text.
  2. After Margaret Jourdain’s death, there was some difficulty in finding her will. The executor, a close friend of the two women, suggested that Compton-Burnett look in her bedroom. “I have never been in Margaret’s bedroom,” Compton-Burnett responded, “and I don’t mean to start now.” Mrs. Spurling’s treatment of this matter of the women’s relationship is limited and superficial. She seems unaware of the extensive scholarly work on nineteenth-century women’s love and friendship, and relies journalistically on the summaries of others. Go back to the text.