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Dame Ivy Compton-Burnett, DBE (5 June 1884 – 27 August 1969) was an English novelist, published (in the original hardback editions) as I. Compton-Burnett. She was awarded the 1955 James Tait Black Memorial Prize for her novel Mother and Son.



The daughter of a well-known homeopathic doctor, Compton-Burnett (pronounced 'Cumpton-Burnit') grew up in Hove and London. Her father had twelve children by two wives and Ivy's mother (the second wife) sent all her stepchildren away to boarding school as soon as possible.

In the author blurb of the old Penguin editions of her novels there was a paragraph written by Compton-Burnett herself:

"I have had such an uneventful life that there is little information to give. I was educated with my brothers in the country as a child, and later went to Holloway College, and took a degree in Classics. I lived with my family when I was quite young but for most of my life have had my own flat in London. I see a good deal of a good many friends, not all of them writing people. And there is really no more to say."

This omits the fact that her favourite brother, Guy, died of pneumonia; another, Noel, was killed on the Somme, and her two youngest sisters, Stephanie Primrose and Catharine (called "Baby" and "Topsy"), died in a suicide pact by taking veronol in their locked bedroom on Christmas Day of 1917. Not one of the twelve siblings had children, and all eight girls remained unmarried.

She spent much of her life as companion to Margaret Jourdain (died 1951), a leading authority on the decorative arts and the history of furniture, who shared the author's Kensington flat from 1919. For the first ten years, Compton-Burnett seems to have remained unobtrusively in the background, always severely dressed in black. When Pastors and Masters appeared in 1925, Jourdain claimed to have been unaware that her friend was writing a novel.

Compton-Burnett was appointed a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire (DBE). She died in 1969 and was cremated at Putney Vale Crematorium.


Apart from Dolores (1911), a traditional novel she later rejected as something "one wrote as a girl", Compton-Burnett's fiction deals with domestic situations in large households which, to all intents and purposes, invariably seem Edwardian. The description of human weaknesses and foibles of all sorts pervades her work, and the family that emerges from each of her novels must be seen as dysfunctional in one way or another. Starting with Pastors and Masters (1925), Compton-Burnett developed a highly individualistic style. Her fiction relies heavily on dialogue and demands constant attention on the reader's part: there are instances in her work where important information is casually mentioned in a half sentence. Her use of punctuation is deliberately perfunctory: there are no colons or semi-colons, no exclamation marks, no italics.

Critical reception

Of Pastors and Masters, the New Statesman wrote: "It is astonishing, amazing. It is like nothing else in the world. It is a work of genius."

In her essay collection L'Ère du soupçon (1956), an early manifesto for the French nouveau roman, Nathalie Sarraute hails Compton-Burnett as an "one of the greatest novelists England has ever had".


Most of her novels are out of print.

Further reading

  • Hilary Spurling: Ivy: The Life of I. Compton-Burnett (1995) (combines two separate volumes originally published in 1974 and 1984) (ISBN 978-1860660269).
  • Cicely Greig: Ivy Compton-Burnett: a memoir Garnstone Press, London, 1972 ISBN 0855110600
  • Frederick R. Karl: "The Intimate World of Ivy Compton-Burnett", A Reader's Guide to the Contemporary English Novel (1961) 201-219.

External links



Up to date as of January 14, 2010

From Wikiquote

Dame Ivy Compton-Burnett, DBE (1884-06-051969-08-27) was an award-winning English novelist.



  • A leopard does not change his spots, or change his feeling that spots are rather a credit.
    • More Women than Men (London: Eyre & Spottiswoode, [1933] 1951) p. 54.
  • "Well, of course, people are only human," said Dudley to his brother, as they walked to the house behind the women. "But it really does not seem much for them to be."
    • A Family and a Fortune (London: Eyre & Spottiswoode, [1939] 1949) p. 54.
  • As regards plots I find real life no help at all. Real life seems to have no plots.
    • "A Conversation Between I. Compton-Burnett and M. Jourdain", in R. Lehmann et al. (eds.) Orion (London: Nicholson & Watson, 1945) vol. 1, p. 2.
  • "Appearances are not held to be a clue to the truth," said his cousin. "But we seem to have no other."
  • "Time has too much credit," said Bridget. "I never agree with the compliments paid to it. It is not a great healer. It is an indifferent and perfunctory one. Sometimes it does not heal at all. And sometimes when it seems to, no healing has been necessary."
    • Darkness and Day (London: Victor Gollancz, [1951] 1974) p. 216.


  • Pushing forty? She's clinging on to it for dear life!
    • A common misattribution first made by Nigel Rees in Quote…Unquote 3 (London: Allen & Unwin, 1983) as the result of a mishearing, and withdrawn by him in Cassell Companion to Quotations (London: Cassell, 1997) p. 179.


  • In the age of the concentration camp, when from 1935 to 1947 or so, she wrote her very best novels, no writer did more to illumine the springs of human cruelty, suffering and bravery.
  • Un des plus grands romanciers que l'Angleterre ait jamais eus.
    • One of the greatest novelists that England has ever had.
    • Nathalie Sarraute L'Ère du soupçon (Paris: Gallimard, 1956) p. 119; Maria Jolas (trans.) The Age of Suspicion (New York: George Braziller, 1963) p. 112.

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