Partner Margaret Jourdain
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Dame Ivy Compton-Burnett, DBE (5 June 1884 – 27 August 1969) was an English novelist, published in the original editions as I. Compton-Burnett. Ivy Compton-Burnett lived with Margaret Jourdain for 31 years. Socially they were friends with lesbians and gay men, like Francis King, Vita Sackville-West and Kay Dick. After Jourdain's death, Compton-Burnett had some female crushes, the last one being on Madge Garland. The war destroyed novelist Ivy Compton-Burnett’s private and family life. Five of her sisters and half-sisters survived the war; none of them married. Beset by personal loss and moral confusion, the almost exaggeratedly ‘spinsterish’ appearance and habits which Ivy rigidly adopted for the rest of her life seem to have been in some way a reaction to sorrow and doubt. She was painstakingly correct in her dress and in the way she arranged her hair, yet she remained stuck in a time warp, holding on to past certainties. Her skirt lengths never changed; the eccentric coiffure was from a bygone era. She looked like one of her own fictional governesses.
Compton-Burnett was awarded the 1955 James Tait Black Memorial Prize for her novel Mother and Son. Her works consist mainly of dialogue and focus on family life among the late Victorian or Edwardian upper middle class. Manservant and Maidservant (1947) is considered one of her best.
Ivy Compton-Burnett was born in Pinner, Middlesex, on 5 June 1884, as the seventh of twelve children of a well-known homeopathic physician Dr James Compton-Burnett (pronounced 'Cumpton-Burnit'), by his second wife, Katharine (1855–1911), daughter of Rowland Rees, Mayor of Dover. Her first cousin was Margery Blackie, a homeopathic physician. Ivy grew up in Hove and London. She was educated at home with two brothers until the age of 14. She attended Addiscombe College, Hove, in 1898–1901, then boarded for two terms in 1901–02 at Howard College, Bedford, before embarking on a university degree in Classics. After graduating she in turn tutored four younger sisters at home.
Mrs Burnett of Hove lost her husband in April 1901, just two months before Ivy’s seventeenth birthday. Mrs Burnett too found it very hard to cope and insisted on wearing mourning clothes until she died in 1911. Visitors were discouraged. As one of her daughters recalled, their home went from a place of joy to one of dark and gloom.
Ivy's mother sent all her stepchildren away to boarding-school as soon as possible. According to the scholar Patrick Lyons, "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." Four of Ivy's sisters rebelled against home life in 1915 and moved up to London to live in a flat with the pianist Myra Hess. Ivy successfully managed the considerable family fortune after her mother's death.
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 facts 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 veronal in their locked bedroom on Christmas Day, 1917. Not one of the twelve siblings had children, and all eight girls remained unmarried.
Ivy Compton-Burnett’s world was shattered by war. She was later to excuse her lack of literary productivity between 1911 and 1925 with the consummate understatement: ‘One was a good deal cut up by the war; one’s brother was killed, and one had family troubles.’ Noël Compton-Burnett’s death, she would add, ‘quite smashed my life up, it quite smashed my life up’. In 1919 Ivy moved in with the writer Margaret Jourdain, whose humour and vitality gradually restored her drained nerves.
Compton-Burnett spent much of her life as a companion to Margaret Jourdain (1876–1951), a leading authority and writer 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 said she had been unaware that her friend was writing a novel.
Compton-Burnett was appointed a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire (DBE) in 1967.
Ivy Compton-Burnett held no religious beliefs; she was a "fierce Victorian atheist". She died at her Kensington home on 27 August 1969 and was cremated at Putney Vale Crematorium. Ivy Compton-Burnett left Kay Dick and Kathleen Farrell identical mirrors in her will, in a symbolic reiteration on her belief that they should not have split up.
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