Ivy Compton-Burnett was born in London in 1884 to James Compton-Burnett and Katherine, the daughter of Rowland Rees, and was educated at Royal Holloway College. Her life was marked by grief, tragedy, isolation, and near madness. By the end of World War I, she had lost her home, her occupation, and everyone she had loved or needed. However, throughout her life Compton-Burnett was able to draw on her past for material and to translate her personal loss into literary achievement.
Two items indirectly related to her life are important to anyone who wishes to trace her development as an artist. Her first novel was published in 1911 as Dolores. It is said to celebrate the beauty of sacrifice for the good of others. Certainly the mature Compton-Burnett, who after a fourteen-year literary silence published Pastors and Masters, repudiated the ideas and style of her first novel. Sometimes enlightenedly selfish, she was never attracted by self-sacrifice. The mature Compton-Burnett would call such a concept hypocrisy and self-deceit.
Though in the novels that follow Pastors and Masters there are notable and delightful variations in technique and substance, Compton-Burnett changed her ideas and her technique less than any other British novelist of the twentieth century. She was mature as both novelist and philosopher when she published her first mature work, and she modified herself very slightly thereafter.
In spite of the fact that she was awarded the order of Commander of the British Empire in 1951 and won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize in 1956, Compton-Burnett is probably one of the least widely read novelists in contemporary letters, especially in the United States. Most literary historians have not read her. (Robert Liddell, whose comprehension of her novels is admirable, is one notable exception.) This obscurity is remarkable, considering that in 1929, following the publication of Brothers and Sisters, Compton-Burnett was favorably compared by literary critics and readers to such American authors as Ernest Hemingway and William Faulkner.
Admittedly, at first sight, the world of her fiction is strange beyond belief. It is the world before 1910; at its center are two or three families in villages. The depth in her work lies in her ability to dramatize what goes on behind the masks of these families in the years before World War I, the only period of which she believed she had “organic knowledge.” Composed almost exclusively of dialogue, her novels of characters in terrifyingly real actions and situations reveal more about why wars occur than most war novels do. Her characters–with equivalent importance, masters, children, and servants–say what some might say to an intimate friend plus what one wishes one had said plus what few would dare to think to themselves. They perform both horrifying and good acts with calm.
Among her books it is difficult to choose the best; all are worth reading despite the fact that the plots and characters often tend to get confused in the minds of even her most avid admirers. Probably her novels written in the 1930’s, especially More Women than Men and A Family and a Fortune, represent best her most fully mature manner. Yet arguably, none of her novels is more delightingly factual about human behavior than Manservant and Maidservant, The Present and the Past, and A God and His Gifts.