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Dame Ivy Compton-Burnett Biography

(1884–1969), Dolores, Pastors and Masters, Brothers and Sisters, Men and Wives, More Women Than Men

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British novelist, born in Pinner, Middlesex, one of the twelve children of a leading homoeopathic physician, James Compton-Burnett, and his second wife. She spent her childhood in Hove and continued to live there until she was 27, except for a period as a student of Classics at Royal Holloway College. Her early life was overshadowed by tragedy: her brother Guy died of pneumonia; another favourite brother, Noel, was killed during the First World War, and her two youngest sisters committed suicide. Her first novel, Dolores (1911), which was influenced by her admiration for George Eliot, but which she later repudiated, is untypical; only with the publication of Pastors and Masters (1925) did she begin to establish her distinctive style. The novel and its successors, which include Brothers and Sisters (1929), Men and Wives (1931), More Women Than Men (1933), A House and Its Head (1935), Daughters and Sons (1937), A Family and a Fortune (1939), Parents and Children (1941), Elders and Betters (1944) and many others, are variations on themes to do with power and the abuse of power, of which she herself wrote that ‘nothing is so corrupting’. Each of the nineteen works she produced between 1925 and 1957 is set during the last twenty years of the nineteenth century; each has a domestic setting–frequently a Victorian country rectory inhabited by a large and inevitably unhappy family tyrannized by a cruel patriarch (or, on occasion, a matriarch); each displays the writer's mordantly ironic view of human relationships, in particular those between siblings and between parent and child. There is little physical description in her novels, in which most of the action and interplay of relationships is conveyed in the form of dialogue; tragic and often violent events are presented in a highly stylized and elliptical form and there is a vein of black comedy running throughout, which alleviates the cruelty of her scenarios. In this respect, and in its satirical mockery of late Victorian pieties, her work has much in common with that of Samuel Butler, whose work was an influence, and with that of Evelyn Waugh. She was hailed, by Raymond Mortimer and others, as a literary post-impressionist, whose work, eschewing conventional realism in favour of a concentrated, artificial, and idiosyncratic style, appeared startlingly modern in its preoccupations. Her later work became increasingly spare and condensed, although it is instantly recognizable for its ironic, almost aphoristic style and its extensive use of dialogue. Post-war works include: Manservant and Maidservant (1947), Two Worlds and Their Ways (1949), Mother and Son (1955), and A Heritage and Its History (1961). There is a definitive biography by Hilary Spurling: Ivy When Young: The Early Life of I. Compton-Burnett 1884–1919 (1974) and Secrets of a Woman's Heart: The Later Life of I Compton-Burnett 1920–1969 (1984), which considers, amongst other aspects of her personal life, the importance of her friendship with Margaret Jourdain, with whom she lived for many years until the latter's death in 1951. She was made a Dame in 1967 and a Companion of Honour in 1968.

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