The Life of Ivy Compton-Burnett by Elizabeth Sprigge

Some of you might be sick of hearing about Ivy Compton-Burnett on Stuck-in-a-Book, as I know she is an author who divides people absolutely, but I keep finding myself wanting to read more about her life.  Probably as much as I want to read her fiction.  And there are plenty of people who have provided biographies, memoirs, and celebrations.  Cicely Greig’s memoir is still the best I’ve read, and actually the book I’d encourage people to start with if they haven’t read any of Dame Ivy’s fiction (love the author and understand her approach, and I think you’ll be in the best place to try her novels) but Elizabeth Sprigge’s The Life of Ivy Compton-Burnett (1973) is also pretty good…

Like Greig, Sprigge knew Ivy Compton-Burnett personally, which gives the biography a similar tone of friendly love for the author.  It perhaps also explains why the chapters about her childhood and family are the least interesting – because Sprigge had no firsthand experience of them.  Ivy Compton-Burnett had a staggeringly large number of brothers and sisters, and although plenty of events befell them (two sisters died in an apparent suicide pact; a brother was killed at war) I found this section far less interesting than the rest of the biography, and Ivy herself doesn’t seem to have been particularly interested in her family, excepting the brother who died.

The most interesting part of the ‘early years’ is the discussion of Dolores (1911), published when Ivy was still pretty young (the age I am now, thinking about it), later disowned by her and generally considered to be pretty poor.  Sprigge disagrees, and, while acknowledging the disparity between it and what she would later achieve, includes several contemporary reviews which saw Dolores as the promise of a new and talented author.  It would be another fourteen years before Ivy Compton-Burnett would publish her next novel (Pastors and Masters, which, to my mind, is very much ICB-lite) but after that she was pretty regular – a novel every two years, essentially.

The formidable look of Ivy Compton-Burnett on the cover of this biography wouldn’t encourage to think of her as a slap-your-thigh laugh-a-minute type, and Cicely Greig certainly attests to how thin-lipped she could be if anybody fell below her high standards of good manners, but in Elizabeth Sprigge’s book it is definitely Ivy who provides the laughs (since Sprigge is not an especially witty writer.)  For instance, this may not have been a deliberate witticism on Dame Ivy’s part, but it is certainly amusing…

Margaret Jourdain had the gift of taking an interest in whatever interest in whatever interested her companions – an ability which Ivy Compton-Burnett did not share.  If a conversation took a turn alien to her, Ivy would bring it to heel.  For example, one day at a friend’s tea-party a number of people began discussing a Russian icon hanging on the wall.  Ivy listened for a few moments abstractedly, then observed decisively, “I do like a laburnum.”
Unsurprisingly, it is discussion of Ivy Compton-Burnett’s writing and reception which most interested me, and this biography includes an edited version of a long interview which Ivy Compton-Burnett and Margaret Jourdain (a close friend who lived with her many years) compiled for Orion in 1945, which is essentially a discussion of her writing.  And in turns out that Ivy Compton-Burnett is a very bad reader of her own books – or, at least, very different from everyone else.  She does not consider her books to be very similar (they are) or her characters to speak in a heightened manner (they certainly do), nor does she think her writing is difficult to read (I suppose in one way it isn’t, but Ivy seemed genuinely unable to see the difference in accessibility between her novels and bestsellers – Sprigge records many instances of Ivy Compton-Burnett bewailing her own lack of bestseller status.)

It is curious that somebody can write novels which, to my mind, are works of genius – and yet not be on the same page as her critics when it comes to recognising that genius.  She certainly believed herself to be one of the best living novelists, according to Sprigge, but doesn’t seem to have realised that it was her style and unique approach which gave her that title.

If, like me, you an avid reader of Ivy biographies, then I certainly recommend you get this one – let’s face it, you probably have it already, there are plenty of copies about – but if you are toying with trying your first memoir of Ivy Compton-Burnett (or, indeed, yet to make her acquaintance at all), then please seek out the equally-findable Cicely Greig’s Ivy Compton-Burnett: A Memoir.

12 thoughts on “The Life of Ivy Compton-Burnett by Elizabeth Sprigge

  • August 20, 2013 at 6:24 pm
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    Enough about I.C.B. already!!

    "MICHELLE"

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    • August 20, 2013 at 6:28 pm
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      Please stop emailing and commenting this. It is not constructive, indeed it is rude, and I have already deleted one comment along these lines. You must know that, since it is my personal blog, I can write about whichever authors I choose, and most blog readers enjoy enthusiastic writing, even if they do not share that enthusiasm.

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    • August 27, 2013 at 8:00 pm
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      I'd like to add that this commentator has emailed and apologised, and we've swept it under the rug :)

      Reply
  • August 20, 2013 at 8:22 pm
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    What a rude person Simon! It is indeed your blog and the joy of people's personal blogs is that they *can* write about their favourite things. You write about Ivy as much as you want!!!!

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    • August 27, 2013 at 4:44 pm
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      Thank you, Karen, that means a lot! It seems an innocuous comment, but it came after another comment and a ruder email, and I was at the end of my tether!

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  • August 20, 2013 at 10:53 pm
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    I haven't been ignoring your comment about IC-B on my blog; I've been thinking about it. I agree with you that this woman is a splendid writer – if difficult at first. Having read Sprigge and learned a lot from it I have now ordered a copy of Greig. I'm hoping you will consider an IC-B month in which various bloggers read and comment on her work. You're busy so I understand if you don't want to undertake this, but this seems to me a worthwhile exercise.

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    • August 27, 2013 at 4:45 pm
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      Lovely to hear back Mary – I'd love to know what you think about the Greig. And I would love to run an ICB month… but would people give her a go? I don't know, there does seem to be some resistance… but how wonderful if even one or two came to love her through it! I might well do it – post-thesis-hand-in, of course!

      Reply
  • August 22, 2013 at 10:30 am
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    So pleased to have found your book blog — I cane here via a link for Sylvia Townsend Warner and stayed for Dame Ivy. I read Hilary Spurling's two-volume biography and then began ICB's magnificent novels and have read everything on her I can find. I should go back and reread Sprigge.

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    • August 27, 2013 at 4:46 pm
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      Welcome, welcome! Sorry you saw my one cross comment ever…! Any fan of Ivy is more than welcome – I have Spurling's biography waiting for me, and looking forward to it; books about Ivy are every bit as fascinating as her own novels, I think.

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  • August 23, 2013 at 4:44 pm
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    Oh dear, I still haven't tried her. Nothing in the library, nothing in my Oxfam book shop. My curiosity was aroused initially because the first book Alan Bennett's Queen borrows is by ICB. I may have to order something online… but where to start?

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    • August 27, 2013 at 4:47 pm
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      I do love that The Uncommon Reader has whetted people's curiosities about Ivy! I still think starting with Greig's memoir is a good idea, but if you're starting with her novels, it doesn't much matter – they're all quite similar. My favourite is More Women Than Men, but you could pick any.

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  • August 19, 2014 at 1:33 pm
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    ivy was a genius and i have been reading and re reading her for the past 20 years -her wit insight economy ethics immediacy and her remarkable expectations of her readers should have kept her in print and discussed but instead her demanding oddity has reduced her readers – after reading ivy other writers work often seems trite and condescending

    Reply

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