Our book today is Ivy, the mighty Hilary Spurling’s enormous, definitive 1984 biography of the once-lauded and now completely forgotten Ivy Compton-Burnett. I recently re-read a few of Compton-Burnett’s twenty novels and was amazed all over again by their lean, acerbic, utterly original virtuosity. The lunging enthusiasm of that New Statesman reviewer over Pastors and Masters (way back in 1925) comes always to mind: “… astonishing, alarming. It is like nothing else in the world. It is a work of genius.” We expect such enthusiasms of our daily-grind critics, many of whom mistake for genius anything even slightly more meaty than the heartless, soulless slop they’re fed morning, noon, and night every day of their professional lives (little wonder that so many professional book critics I’ve known in the past degenerated to the point where they could only bear murder mysteries starring “The Toff” while on vacation). But in this case, the enthusiasm was well-earned.
Spurling is best known for her massive biography of Matisse, although this big book on Compton-Burnett is in fact her best work (narrowly beating out The Girl from the Fiction Department, her book about Sonia Orwell, which I highly recommend)(her seemingly effortless, chatty book about Paul Scott is well worth your time also) – best, and of course most melancholy, since the thing represents an gigantic amount of research and original investigation (published to coincide with the centenary of the subject’s birth) done almost pointlessly: not only is Ivy out of print, but so is most of Compton-Burnett (not all, though – thank gawd for the New York Review of Books!). This novelist who was hailed a genius by everybody during her lifetime has failed to find a posthumous audience.
It certainly isn’t from want of anything on Spurling’s part; this is a magnificent biography. Spurling steeped herself in the novels (not at all an arduous task, as anybody who’s read them knows), but she’s also managed that quintessentially rare biographer’s trick of really understanding her subject – no mean feat in this case, because Compton-Burnett, with her Victorian/Edwardian affectations, her formidable intellect, and her somewhat guarded domestic arrangements (she lived most of her life in a splendid London apartment with feminist reformer – and wonderful, though uncollected, literary journalist – Margaret Jourdain), was famously difficult to understand. Somehow, as in all her biographies, Spurling manages it, pulling off passage after passage of sharp insight:
For Ivy especially the strain and horror of the past meant always that relief was the keenest form of joy. If she was still vexed at not having brought off a bestseller, she could count on a gratifying amount of attention, especially from the young (‘All Ivy’s fans are under eighteen, you know,’ said Margaret sourly at the beginning of the war when the bookseller Heywood Hill produced yet another young man anxious to meet or hear more about Ivy); and she must have been pleasantly conscious that as a writer she had at last come into her prime. She was steadily deepening and darkening her range with the series of irresistibly entertaining, unsparing and profoundly unsettling family novels that started in 1935 with A House and Its Head and continued thereafter, with only a brief hiccup in wartime, at two yearly intervals.
Those ‘family novels’ are harrowingly pure, and they awed most of the literary world as they appeared. Compton-Burnett had herself photographed sitting poised at a writing desk, but she actually composed all of her novels in pencil on pads of paper, while sitting in a deep comfy chair by the fireside. If scenes, bits of scenes, dialogue, or clarifications of dialogue occurred to the author at other times, she’d often jot them down on the nearest scrap of available paper – bills, receipts, envelopes – and then hand the whole mess to the worshipful younger woman who came to the apartment regularly to do the typing for both women, and who often, after typing a particular gemlike sentence, would simply stop to marvel at it.
Compton-Burnett’s novels were greedily consumed by both her own generation’s sharpest minds (they unsettled Virginia Woolf, sent Vita Sackville-West into rhapsodies of praise, and struck the author’s long-time friend Rose Macaulay as likely to survive into immortality) and the sharpest minds of the younger generation of writers, figures like Elizabeth Bowen, L. P. Hartley, and Elizabeth Taylor (all three of whom could certainly stand to be better known today). Compton-Burnett was almost unfailingly kind to these younger writers, although in private she was often hilariously cool in her assessments, as when she drawled of Evelyn Waugh, “One must not ask people to do more than they can.” When philosopher A. J. Ayer found himself seated next to her at a dinner, he managed to work up his courage enough to ask her if she minded when people talked to her about her books – and got back the smiling, seemingly mild response, “Not if they have something interesting to say.” Spurling captures it all perfectly: her Compton-Burnett is both prickly and adorable – it’s a thoroughly convincing portrait of a self-consciously difficult subject.
Long before Compton-Burnett’s death in 1969, she had her characters talking with typical frankness about the end of life, the wonderfully telegraphic summation of life. And by the end of Spurling’s masterpiece, we feel as though we lived enough of that life to feel the wistful irony of such comments:
“I am old. I have seen and heard. I know that things are done. Temptation is too much for us. We are not always unwilling for it to be.”