Friday, 24 August 2012

Our Mutual Friend

Dame Ivy Compton-Burnett (1884-1969)

"With Ivy one is either an addict or an abstainer."
Cicely Greig

Her face is immediately recognisable:
gaunt, stern, remote,intimidating.
I have not read any of her books, not yet,
but I feel that I have been led
right to the very edge of the cliff
and I am expected to jump.

I have arrived via writers I admire:
Elizabeth Taylor who was a friend,
Olivia Manning who dedicated a book to her,
Rosamond Lehmann who said of her
"The purest and most original
of contemporary English artists."

The reviews of her work frighten me
"This piercingly wise, discreet,
mannered Victoriana conceals
abysses of the human personality ...
a gentle tea-cosy madness,
a coil of vipers in a sewing-basket."

Pamela Hansford Johnson

However, I was entertained to read that
Virginia Woolf suffered sleepless nights
after noting in her diary that her own writing
[was] "much inferior to the bitter truth
and intense originality of Miss Compton-Burnett"

and I thought that this was a strong recommendation.

The early life of Ivy Compton-Burnett
was bleak and scarred by bereavement
but there was a brief period when she escaped
the demands of her neurotic widowed mother
and studied Classics at Royal Holloway College.
The Founders Building is the same now
as it was when she arrived in 1906,
she would have known the sound of the clock,
the smell of leather seats in the library,
the Victorian splendour of the Picture Gallery
and the exuberant decoration of the Chapel.
She would have sat in this lecture theatre.
It is another link to this forbidding woman.

I feel the 'chill wind' of her writing calling me
but I am not sure which novel to start with.
Simon over at Stuck in a Book, an enthusiast,
recommends getting to know her first
through the insight of Cicely Greig,
Ivy Compton-Burnett's typist and friend.
I think I'm going to take his advice.

Dame Ivy Compton-Burnett


  1. I started with Parents and Children and was astonished by its style. Entirely written as verbal exchanges. I remember no descriptive passages or scene setting. I can hardly remember a plot. You are pitched into the family's verbiose conversation, but unable to join in. So odd. So acute. I think you are wise to come at her broadside, so to speak. I was ill-prepared.

  2. Oh I have got to read some of her work - Lucille's comment left me a bit awed. But I shall try.

  3. Sounds very promising!

  4. Mouth watering post, Alice! I have to explore further!

  5. Lovely post! You're very welcome to link, thanks for your email, and I do hope you have luck finding and reading Greig. Hopefully it'll push you off that cliff!

    I hadn't read that from Virginia Woolf. I'm pleased that VW respected ICB.

  6. I've not read her either but came across her name in Alan Bennett's 'The Uncommon Reader' where her hairstyle is described and that is how I recognised her!


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