Ivy Compton-Burnett (1884-1969) is a novelist easy to overestimate and easier to dismiss, and I try to navigate a sensible middle course. She has already spawned a “cult,” one much taken with the purported campiness of her twenty novels. Cultists too often liken her to Ronald Firbank, whose campy novels I find un-rereadable. That’s not how I read Compton-Burnett. She’s a moralist with low regard for human beings. Where other see dysfunction, especially in families, she sees petty wickedness and cruelty. She makes no excuses for her little monsters, and a reader either laughs and admires the adroitness of her dialogue-heavy novels, or gives up in boredom and disgust. She is not for readers seeking uplift.
A reader, knowing my enjoyment of Compton-Burnett’s work, has sent a passage from Diaries, 1942-1954 (2006) by James Lees-Milne (1908-97), the English architectural historian best known for his gossipy diary. The first person mentioned in the passage above is Margaret Jourdain (1876-1951), who wrote on English furniture and interior decoration, and was Compton-Burnett’s longtime companion. Lees-Milne continues:
“Margaret Jourdain is patently jealous of Ivy Compton-Burnett, whom she keeps unapproachable except through herself. The two have lived together for years and are never parted. They are an Edwardian and remarkably acidulated pair. The coiffures of both look like wigs.”
Thus far, you would expect Lees-Milne to remain catty. He surprises us:
“Miss C.-B., whom I consider to be the greatest living English novelist, is upright, starchy and forthright. There is a bubbling undercurrent of humour in every observation that she makes, and she makes a good many, apparently hackneyed and usually sharp, in a rapid, choppy, rather old-fashioned upper-middle-class manner, clipping her breathless words. She enunciates clearly and faultlessly, saying slightly shocking things in a matter-of-fact tone, following up her sentences with a lot of ‘dontcherknows,’ and then smiling perceptibly. She has a low, breasty chuckle. She has not unpleasing, sharp features, and her profile is almost beautiful. But she is not the kind of woman who cares tuppence for appearances, and wears a simple, unremarkable black dress which she smoothes down with long fingers.”
I knew of Lees-Milne but have never read his diaries or the rest of his prolific body of work, but based on this passage I may try the diary. “Upright, starchy and forthright” is good and “a low, breasty chuckle” is even better. A quick online search revealed another observation of Compton-Burnett by Lees-Milne, this one from Ancestral Voices, 1942-3 (1975), the first published volume of his diary:
“Ivy Compton-Burnett ate half a pot of raspberry jam, and I was shocked to see her surreptitiously wipe her sticky fingers upon the cover of my sofa. Both she and Margaret ate like horses. This time Miss C.-B. talks a great deal more than Margaret. Her description of the Poetry Reading and Lady Gerald Wellesley's [drunken] antics was very funny. They are a wicked pair.”