The chair she sat on

J.I.M. Stewart

  • Secrets of a Woman’s Heart: The Later Life of Ivy Compton-Burnett 1920-1969 by Hilary Spurling
    Hodder, 336 pp, £14.95, June 1984, ISBN 0 340 26241 9

This is the second and final volume of Hilary Spurling’s biography of I. Compton-Burnett, and it comes to us ten years after the first. During this interval has Mrs Spurling been attending to other things? So abundant, so heavily pendulous upon the bough, are the fruits of research now offered to us (so very thick, we may say, has grown the ivy elegantly disposed on the present dust-jacket as on the last) that nothing of the kind need be supposed. Mrs Spurling must surely have been at work from the dawn of life, determined to know as much as God himself about Ivy’s ancestors, parents, siblings, enemies, rivals, friends, acquaintances, servants, mentors and (above all) sources and channels of inspiration, and to hand us on everything we are prepared to take. I find myself prepared to take a great deal. Enthusiasm and pertinacity are by no means Mrs Spurling’s sole endowments. Endlessly curious as she ought to be, she brings sound judgment and taste to bear upon almost everything she finds, and her conclusions are embodied in an admirable expository prose. The two volumes together make a notable contribution to modern literary biography.

In matters of plain record Ivy Compton-Burnett was an uncommunicative and even unreliable person. Thus it was widely assumed even by those who knew her well that her roots lay among a landed gentry such as she wrote of in her novels, and this persuasion she did nothing to controvert – so that when her ardent admirer and close friend Robert Liddell engaged in a somewhat demeaning rummage in Burke and Crockford in search of distinguished Compton-Burnetts whether living or dead and gone, he was astonished to discover none at all. Both Burnetts and Comptons had in fact been farm labourers not many generations back, and Mrs Spurling thinks that Ivy must have been about thirty before seeing the inside of an English country house.

In addition to letting misconception flourish, Ivy seems to have been prone to a little active romancing as well. She declared that her father, a powerful personality who had risen from conducting a provincial medical practice on homeopathic lines to the position of a fashionable and prosperous London consultant, had studied under Freud in Vienna, although at the relevant date Freud can have been no more than nine years old. And when feeling ashamed of Dolores, the uncharacteristic novel she had published 14 years before publishing anything else, she attributed its unsatisfactoriness to its having been messed up by her brother Noel – who had adored her and been adored by her – a few years before what was to her the utter and absolute tragedy of his death on the Somme. We are afforded cogent arguments against the probability of Noel’s having had any hand in Dolores. How trustworthy is Ivy in what little she has to say about her life’s relationship to her work? To what extent, and where in detail, do the novels draw upon her own family life and her own later circumstances and friendships?

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