IVY: The Life of I. Compton-Burnett by Hilary Spurling

IVY: The Life of I. Compton-Burnett

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In the first half of her life she was cruelly oppressed, before becoming briefly the oppressor herself; in the second half she came to comprehend both roles with extraordinary tolerance, wisdom and generosity."" Throughout this literate, massive biography of Ivy Compton-Burnett (1884-1969), in fact, Spurling tends to find more ""generosity"" than others detect in Ivy's dark, ironic novels of family beastliness. And only the most devoted C-B admirers will relish the swarming, often-repetitious detail here, the relentless notation of parallels between Ivy's early life and her work--which stretch this biography into a quite static 640-page study. (The first, stronger half was published in England as Ivy When Young in 1974.) Daughter of a non-conformist doctor who died when she was 17, eldest daughter Ivy became the primary victim/helper to her neurotic tyrant of a mother in their isolated Hove household; both of her intensely beloved brothers died young; she herself nearly died of influenza; two younger sisters committed suicide together--partial victims, perhaps, of Ivy's oppressive substitute-mothering after Mrs. Compton-Burnett's death. So, though Spurling doesn't bring much psychological sophistication to this web of possessive, jealous misery and loss, she makes it reasonably clear why stoical Ivy thereafter retreated from life--devoting her primary energy to studies of ""the way people prey on one another"" (with literary/philosophical influence from Samuel Butler). Her third novel, the 1929 Brothers and Sisters, brought great acclaim and celebrity. But, while establishing a private reputation as a wily, cutting conversationalist, Ivy chose to remain a non-public figure for decades--living in the shadow of her housemate, feminist scholar Margaret Jourdain. (A non-sexual pairing, almost certainly.) And so the second half of Spurling's study is largely a catalogue of friendships, visitors, quotable conversations--along with appreciations of the novels and evocations of Ivy's eccentric, sometimes tyrannical personality. Impeccable scholarship, conscientious (if rather plodding) analysis, teatime anecdotes on wry, witty parade: a dense, stylish job in the stately British manner--but without the shape or focus to keep non-devotees absorbed.

Pub Date: Nov. 9th, 1984
Publisher: Knopf