Everything You Need to Know About… Ivy Compton-Burnett | Pushkin Press

Everything You Need to Know About… Ivy Compton-Burnett

Posted 18th March 2021

Ivy Compton-Burnett has always provoked strong reactions. Along with much critical success, she consistently elicited shock or dismay with each successive novel. Our new edition of Compton-Burnett’s A House and Its Head is ‘[t]he merriest tale of human depravity you will ever read‘ according to Hilary Mantel.

Among her contemporaries, some were disconcerted by the unrelenting cruelty they found in Compton-Burnett’s works, while others were merely nonplussed by her unique style. Ivy proceeded undaunted through her run of nineteen mature works, never once thinking to vary her method nor alter her singular barnet.

What follows is a compilation of the choicest responses to her life and work. What better way than to lead with words from the great author herself:

‘Anyone who picks up a Compton-Burnett finds it very hard not to put it down’

Ivy Compton-Burnett

‘There is something rather cruel, rather horrible in Miss Burnett’s talent’ New Statesman 

‘To read in these days a page of Compton-Burnett dialogue is to think of the sound of glass being swept up, one of these London mornings after a blitz’ Elizabeth Bowen

‘A pinnacle of unreality’ John o’London’s Weekly

‘There is something bleached about Miss Compton-Burnett: like hair that has never had any colour in it’ – Virginia Woolf

‘Ivy Compton-Burnett embodied a quite unmodified pre-1914 personality. Her jewellery managed never to look like jewellery but, on her, seemed hieratic insignia’ Anthony Powell

‘Apart from physical violence and starvation, there is no feature of the totalitarian regime which has not its counterpart in the atrocious families depicted in [Compton-Burnett’s] books’ Edward Sackville-West

[Like] Jane Austen on bad drugs… breathtaking moral grisliness’ – Francine Prose

However, those who take to Ivy’s fictional world of lightning-fast repartee and moral depravity tend to do so enthusiastically:

Dark, hilarious, evil… I have all twenty of her novels and I’ve read nineteen. If I read the one that is left there will be no more Ivy Compton-Burnett for me and I will probably have to die myself‘ – John Waters


A House and Its Head by Ivy Compton-Burnett is available now from Pushkin Press. More Women Than Men is forthcoming in May 2021.