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Compton-Burnett, I. (1884-1969)  

The English lesbian novelist I[vy] Compton-Burnett explored passionate friendship between two women in her first novel and included lesbian and gay characters in two later novels.

Compton-Burnett was born June 5, 1884 (although she claimed 1892), earned a B.A. in Classics with second honors in 1906 from the Royal Holloway College of the University of London, was knighted in 1967, and died August 19, 1969.

Compton-Burnett's method is to expose personal secrets between the lines of her novels-in-dialogue, but although she lived with her life companion--the writer, editor, and antiques expert Margaret Jourdain--from 1919 until Jourdain's death in 1951, no hint of this domestic arrangement surfaces in her fiction.

All of Compton-Burnett's works are set in the traditional world of the English squirearchy before its genteel complacency was shattered by World War I.

Compton-Burnett's first novel, Dolores (1911), might better have been called Dolores and Perdita in light of the shift of focus in the middle from one character to the other. The passionate friendship of the two central characters in this novel shows more psychological presentation of love between women than anything in the later novels.

Nevertheless, Dolores is not a successful novel. It is an imitation of George Eliot. Like much of Eliot, Dolores is badly proportioned, unselfconsciously proselytory, and extremely earnest, but its main weakness is a number of dull stretches where the author seems to get her characters talking and becomes unable to stop them even when they are saying nothing either to reveal their inner lives or to advance the plot.

Compton-Burnett perhaps recognized these weaknesses since it was thirteen years before she again attempted fiction. She later disowned this novel, citing neither its structural weaknesses nor its lesbian subtext but instead the collaborative meddling of her brother.

When she did return to writing, in Pastors and Masters (1925), she produced an entirely different sort of novel, wisely scrapping the features inspired by Eliot and focusing centrally on the dialogue passages, in the tradition of Thomas Love Peacock and Ronald Firbank.

This format allowed her to develop dialogue as a subtle medium for character revelation. She used this format throughout the rest of her career and developed it as a progressively more elliptical and subtle means of characterization as she went on.

Although there is nothing personal about the novels after Dolores, two novels are of particular interest because they include lesbian and gay characters.

More Women than Men (1933) concerns the staff of a girls' school. Most of the staff are apparently homosexual, and the dynamics of their interrelationships are viewed with wry humor and detachment. The theme of the book is that affectional and power relationships of all kinds are always in flux. As a result, no character's homosexual identity is entirely permanent here, and it is perhaps even suggested that homosexual identity is eventually outgrown although only quite late in life by some people.

In Two Worlds and Their Ways (1949), Compton-Burnett again chronicles English public (that is, private) school life, this time using a boys' school as well as a girls'. The comedy is more brittle and epigrammatic than in the earlier work. And Two Worlds and Their Ways has an extremely complicated plot. Startling events succeed one another rapidly, creating parallels so elaborate that they generate comedy. As in More Women than Men, various homosexual couplings are implied, but these are even more obliquely suggested.

Though Susan Crecy describes Compton-Burnett as an indirect advocate of homosexuality by virtue of the devastating excoriation of family life in her novels, her homosexual characters are just as manipulative as her straight ones. Indeed, she is important for lesbian studies chiefly by virtue of treating her lesbian characters just like everyone else. Compton-Burnett's style is the subject of a parody by Richard Mallett.

Edmund Miller


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Burkhart, Charles. I. Compton-Burnett. London: Gollancz, 1965.

Crecy, Susan. "Ivy Compton[-]Burnett: Family as Nightmare." Lesbian and Gay Writing: An Anthology of Critical Essays. Mark Lilly, ed. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1990. 13-22.

Grieg, Cecily. Ivy Compton-Burnett: A Memoir. London: Garnestone, 1972.

Grylls, R[osalie] Glynn [Lady Mander]. Ivy Compton-Burnett. London: Longman, 1971.

Mallett, Richard. Literary Upshots; or, Split Reading. London: Jonathan Cape, 1951.

Sprigge, Elizabeth. The Life of Ivy Compton-Burnett. New York: Braziller, 1973.


    Citation Information
    Author: Miller, Edmund  
    Entry Title: Compton-Burnett, I.  
    General Editor: Claude J. Summers  
    Publication Name: glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual,
Transgender, and Queer Culture
    Publication Date: 2002  
    Date Last Updated May 28, 2002  
    Web Address  
    Publisher glbtq, Inc.
1130 West Adams
Chicago, IL   60607
    Today's Date  
    Encyclopedia Copyright: © 2002-2006, glbtq, Inc.  
    Entry Copyright © 1995, 2002 New England Publishing Associates  


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