Ivy Compton Burnett
Famous Unrelated (as far as we know) Burnetts

Compiled by E. Sue Terhune
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Dame Ivy Compton-Burnett, D.B.E., was born in 1884 in Pinner, England, the seventh child of a leading homeopathic physician, Dr James Compton Burnett.  She was the first child of his second marriage; her mother, Katharine Compton Burnett, was a beautiful, delicate, imaginative, imperious and highly competitive woman who had met her future husband as his patient, and fallen passionately in love with him. Their devotion was mutual and, when Dr Burnett's first wife died in childbirth, he remarried so promptly that Ivy was born less than two years after her last half brother. Her mother inherited five small stepchildren (one had already died in infancy), ranging in age from eight years old down to the new baby, and over the next fifteen years she bore seven more of her own.

The Burnett family moved to a large house on the south coast at Hove, Sussex, although Dr. Burnett spent the greater part of each week  in town, immersed in the demands of a rapidly expanding London practice. Katharine Compton Burnett, who was easily bored by domesticity,  found herself  without outside contacts or adult company in a household full of increasing numbers of her own and her hated predecessor's offspring.  She was unable to bear the loneliness and frustration of the solitude and the children, competing for attention and affection, had to submit to the steadily more tyrannical rule of an unchecked, unquestioned, unhappy and peremptory autocrat.

Ivy and her beloved younger brothers, Guy and Noel, played together and shared a governess, Ivy, learning Latin and Greek with her brothers' tutor.  She was encouraged by the liberal and unorthodox Dr Burnett to prepare to read classics at London university (neither Oxford nor Cambridge gave degrees to women in those days). She had dearly loved her father, who died without warning from a heart attack in 1901 when she was sixteen.  Her mother, hysterical and distraught, never fully recovered her mental or moral balance. She dressed the whole family in unrelieved black, retreating with them to a life of almost complete isolation from the outside world, venting her depression on her eldest daughter and depending for consolation on Guy, who had always been her favorite. But Guy caught pneumonia and died as suddenly as his father in 1904, while Ivy was away in her final term at the university. She had felt, by her own account, as close as a twin to Guy and now turned in her despair to Noel, forming an inseparable pair with him in the three years before he went up to Cambridge. The stepchildren had long since fled to London. Noel's departure left Ivy shut up at home with her mother, condemned to teach her four younger sisters, without friends of her own or openings or any imaginable prospect of escape. She had worn black throughout her youth and in the long years of mourning her father and Guy, and she wore it again in 1911 when Mrs. Compton Burnett died of cancer after a long and debilitating illness.

Under her mother's will, Ivy inherited the post of head of household, establishing her own autocratic rule over her four sisters until they mutinied in 1915, and ran away to London together  in defiance of her authority. Noel had been for years Ivy's ally, her sole source of intellectual stimulation and emotional support in a decade of bitter desolation since Guy died. But Noel joined the army as a sub-lieutenant on the outbreak of war with Germany in August 1914, and was killed two years later in the battle of the Somme. Ivy could never talk afterwards about the war, nor speak of her brother to the day of her death without tears welling up in her eyes. The closing phase of the war marked the lowest point for the surviving Compton-Burnetts. Even Ivy, who had seemed rock-like, inscrutable, inured to grief and shock, could not withstand the blow which destroyed the last remnants of the only life she had ever known. No one had anticipated, or could ever afterwards explain, the deaths of her two youngest sisters who killed themselves, aged twenty-two and eighteen, by swallowing veronal behind the locked door of their bedroom on Christmas Day 1917.

Ivy fell ill after the inquest, and very nearly died herself in the deadly flu epidemic that swept London the following summer. She emerged slowly and painfully over the next few years from a period of prolonged mental, physical and emotional prostration, a state she described at the time as death in life. The publication of Pastors and Masters marked her recovery; a final distancing from the experiences of her first forty years which she never discussed in fact, but whose implications she would spend the next forty years and 19 novels exploring in fiction.  Her second novel, Brothers and Sisters, was of all her books the one that stuck most closely to her own past, examining the depredations of a jealous, demanding, extravagantly grief-stricken widow directly based on Ivy's mother. It is an unreassuring, if not unsympathetic portrait  one of the things Ivy's admirers found most disconcerting was her refusal to dismiss or condemn her fictional tyrants out of hand  and it lays down for the first time a relationship with the past that would remain constant in all her subsequent novels.

Her obituary, August 28, 1969, states, "Ivy-Compton Burnett had for long been regarded by some critics as one of the foremost figures in English fiction". She was named a Dame Commander of the British Empire in 1967.


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