Compton Mackenzie (1883-1972)

Sir Edward Montague Anthony Compton Mackenzie (1883-1972) came from a theatrical and bohemian family. He was the son of the actor/manager Edward Compton Mackenzie, founder of the Compton Comedy Company. His sister, Fay Compton, was an actress particularly famous for starring in the plays of J. M. Barrie in the 1920s.

Monty, as he became known, was a flamboyant personality. He had a long and prolific writing career, publishing over ninety books, beginning with The Passionate Elopement in 1911. His second novel, Carnival (1912) drew on his knowledge of life behind the scenes at the theatre, and became a best-seller, coming second only to The Scarlet Pimpernel, published the same year. Then his third novel Sinister Street (1913-14) made him a literary celebrity.

Sinister Street (part 1) is the novel I read. It was published in two parts because it is unashamedly LONG. Mackenzie wrote in the preface:

are a thousand pages too long for the history of twenty-five years of a man’s life, that is to say if one holds as I hold that childhood makes the instrument, youth tunes the strings and early manhood plays the melody?

The tradition of the English novel has always favoured length and leisure; nor do I find that my study of French and Russian literature leads me to strain after brevity.

More’s the pity.

It is the minutely details story of a boy’s growing up, from his night terrors in the nursery to his adolescence at public school. It is, apparently, autobiographical which I found interesting because the boy, Michael, is not an appealing character at all. He is relentlessly sensitive, and the detail in which these sensitivities are described and celebrated can make quite difficult reading.

Frank Swinnerton wrote:

‘It is the picture of the development of a very precocious boy into a sophisticated young man of the nineteen-tens, and the picture is painted with a detail and wealth of reference unattempted by other authors of Mackenzie’s experience. It illustrates most of its author’s gifts, and all his faults. It is lavish, it contains rodomontade, it is literary, sentimental and florid. But it has no timidities; it is large and confident; it is a picture of something more than a single life. It is a record of a departed generation.’

(Rodomontade is boastful talk or behaviour: there is certainly plenty of that.)

I think Swinnerton captures well what makes Sinister Street worth reading now: in subject matter and style it is record of another time.

Swinnerton wrote this in his later memoirs; when the novel was published contemporary critics were whole-heartedly lavish in their praise.

John Betjeman said of it, ‘This has always seemed to me one of the best novels of the best period in English novel writing.’ Henry James thought it to be the most remarkable book written by a young author in his lifetime.

The novel had the rare combination of critical acclaim and great popularity: 35,000 copies were sold in the first year alone. Sales were helped enormously by controversy. Circulating libraries Boots and W. H. Smith refused to buy the book on the grounds of obscenity (there are some scenes with a prostitute; I was reminded of James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man). In the end the libraries gave in, and sales boomed. It also helped the book’s critical reputation as famous critics weighed in to defend the book.

During WW1 Mackenzie became Director of the Aegean intelligence service. His memoirs of his time as a spy lead to a prosecution under the Official Secrets Act and a famous – at the time – trial at the Old Bailey.

After the war Mackenzie lived on the island of Capri, the setting for his satirical novels Vestal Fire (1927) and Extraordinary Women (1928).

His popularity must have dipped quite considerably after the war for he is described in Beverley Nichols in 1926 as ‘a man who used to be one of England’s most popular novelists’ and a ‘rather decorative relic of the nineties’.

Nichols recounts several lurid tales about Mackenzie’s time in Greece. Greek royalists alleged that Mackenzie tried to murder King Constantine of Greece on several occasions in 1915! And one gets the impression that Nichols greatly enjoys telling these tales, while ‘scattering that blessed word “alleged” all over the place, as a sort of disinfectant against libel actions’.

His popularity may have waned, but Mackenzie continued to write prolifically. Despite not being Scottish he co-founded the Scottish National Party, and Mackenzie is probably best known now for his later Scottish comedies, such as Monarch of the Glen and Whisky Galore, adapted for TV and film.

Does anyone read him now?

Sources:

Anna Bogen, ‘Compton Mackenzie, Liberal Education, and the Oxford Novel: “Sympathy for the Normal”, English Literature in Transition, 1880-1920, 49 (1) 2006.

Faber and Faber http://www.faber.co.uk/9780571250417-sinister-street.html

Beverley Nichols, Twenty-Five (London: Jonathan Cape, 1926)

Gavin Wallace, ‘Mackenzie, Sir (Edward Montague Anthony) Compton (1883-1972)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, 2004.

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5 thoughts on “Compton Mackenzie (1883-1972)

  1. “Despite not being Scottish… ”
    …with a name like Mackenzie? Actually, you might say he was a born-again Scot and reverted to the nationality of his ancestors.
    There’s a sequel to Sinister Street- really the second part, published separately- called Sylvia Scarlett, and Sylvia and Michael, the final part.
    Before WWI he was regarded as a great hope of the English novel- Henry James praised him and Edmund Wilson reread Sinister Street later and still admired it- but something happened; my own guess is that Mackenzie wasn’t very interested in “the art of the novel” and just set to work to enjoy life and wrote to support his- expensive- tastes.

  2. I read both Sinister Street and Sylvia Scarlett when I was about sixteen, and enjoyed them immensely. I suspect that if i looked at them again, I’d be disappointed. There’s a slightly odd 1935 film based on (part of) Sylvia Scarlett, starring Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn. Hepburn spends most of it disguised as boy.

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