Manservant and Maidservant
by Ivy Compton-Burnett (1947, 309 pages)
Mrs. B of The Literary Stew
and Honey of Coffeespoons
are jointly hosting a great event this week, The New York Review of Books week. Participants are asked to read a book published by The New York Review of Books, post about it and leave a comment on the host blogs. The New York Review of Books Publishing company has a world wide reputation for quality productions of sometimes neglected classics.
Ivy Compton-Burnett (1884 to 1969-London) wrote her first novel in 1911 and her last was published (after her death) in 1971. Her most famous and most still read work, Manservant and Maidservant
was published after WWII in 1947. To me she should be classified as a "between the wars" British writer even though she her work extends well beyond that era because her sensibilities are really quite Edwardian.. This puts her in the company of Katherine Mansfield , Virginia Woolf, and Ford Madox Ford. The consensus is to see her as a writer of the second order behind the truly great writers of the era. She came from what seems to have been a very troubled family. One of her brothers was killed in WWI and two of her sisters died together in a suicide pact. Of her and her 12 siblings no one had a child. All of the children of her parents were educated at boarding schools.
Manservant and Maidservant reads almost like a play. The vast majority of the book is taken up with conversations between the members of the family of Horace Lamb and its mirrored image in the conversations of the man-servants and maidservants of the family. The conversations feel "odd" for reasons I will try to explain. In my post read research on this book I found that many readers have a hard time really liking the book. It is hard to figure out who is talking at times and the cooks and maid talk as if they had been to Cambridge. The conversations were to me very enjoyable for the cleverness and obvious high authorial intelligence. Maybe part of the pleasure of the book comes form imaging a world where people actually talk the way those in the novel do.
Homer Lamb is an incredible cheapskate. He married a woman with some money and made it his lifetime work to be as cheap as possible. In the middle of a London winter he begrudges the use of enough coal to heat the house to even a minimally comfortable level. He is also a martinet of correct speech and spend much of his time correcting the grammar and diction of his children. He does not at all listen to what they say for its content but merely for what opportunity of criticism there imperfect speech may afford him. He is completely cold in his relationship with his wife who does seek comfort elsewhere.
I think one of the very underlying themes of Manservant and Maidservant is the difficulty in speaking the exact truth. Speech involves selective perception which gets only partially at the truth, by necessity.
The servants in the book, in the USA it was originally marketed with the title Bullivant and the Lambs to bring out that the family structure is recreated among the servants with the head servant in the role of pater-familias. In the end the pain Homer Lamb causes his family, of course, comes back on him in an unexpected way. When there is prose in the book not devoted to conversation it is very well done and clearly the product of a very cultivated author.
I would recommend this book to those who enjoy well done conversations in the works they read and are willing to accept that they will have to follow the book closely at times to figure out who is speaking. The book looks back to a world that was coming to an end when it was written. The days when middle class English women had servants came to an end during WWII. In some ways Compton-Burnett is considered a modern writer in that she allows the action of the book to carry the plot and she "shows rather than tells us" what is happening but the sensibilities and concerns of the book seem to me to harbor back to the immediate post WWI era.
It is hard for me to say generally if I would recommend this book to someone I did not know. I can see those who like more action being bored with the books lack of action (two big things do happen or maybe almost happen). I can see some seeing the book very much as a period piece. If you do not like BBC theater TV dramatizations of classic English novels you will probably not like this book. If you like a beautifully written book with a lot of subtle points I think you might like Manservant and Maidservant. I am glad I read it.
I wish to thanks Mrs B and Honey for their hard work in hosting this event.