Wednesday, September 5, 2012
Manservant and Maidservant by Ivy Compton-Burnett
Knowing absolutely zilch about Compton-Burnett other than her writing is an acquired taste I was expecting something a bit odd or eccentric. And this book is ever so slightly that....but in a good way. Luckily for me I love dialogue because Manservant and Maidservant is completely stuffed with quotation marks. Line after line, page after page - it reads more like a play. Well actually, in a play you would have more description of scenery than you get with this intriguing production. What is lacking in descriptive phrases about wood panelling, threadbare carpets and views from the windows is made up for in the intensity of characterization. Although, a little warning that a couple of days had gone by before starting the next conversation would have been most welcome at times. Every now and then I had to double back a few lines when I realized we had left the kitchen and were now in the garden listening in on a completely different family.
Published in 1947, this story is about the Lamb family living in a draughty ramshackle house bustling with children and servants. At times I had images as rustic as those in I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith. Horace married the money they do have but keeps a tighter than tight rein on the family budget. His meanness and strict disciplinarian ways have turned his children against him...
"Is there a candle?" said Marcus. "I need one for my private purposes."
"You may fetch one from your room," said Nurse, "if you are not going to waste it."
"It will melt," said Avery, as his brother set the candle near the fire, and Nurse watched him without confidence.
Marcus took the candle and moulded the wax, and a recognisable image of a man took shape in his hands.
"Now where are the pins?" he said, with a twitch of his lips.
"They will not be wasted. It is an honorable purpose for them."
Jasper drew near at the sight of a practical measure.
"Why are you doing it?" said Avery.
"If you put pins into an effigy of someone, the person feels pain."
"But you don't know who this is," said Tamasin.
"It is Father," said Marcus, in an incidental manner.
Some people might find this scene slightly demonic but I laughed my head off! And there were plenty more scenes every bit as witty. Which is not to say that Manservant and Maidservant is altogether humourous, there are issues of infidelity, theft and even some premeditation of misadventure, shall we say, found within its pages. Another character, Miss Buchanan, can't read, the poor thing. My heart broke for her with each instance that presented itself in which she was called upon to quickly disguise her handicap.
Despite writing that she had had an uneventful life, Compton-Burnett's life was quite sad in parts. Her favourite brother died of pneumonia, another brother was killed on the Somme and two of her sisters killed themselves in a suicide pact on Christmas Day, 1917. Interestingly, of the eight girls in her family none ever married which at a time when it was almost expected seems extraordinary. A biography might be an interesting next stop if I can find a good one, any recommendations?
You can read Simon's review of Manservant and Maidservant here. He may write a lovely review but I won this reading smack down...no pressure, Simon!