Manservant and Maidservant

Horace had married her for her money, hoping to serve his impoverished state, and she had married him for love, hoping to fulfill herself. The love had gone and the money remained, so the advantage lay with Horace, if he could have taken so hopeful a view of his life.

I was inspired by Simon at Stuck in a Book‘s Ivy Compton Burnett read-along to pick up Manservant and Maidservant (his thoughts here). Unfortunately I read it a few weeks ago and was waiting to post my review, so it’s probably based more on my notes than on memory.

Manservant and Maidservant focuses on the Lamb household, headed by patriarch Horace who is distant, gruff, and miserly. His five children fear him, his cousin Mortimer pities him, and his wife Charlotte is driven to an affair. It will take drastic events for Horace to turn his life around, and even then his efforts may not be enough to save his family. The action of the story also includes the family of Gideon Doubleday, the Lambs’ tutor, and the interactions among the various servants.

The most obvious feature of ICB’s writing is her dependence on dialogue to tell the story. Most of the prose is either straightforward description or tags with understated humor. In some ways this style reminded me of J.M. Barrie’s plays, where the stage directions are crucial to the whole. On the other hand, I occasionally would have to count backwards in order to determine which lines belonged to whom–my mom had read one of ICB’s books over the summer and declared it overwhelming.

ICB really takes pains to portray Horace as a monster. His insistence on building fires much smaller than necessary mirrors the lack of emotional warmth he provides for his family. The five Lamb children are precocious and really drew my sympathy in their awareness of their situation. And yet, even after things turn around, Horace has trouble recognizing the magnitude of his faults; he is surprised at his family’s struggle to forgive and forget. I couldn’t help but compare him to Scrooge, another miser forced to choose between wealth and self-preservation. How realistic is it that the Cratchett family accepted his transformation with so few reservations?

Another idea that ICB plays with throughout the novel is servitude, as evidenced by the title. Horace’s family is bound to him, like it or not. George the kitchen boy fights against his status with lofty ideals, but still must learn what it means to be both a servant and a man. And butler Bullivant sees everything with a knowing eye, the only character who seems to belong fully to himself. Class distinctions play a large role, so that though the novel was first published in 1947 it seems ICB was drawing on the England of her younger days (not that I’m an expert on the times).

Apart from any issues with the abrupt style, which I eventually grew accustomed to, ICB tells a good, entertaining story. She presents both full-bodied characters and a narrative arc that, though occasionally choppy, has effective climaxes and resolutions (in comparison to, say, Offshore, which has great characters, including children, but little plot). I think Gideon’s mother Gertrude was one of my favorites, slightly over-the-top in an Austenesque way.

Overall I enjoyed the ICB experience and would be happy to read more of her work in the future. I also hadn’t realized that the book is on the Guardian list, in the Family category.

Published in: on November 11, 2009 at 2:40 pm  Comments (3)  
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3 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Interesting review. I really wanted to like the book but it just wasn’t for me….maybe it wasn’t the right time plus I had several books on my To be read pile that just seemed more fun and interesting.

  2. Just realised that, though I loved reading your review quite a while ago, I never said so! I’ve been going back and re-reading the M&M reviews, and noticed that I hadn’t commented before…

  3. […] Manservant and Maidervant, by Ivy Compton-Burnett […]

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