Manservant and Maidservant by Ivy Compton-Burnett (1947)

Review by Mary P:

This novel paints a picture of an Edwardian upper-class household where the servants are given as much prominence as those they work for, and of course they are able to eavesdrop on the familys life by way of their constant presence.

Horace Lamb is the tyrannical head of an Edwardian household. He is a bully, and his meanness has alienated his family. His wife plans to leave him with his cousin Mortimer and to take the children with her. Through the device of a letter drop at a local shop and the tutor’s sister who is in love with Mortimer, Horace gets to know about his wife’s plans. His character is transformed and he becomes a very different and more pleasantly behaved man.

However, he learns that his children and his servants view of him is not to be changed so quickly, when his sons neglect to tell him of a dangerous bridge when he sets off on a walk. A servant uses this idea later when he removes a Danger sign in the belief that his employer will plunge to his death.

The novel exposes the secrets of the upstairs/downstairs household, the planned elopement of Charlotte and Mortimer, the origins of Miriam and George, and vital to the plot the illiteracy of Miss Buchanan, the owner of the local shop.

Ivy Compton-Burnett writes wholly in dialogue, and not a very realistic one. All the characters including the children talk as if they are on the stage expressing their thoughts to an audience as if they are in a play. The writing is very dense, and can’t be skipped over quickly otherwise the content of this verbal sparring is easily missed. At times I think that this particular style slows down the action of the novel too much.

As a reader I was aware that I should be finding much of the dialogue funny- the characters laugh to tell me so. However, I did not find it funny, but annoying that the characters worked so hard to be show me how clever they were.

We are never allowed inside the heads of the characters, all is dialogue. This leaves some puzzles for the reader, for example I was left wondering why Charlotte returns to her husband so swiftly?

I suspect I am being too literal here, as a fellow group member commented that Ivy Compton-Burnett writes in an abstract way, and perhaps should therefore not be found wanting for failing to paint a realistic picture of family life in this novel.

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