Sunday 1 November 2009

Sprawling Ivy

I don't know how many people managed to join in a group read of Manservant and Maidservant, what with the appalling scarcity of copies, and the fact that (in my case, at least) good intentions rarely make the tbr pile any shorter - but it's November now, and so I'm going to begin talking about the novel. If you have managed to read it, and post about it, please let me know, and I'll include links in this post - and shout about them in later posts too. Or, indeed, if you had a go and hated it, didn't get beyond page 2, I want to hear from you too! And if you've been reading and don't have a blog, or don't fancy posting it on your blog for whatever reason, I'd be more than happy to put your thoughts up on Stuck-in-a-Book.

Right! Let's get started. Manservant and Maidservant was published in 1947, bang in the middle of Dame Ivy's writing career, which spanned from Pastors and Masters (1925) to her death in 1969. She did write a novel in 1911, Dolores, but later disowned it - and all of her other nineteen novels are, I believe, more or less the same. (Having said that, whenever she was asked which were her favourites of her own novels, she'd mention A House and its Head and Manservant and Maidservant.) The plots may differ slightly, but the scenarios don't seem to, nor does her distinctive approach to writing. In Manservant and Maidservant, like so many of her books, there is an enormous family living in an old house, squabbling and calmly interrogating one another. In fact, what I wrote in my review of Parents and Children still stands:
Life-changing events are encompassed by lengthy, facetious discussions - gently vicious and cruelly precise, always picking up on the things said by others. Calmness permeates even the most emotional responses, and ICB's writing is always astonishing in its use of dialogue. More or less all of it is dialogue, and though often sophistry, it is somehow also accurate about family dynamics.
Gosh, quoting myself, isn't that self-indulgent? But it's true - blink-and-you'll-miss-it events of enormity will be mentioned in amongst pages of discussing the lighting of a fire, or whether or not the children are entitled to Christmas stockings. Centre of the family is Horace, father and employer - his wife is mysteriously absent from proceedings, though his cousin and aunt are present. He is strict, decisive, given to posing rhetorical questions - and as the novel develops, hints are given of a cruel nature which has only recently subsided. His relationship with his children is uneasy, and you get the sense that they are unsure of his character, and what he will do next. He, of course, does not see things in the same manner:
"This room is never damp. It could not be in its situation," said Horace, who saw in his family house the perfection he had not found in his family.
As the title suggests, the world below stairs is as important as that above. Bullivant, the butler, sees both worlds - Mrs. Selden the Cook, George and Miriam slightly further down the hierarchy. I loved the scenes in the servants' quarters - the dynamics of those thrown together into a strange home/non-home. I especially liked Cook, unnervingly eloquent (how many servants would say
"That was quite a superfluous injunction" ?) and with a firm sense of keeping people in their place.
"I could feel to you as to a mother, Mrs. Selden," said George, on an impulse.
"Then behave to me as a son and hand me those forks," said Cook, regarding this as the right way to meet excess of feeling.
In fact, keeping people in their place, within a strict hierarchy, is of far greater significance below stairs than above - though it is not ignored there, and in vain does Horace try and teach his children the pitfalls of 'fairness'. But the manservant and maidservant, et al, provided most of my favourite quotations. For example:
"Do you take your tea strong or the reverse, Miss Buchanan?"

"Neither one nor the other," said the guest, using her rather loud voice for the first time.

"That is my own preference," said Bullivant.

"My bias is also towards the mean," said Cook, with her eyes on the teapot. "I am not in favour of excess in any direction."

"How do the young people like it?" said Miss Buchanan, both her utterance and its nature coming as a surprise.

"I am conversant with their preferences," said Cook, with nothing in her tone to indicate that she would be influenced by these.
"It was a bad hour for George, when he told the truth about himself," said Mortimer. "It was sad to see him thinking that honesty was the best policy."
This is fairly indicative of Ivy Compton-Burnett's style - warped epigrams; small authorial comment casting a cynical eye upon convoluted conversations. I don't think anybody could call her dialogue naturalistic, but it does put across people's characters surprisingly well. And there is such a sense of claustrophobia - people always watching, listening, correcting and analysing.

It's impossible to skim-read Manservant and Maidservant, or even, I found, to read it quickly. Though not a long book, it took me a long time to read it - the prose is so rich, so ponderous and dense, that I'm forced t
o settle back and let the characters talk at their own pace. And, once I do that, I love it. I love the long discussions which spiral round and don't seem to achieve anything, because they are so well crafted - each sentence carefully honed, each inflection deliberate. I love the involved ways in which people rebuke each other or put them down. I couldn't read two Compton-Burnett novels next to each other, perhaps, but I do need to know that some are waiting on the shelf.

But, of course, the point of a group read is to find out what you all thought... and I can't wait.
Let me know! And, if you haven't managed to join in this time, perhaps this post will have inspired you to consider ICB next time you spot her in a secondhand bookshop. Or, indeed, in Hesperus' new reprint of Pastors and Masters. For my money, she is one of the twentieth-century's greatest and most important writers - but let's see what everyone else says...


  1. I've posted a review of my virgin voyage into ICB-land!

  2. I was supposed to be participating in the group read but the book only reached me a few days ago having been to France and back in the meantime (long story). I've made a start and I can tell I am going to enjoy it. I shall alert you when I finally blog about it. Nice review.

  3. I've had trouble finding the book as well, but I look forward to reading your thoughts and reading some ICB in the future!

  4. Not many comments yet Simon! Have your avid readers all died of an ICB overdose? Could there be such a thing as 'death by fiction'? If so, ICB would be the obvious suspect, to my mind!! You'll easily identify the symptoms - an agonised rigour will transfix the face of the victim! ;-)

  5. I really wanted to read this but just could not get a copy for the life of me anywhere so am very sad to have missed out. I will still be giving ICB a whirl though when a book of hers next crosses my book hoarding path.

  6. Thomas - I really enjoyed your review, thanks!

    Simon - offer still stands to borrow it, if you like!

    Harriet - looking forward to your thoughts...

    Mum - tsk!

    Tiffany - good look coming across the book in the future...

  7. Sorry, I think my link didn't work so here it is again.

  8. oops sorry, just wanted to edit the above but it isn't possible.
    I just added a review on my site. I'm not sure you'll like it though but check it out.

  9. I managed to find it and read it, and have posted a review.

  10. Luckily my library had a copy, and I've just now gotten around to posting my thoughts.

    I ended up really enjoying it, so thanks for providing the impetus!


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