Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Manservant and Maidservant by Ivy Compton-Burnett

Eventually, I will begin reviewing books shortly after I've read them, rather than waiting over a week to review.  I'm finding this novel difficult to write about namely because it wasn't at all what I expected.

I don't know how I began collecting Compton-Burnett novels, but collect them I did.  I remember seeing several titles in library booksales and plenty of blog chatter about Compton-Burnett.  Somewhere along the line, several years ago, I began scooping up abandoned Compton-Burnett novels and squirreling them away for the "right time" to read.

Finally the correct Compton-Burnett reading time emerged when the Slaves of Golconda chose Manservant and Maidservant as their July read.  Stupidly, I assumed I could read the less than 300 page novel in a weekend and didn't anticipate the 20 days it would take me to finish the novel.  I did enjoy this tale of a miserly husband and father (Horace Lamb), his troop of precocious children, and conflicting servants, but I found that Compton-Burnett's style demanded a huge amount of focus that I wasn't expecting.

The closest book I can compare to Manservant and Maidservant, style-wise, is To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf.  Like Woolf's novel, Manservant and Maidservant is nearly all dialogue.  Scenes are not set up, characters and situations are introduced with a physical description (if that) and the reader is plunged into the subtle dramatics of the Lamb household with accompanying upstairs/downstairs drama often in the middle of the dramatic conversation.  This fly-on-the-wall reading makes for a challenge.  Perhaps I'm stupid, but it was truly hard to tell the characters' motives and whether or not a character was sarcastic or serious, moronic or purposefully obtuse.  While that was a challenge, it is also what sucked me in to the novel.  After the first fifty pages I found a rhythm.  It was easier to creep into the characters' perspective, notice the verbal jabs, and laugh (and often bemoan) the silliness of various prejudices and actions.

I realize I haven't even presented a clear overview of the plot, but I don't want a fellow reader to miss out on an intellectually satisfying read.  Even with a short character blurb, it would still be difficult -- from the beginning -- to know what sort of characters Compton-Burnett has given readers.  This is also a novel where nothing too big happens -- many things almost happen -- but the internal changes the characters make are most significant and there is the heart of the novel.

So do I recommend Manservant and Maidservant?  Yes.  Is it a great read for the busy back to school time?  Most likely not.  This book is best read in a couple of long sittings -- so the reader has time to slip into the minds of the characters -- and with a large pot of tea and a heavy dose of patience.    A rewarding experience, Manservant and Maidservant is sure to be enjoyed by fans of Virginia Woolf and Elizabeth Bowen.


josjottings said...

Sounds interesting. One to perhaps look out for.

Thomas at My Porch said...

I read this one back when Simon at Stuck in a Book held a read along. I agree it was challenging stylistically but overall was quite enjoyable. I likened Horace to Basil Fawlty.

Remembering August and Looking to September « Fig and Thistle said...

[...] 5 books (The House at Riverton, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Manservant and Maidservant, The Stolen Crown, and Time Among the [...]