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.