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Manservant and Maidservant (1947)

par Ivy Compton-Burnett

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341658,944 (3.51)29
At once the strangest and most marvelous of Ivy Compton-Burnett's fictions, Manservant and Maidservant has for its subject the domestic life of Horace Lamb, sadist, skinflint, and tyrant. But it is when Horace undergoes an altogether unforeseeable change of heart that the real difficulties begin. Is the repentant master a victim along with the former slave? And how can anyone endure the memory of the wrongs that have been done?"… (plus d'informations)
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Affichage de 1-5 de 6 (suivant | tout afficher)
A bewildering novel by a bewildering author. Perhaps my own impression was only 3 stars but I feel I must award a 4th for sheer success of concept.

As other reviewers have summarised, Horace Lamb is a dismissive, uncaring gentleman from an era long past, whose wife can't stand him, servants find unappealing (when they're not outright attempting to kill him), and whose children seem to have grown old before their time. (If I take nothing from this, it will be a desire to use such names as Avery, Tamasin, and Jasper for any future unlucky children I may sire!). Horace's turning point is discovering how everyone feels about him, leading to an attempted change of personality, juxtaposed with the minor antics of his extended household.

This is my first Compton-Burnett novel and it seems clear that plot, as such, is not at the top of her priority list. This is a conversational novel, and a stylised one at that. Writing between the wars (i.e. long after the Victorian and Edwardian eras she depicts), Compton-Burnett creates a highly artificial, ironic world in which prose and narrative voice are sparse, and dialogue must carry the day. From the housekeeper to the youngest child, everyone's speech is arch, poisonous, and proverbial. (A tone once described by Hal Prince, of his musical A Little Night Music as being "knives dipped in icing sugar".) It feels almost like the achievement of pointillist painting, where the eye makes the colours mingle; here, the reader must make the dialogue serve for all of the other parts of writing too. "Charlotte", says Horace at one point," I have not spoken to you of the thing that is between us. It may be that I shall not speak of it." Elsewhere, to quote the character of Gideon, "My feelings are not easy; they go deep like everything about me."

Everything both high and ironic, rather like the older way of translating the Greek tragedies.

This structure has clearly confused a range of readers here on Goodreads, who have decided that Ms Compton-Burnett can't have known what she was doing. "No-one speaks like that!" cries a popular refrain, which suggests these armchair critics have never read Austen or Dickens, Pynchon or Hardy, and yet have somehow progressed to this obscure novelist from the early 20th century.

It will surprise no-one to hear that this book is hard-going. I think Ms Compton-Burnett, whose personal history you should also look up, was hard-going in general. Yet I'm glad to have finally made my way through one of her volumes. This is a book that almost cries out to be read aloud, with the subtleties of dialogue somewhat lost over the generations but still an intriguing experiment if nothing else. Will you enjoy it? If you enjoy extreme stylisation and narrative playfulness, perhaps yes. In the NYRB Classics edition, Diane Johnson's introduction refers to Manservant and Maidservant as a "noir version" of the British drama series Upstairs, Downstairs. It's a deeply strange comparison but, I think, rather apt. ( )
  therebelprince | Jun 24, 2021 |
new york review books classic
very interesting style ( )
  mahallett | Sep 3, 2018 |
Another book very different from what I normally read. I’m glad to finally understand why Ivy Compton-Burnett’s novels tend to polarize readers. Where I fall, though, I’m not sure of yet, as I found the book both A bit of a slog and fascinating at the same time. George was my favorite character; I enjoyed his rebelliousness. ( )
  NinieB | Jul 4, 2018 |
So much dialogue I felt like I was reading a play! Very dark humor. Not entirely successful, but still interesting, and I enjoyed it more than most of what I've been reading lately. ( )
  GaylaBassham | May 27, 2018 |
Manservant and Maidservant is so different from anything I’ve read – classic or contemporary – that I struggled with it at first (though that may also have been due to the tiny font and yellowing paper of my ancient library copy). I’m so glad I persevered.

Although it was published in 1947, the novel is set some fifty years earlier. It tells the story of the Lamb family. Horace Lamb is a petty tyrant in his own household, though he in turn is beholden to his wife’s wealth. His dependent cousin, Mortimer, his five children and their servants are all bound by his whims. Then Horace discovers something that makes him change his ways.

The novel has on first impression the feel of a drawing-room drama. Most of the ‘scenes’ are set indoors, many of them in the Lamb house. The chapters are long, and there are no white spaces to denote change of time or place, which can bring you up short when there is a sudden shift.

It is largely written in highly stylised dialogue – beautifully constructed sentences, effortless aphorisms and words weighted with irony and ambiguity are awarded to every character, children included.

But the artifice, paradoxically, highlights the emotion of the writing. There is a subtle and fierce compassion, and an unflinching eye on the small cruelties and humiliations within the household.

There is a careful dissection of the psychology of the characters: the conservatism of the senior servants, the rebellion of George, the recruit from the orphanage who refuses to be grateful for his place in the hierarchy and rages against the confinement of his life.

Mortimer could be despised for his refusal to make his own way in life, but his self-awareness and compassion to others makes him far more complicated. Miss Buchanan, the shopkeeper who is ashamed that she cannot read, isolates herself by giving barbed responses to anyone who tries to gain her trust.

Manservant and Maidservant feels oddly contemporary with its minimal exposition and distinctive voice. The combination of craft and complexity reminds me of the best TV box sets. Some criticise the novel’s ‘unrealistic’ dialogue, but I don’t suppose the people of Kentucky speak at all times with the lyrical beauty and dark philosophy of the characters in Justified.

This is a book that requires effort and attention but it is rewarded. It doesn’t distract with big plot twists or an epic sweep. It anatomises one small corner of the world, and in so doing gives you everything.

This review first appeared on my blog https://katevane.wordpress.com/ ( )
  KateVane | Jan 8, 2017 |
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"Is that fire smoking?" said Horace Lamb.
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Horace had married her for her money, hoping to serve his impoverished estate, and she had married him for love, hoping to fulfill herself. The love had gone and the money remained, so that the advantage lay with Horace, if he could have taken so hopeful a view of life.
"I wonder who began this treating of people as fellow creatures," said Charlotte. "It is never a success."
"Appearances are not held to be a clue to the truth," said his cousin. "But we seem to have no other."
"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."
I have so often resisted temptation, and always without success. When people resist it with success, I always wonder how we know they have had any.
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At once the strangest and most marvelous of Ivy Compton-Burnett's fictions, Manservant and Maidservant has for its subject the domestic life of Horace Lamb, sadist, skinflint, and tyrant. But it is when Horace undergoes an altogether unforeseeable change of heart that the real difficulties begin. Is the repentant master a victim along with the former slave? And how can anyone endure the memory of the wrongs that have been done?"

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823.912 — Literature English English fiction Modern Period 20th Century 1901-1945

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