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Manservant and Maidservant by Ivy Compton-Burnett
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Jun 14, 12

bookshelves: fiction-mainstream
Read in June, 2012

MANSERVANT AND MAIDSERVANT. (1947). Ivy Compton-Burnett. **.
I’m not sure how I managed to make it through this novel, but I finally did. This is the first novel I’ve read by this author, and, likely the last. It is the story of an English household in Victorian times. The master of the house, Horace Lamb, is a tyrant, and rules the household in an iron grip. His wife, Charlotte, is preparing to leave him, to elope with his cousin, Mortimer. Mortimer was a ward of Horace’s father, and lives with the family as if he were a true part of it. He doesn’t work and doesn’t do much to support the day-to-day activities. He has no income and no job. Actually, the money and the manor really belong to Charlotte as a bequest from her father. Even Horace has no money of his own and depends on Charlotte’s money for his support. Being the man, however, he believes that he is entitled to manage the money and the household. They have five children, who are all scared to death of their father. They can’t do anything right, and receive no outward display of love or affection from their father. There is a staff of servants to support the needs of the household. These are overseen by Bolivant, the chief of staff, who has been with the family for over fifty years. There is also Mrs. Seldon, the cook; George, a young man of odd jobs, and Miriam, a young girl who helps Mrs. Seldon in her duties. The relationship between the family and the servants is a big part of this novel. It is the servants’ job to maintain the image of the family as it might be perceived by the outside world, especially in the face of Horace’s terrible personality. When family matters begin to deteriorate, the serving staff steps in and helps move the matters that arise forward. The popularity of this novel when it came out was primarily due to its focus on the serving class within the house. Normally, Victorian era novels might have admitted the existence of the servants, but did not dwell on them. This made this novel somewhat of a shocker in its day. This re-issue was done using its original English title. When it was first published in America, it came out with the title, “Bullivant and the Lambs.” Supposedly, that was done so that the American reading public would not be put off thinking it had to do with servants – even though it did. Trying to read this novel was an exercise in divine persistence. The style is kind-of like that of a Victorian writer who was trying to show the reader that she had an extensive vocabulary, and was conversant with long and complicated sentences. The story is told with the almost exclusive use of dialog – there is little, if any time wasted on setting. What makes this doubly damning is that all the characters speak alike; that is, like the author. The author, Ms. Compton-Burnett (1884-1969), had a large following and published a total of eleven books. According to the current publisher, she is not read much today. Small wonder.
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David She didn't set my world on fire, but I have a bit of a soft spot for Ivy. I think I remember that her real life was slightly tragic ... and probably more interesting than her books.


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