Tuesday, 3 November 2009

Manservant and Maidservant by Ivy Compton-Burnett

I've read other ICBs before, but not this one, and was inspired to turn to it by Stuck-in-a-Book's group read. Compton-Burnett's novels are often accused of being all the same, and it's true that they revolve around similar themes, in similar settings and similar forms. ICB's themes are the cruelty family members practice on each other in familial hierarchies with fathers at the top and children at the bottom; how the oppressed internalise their own misery and oppress in their turn; the novels are usually set in an upper-middle-class home and vaguely Edwardian in period regardless of when they were written; and her distinctive style, in which plot and character are delivered almost entirely through dialogue, is given full rein in Manservant and Maidservant.

Reliance on dialogue allows the unsayable to be spoken in this novel's oppressive home, and the result is painful and sometimes embarrassing, as when Horace, the autocratic father, attempts to make peace with his browbeaten children on what he imagines to be his deathbed; he gets better, of course, but cannot take back his words or expect them to be forgotten. The dialogue reveals ICB's unquestionable skill as a writer; it conveys each character distinctly as well as progressing the plot, but never says too much: the unspoken is as important as the spoken. It also allows the introduction of some excellent jokes.

One of the interesting elements of this novel is that an important revelation of a secret is managed through a letter, which we never read, rather than dialogue; and that revelation is only possible because the letter has been sent to Miss Buchanan's shop, which she allows to be used as a correspondence address. Miss Buchanan is illiterate, and cannot tell that the letter has got into the wrong hands. The read and the unread in this novel are as significant as the spoken and unspoken. Miss Buchanan, interestingly, speaks relatively little and her responses are described by the narrator more than articulated by herself; because she would not be able to read these descriptions of her speech and actions, this seems a piquant way of allowing her to communicate, underlining the restrictions of her life. Miss Buchanan's story, in which she is rescued from illiteracy by the household servants, who have discovered her secret and propose to teach her to read, has a note of hope and redemption in it which I found unusual for Compton-Burnett; that the kitchen-maid Miriam, raised in an orphanage and now oppressed by Cook, is to be her teacher gives a touch of hope to Miriam's future, too.

However, reading this book reminded me why I find ICB more admirable than enjoyable. Her prose has a chiming quality to it which makes reading one of her novels like attending a five-day glockenspiel concert, or like being tapped on the forehead repeatedly with a teaspoon. Whatever I read next has to have a woodwind tone, I think.