Wednesday, 13 June 2012

Manservant and Maidservant by Ivy Compton-Burnett

Ivy Compton-Burnett decided that the artifice of individual voices in the novel could be dispensed with. In her novel Manservant and Maidservant (1947) if J.L. Austins's The Man on the Clapham Omnibus should turn up he would speak not with the expressions of Ordinary Language but oracularly jocose locutions.

From J.L.Austin/A Plea for Excuses:

“Our common stock of words embodies all the distinctions men have found worth drawing, and the connexions they have found worth making, in the lifetimes of many generations; these surely are likely to be more numerous, more sound, since they have stood up to the long test of the survival of the fittest, and more subtle, at least in all ordinary and reasonably practical matters, than any that you or I are likely to think up in our arm-chairs of an afternoon.”

Bullivant the Butler, Mrs. Selden the Cook, Horace Lamb the Master, his cousin Mortimer Lamb, Grand-Aunt Emilia, Charlotte the Master's wife, all speak with the aforementioned locutions. Even the 5 children lisp in the numbers of the Authorised Version virtually. It produces an air of dignified unreality as though a goodly pinch of it were added like salt into the porridge by each family member who trusted not the others to salt adequately. To me it adds piquancy, to others it may be eccentric and inedible. Ivy Compton-Burnett's hand is up everyone's jumper so to speak.

The equal weight given to everything is marvellously funny but there are turns in the observations which pierce when laughter has relaxed us.

She was built on Gertrude's generous scale, and moved with a gentle heaviness that was her own. Her service to her family was seen as a life work, and the illusion could not be dispelled as she herself held it.

Instead of voice we have individual psyche and each emerges from the author's marble clearly separate. It's a mystery as to how she does it and I shall have to read it again and again. Horace Lamb is a miser who stints coal for his fires and clothes for his children. The novel ends and opens with a fire that requires mending. Despite I.C-B.'s dialogue only reputation her descriptions are no killing bottle:

Horace put his hands in his pockets, and caused an absent sound to issue from his lips. He was a middle-aged man of ordinary height and build, with thin wrinkled cheeks, eyes of a clear, cold blue, regular features unevenly set in his face, and a habit of looking aside in apparent abstraction. This was a punishment to people for the nervous exasperation they produced in him, and must expiate.

The atmosphere of the novel is odd, with the sadism of Horace turned into a curious pathos as he becomes aware of it and the children watchful with the hyper-alertness of the perpetually harried. It's that uncanny thing, a work of genius. The edition I read was an NYRB classic from 2001.

1 comment:

ombhurbhuva said...

I may as well add that the complaints of the cold in the Lamb residence struck a topical note as the winter of '46/'47 was very severe.