Manservant and Maidservant - Ivy Compton-Burnett, Diane Johnson When I read Michael Dirda’s Classics for Pleasure I came away with a list of interesting prospects; Manservant and Maidservant was the last on that list. Every one of Dirda’s recommendations has panned out but none more so than this novel. I had put off reading my copy for the longest time because I was afraid I wouldn’t like it. I don’t have a native love of Victorian authors (or Victorian-style authors, Compton-Burnett published this in 1947); some I like, some I don’t. But from the first page this novel enchanted me. It’s hard to describe just how much fun this book was to read even though it demands focus and concentration. It’s like working hard on a college paper about a subject you’re interested in – it takes a lot of effort and mental sweat but when it’s over, you feel like you’ve accomplished something.

Manservant and Maidservant is a rather dark comedy about the Lamb family, their servants, and several incidental characters who cross their paths. The primary plot revolves around Horace Lamb, the patriarch, “sadist, skinflint, and tyrant, a man whose children fear and hate him and whose wife is planning to elope.” (backcover blurb) A life-changing event alters Horace’s behavior toward everyone but it’s hard to overcome all that has come before.

Compton-Burnett writes almost entirely in dialog but can still give a vivid description of a character or scene when necessary. And, as I mentioned at the beginning, it takes a certain amount of effort to follow what’s happening but it’s worth it. To give you just a taste of her style:

“There was One that saw you, George. There was the all-seeing Eye. Did you think, as you plied your guilty task, that you were not seen? Did you forget your early teaching, the lessons you learnt in infancy?”

“You tell me to leave that part of my training behind.”

“Do not indulge in trivialities, George, at this moment of your life. That can only mean what it does.”

“And will mean it for himself,” said Cook.

“But how did you know? You can’t know anything. You are pretending to know,” said George, not doubting the divine observation as much as the conveyance of its results to Bullivant. (p. 267)

One of the best reading experiences I’ve had in a long time so I would recommend this novel without reserve.