A House and Its Head - Ivy Compton-Burnett The wrong is never the only thing a wrong-doer has done. (p. 265)

In Manservant and Maidservant, Ivy Compton-Burnett (ICB) takes us into the lives of the Lamb family and their servants. The absurdities of late Victorian family life are held up to scathing but genteel criticism. When Harold Lamb's sons send him off on the path where he nearly meets his death, they do it out of thoughtlessness and, when they realize what they've done, instantly repent. There is no malice in their actions. And the novel finishes on a positive note - The family remains firmly ensconced in their culture but there remains genuine affection between them and they appear reasonably happy.

In A House and Its Head, ICB drops any pretense of affection or prospects of happiness to ruthlessly skewer the vicious hypocrisy and twisted morality of Victorian families.

The story revolves around the Edgeworth family: Initially, Duncan, the patriarch; Ellen, his first wife; Nance and Sibyll, their daughters; and Grant, Duncan's nephew, son of his dead brother. From page one, ICB establishes Duncan's character:

"`So the children are not down yet?' said Ellen Edgeworth.
Her husband gave her a glance, and turned his eyes towards the window.
`So the children are not down yet?' she said on a note of question.
Mr. Edgeworth put his finger down his collar, and settled his neck.
`So you are down first, Duncan?' said his wife, as though putting her observation in a more acceptable form.
Duncan returned his hand to his collar with a frown....
`So you are down first of all, Duncan,' said Ellen, employing a note of propitiation, as if it would serve its purpose.
Her husband implied by lifting his shoulders that he could hardly deny it.
`The children are late, are they not?' said Ellen, to whom speech clearly ranked above silence.
Duncan indicated by the same movement that his attitude was the same.
`I think there are more presents than usual. Oh, I wish they would all come down.'
`Why do you wish it?'
`Well, it is not a day when we want them to be late, is it?'
`Do we want them to be late on any day? Oh, of course, it is Christmas Day. I saw the things on the table.'
(pp. 7-8)


He is cold, formal, cynical & intolerant, and - it turns out - far more concerned with maintaining the social niceties even to the point of condoning infanticide.

Not perfect but tolerable, the Edgeworths' lives begin to spiral out of control when Ellen falls ill and dies. Shattered by the unexpected depth of his feelings, Duncan spends time with his invalid sister and returns with a new bride half his age - Alison. Alison and Grant have an affair, and a child, and then Alison runs away with Almeric Bode, the son of neighbors and another lover. Richard, the illegitimate child, is accepted by Duncan as his son and heir (thus disinheriting Grant). After a short interval, Duncan remarries yet again. This time his choice is far better, not blinkered by grief and passion - Cassandra (Cassie) Jekyll, the long-time governess, who has lived with the family since the girls were babes. Matters don't settle down, alas, as little Richard is found dead one morning, suffocated by gas. Considered an accident at first, it turns out that it was contrived by Sibyll (though not carried out by her). "Innocent" Sibyll, who first appears to the reader as "daddy's little girl" and hardly capable of dressing herself much less capable of spreading vicious rumors about Duncan and Cassie's roles in the child's death or orchestrating the murder - which is, of course, exactly what she's done.

The novel ends with Sibyll accepted back into the family and a new son - this time legitimate - for Duncan but it's certainly not a happy denouement.

This is not the entire plot. I've neglected to mention the coterie of friends who surround the Edgeworths and contribute their own observations and actions to the drama - Dulcia, Sibyll's closest friend; Oscar & Gretchen Jekyll, brother and mother to Cassie, respectively; Beatrice & Rosamund, evangelical cousins; or Fabian Smollett, the Edgeworths' doctor, among others.

It's hard to imagine that ICB felt much affection for any of these characters in this book; I didn't (with the exception of Nance) but I'd still recommend the novel because it's wickedly funny and its dissection (vivisection?) of repressive/oppressive family life rings true.