Sunday, April 24, 2016

Ivy Compton-Burnett, Manservant and Maidservant (1947)

Am I tired of Angela Carter? Hardly, but it seemed wise to vary my reading a little to ensure that I don't become so. More Carter sooner rather than later, for sure.

Ivy Compton-Burnett wrote twenty novels, and all of them (or at least, all but her first, published at seventeen, which she later disavowed) seem to concern dysfunctional, upper-class, late-Victorian households. For some variety, some of them may actually be Edwardian. They're all--I am told--stylized in the same way, and they tend to have very similar titles; eg, Brothers and Sisters, Men and Wives, Daughters and Sons, Parents and Children, Mother and Son. Admittedly, it's hard to imagine wanting to read all of these, but if they're good, there's certainly an appeal to an artist who works on a very constrained canvas. Compton-Burnett may not be super-well-known these days, but she was very highly-thought-of, with a vehement fanbase, in her time.

Manservant and Maidservant concerns the Lambs: the father, Horace; his aunt, Emilia; his cousin, Mortimer; his wife, Charlotte; and their five children (ages seven to thirteen), Avery, Tamasin, Marcus, Jasper, and Sarah. The crux of the biscuit is that Horace is an awful tyrant: miserly, emotionally abusive, and super-passive-aggressive, all cloaked in a pious air of constant martyrdom. His children hate and fear him, and Charlotte and Mortimer are planning to take them and run off together. BUT THEN, all of a sudden, with no warning, he stops being a jerk and starts being unaccountably good to everyone, especially the children, which naturally destabilizes everything. Why has this happened? What does it mean? Is it a real change?

Oh yeah, and given the title, I should also mention the servants: Bullivant, the butler; Mrs. Selden, the cook; George, the footman; and Miriam, the maid (the impulse to picture them as equivalent characters from Downton Abbey is overwhelming but generally inappropriate, though Bullivant may well look--though not act--a lot like Carson). They have their own role and their own dramas, but they're certainly not the focus of the novel, and the title doesn't seem terribly apposite.

You're not going to get an idea of Compton-Burnett, however, if you don't know how it's written. As it happens, though she isn't allergic to descriptions and stage directions, the vast bulk of the novel (and all her novels, I am given to believe) is dialogue (I was sometimes reminded of William Gaddis' J.R., though C-B is certainly less self-consciously abstruse). Not only that, but it's extremely stylized dialogue: everyone, be they upper-class adults, children, or servants, talks in a very similar, elegantly sophisticated way that would likely pose a lot of problems to even an advanced ESL student. But that's not all. What really makes this book stand out--to me--is how people talk about things. Boy, how vague a description is that? To be specific, there's no subtext or things-left-unsaid here. Sure, people keep secrets and deceive each other, but if there's something to say, they will say it. So, for instance, when they realize that Horace has had this change of heart and therefore it wouldn't be right to take the children away, Charlotte and Mortimer will totally tell him, "hey, we were going to run off together and take your kids 'cause you were such a jerk, but now that you're being less of a jerk, that's clearly off the table." I have...never seen anything quite like it.

SO DOES ALL THIS WORK? Well, it does for me. I found it gripping, and Compton-Burnett has an appealing dry wit, which really helps. The ending, which doesn't feel super-conclusive, definitely leaves one with a lot to think about re these tangled issues of whether this kind of sudden repentance is really feasible; and the influence that the past retains over people, whether or not things have--allegedly--changed. I'll tell you, though, if you look at reader reviews on places like goodreads, you will see that people who don't like C-B really fucking hate her, and the main reason for this hatred is this very stylization which to me makes the book interesting. PEOPLE DON'T TALK LIKE THAT!!!!111 Fair enough; I can see how it wouldn't be for everyone. But a lot of these reviews also seem to be under the impression that there's such a thing as a novel that's not stylized--that, somehow, there's an objectively normal or correct way of depicting a world in words. To which I say: PSHAW! Is this related to the popular belief that the only people who somehow don't have accents are the ones who talk like I do?

Anyway, I liked Manservant and Maidservant a lot. It certainly fulfilled my central artistic criterion: it gave me a new kind of aesthetic experience. I'm not likely to try to devour Compton-Burnett's entire oeuvre, but I would not put it past myself to read another book or two of hers at some point.


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