More good books: Manservant and Maidservant

I had hoped to post on Ivy Compton-Burnett’s novel Manservant and Maidservant in time for the Slaves of Golconda group read, but I didn’t get the book read on time and was on vacation anyway. But I wanted to write about it at least briefly. It’s kind of an odd book, in a good way, and it made me think a lot about dialogue and conversation. The book has tons of dialogue in it and much of it struck me as the sort of conversation you wouldn’t hear in real life. But I don’t think this is necessarily a bad thing. It seems to me there is a kind of novelistic dialogue that is unrealistic in a bad way — painfully awkward, stilted, florid, dull, etc. But there is a kind of unrealistic dialogue that is … interesting and that serves some larger point. I’m not entirely sure what the larger point here is, but somehow the dialogue, strange as it sometimes is, reveals important truths about the characters and gets ideas out on the page in a dramatic way.

The novel has a very tight focus — one main family with children and servants, one other family and a couple other characters and that’s it. The book is made up of conversations and some narration to connect all the talk. There is little context — little description of places, no historical or social background, not much but talk and internal conflict. This means that we are thrown into the world of relationships.

It’s the fact that these relationships are so interesting that makes this book work. As you would guess from the title, master/servant relationships are a big focus; the servants argue amongst themselves about their status relative to each other and also to their employers. The family gossips and worries about what the servants are doing. But the biggest source of conflict comes from the father, Horace Lamb, who terrorizes his wife, his cousin, his servants, and his five children. He makes their lives miserable through his miserliness, pestering, and suspicion. The novel’s plot lies in the telling of how the family responds to this abuse. What was so fascinating is that it captures little interactions between people in a way that seems perfectly true to life, even if the dialogue does not. It portrays jealousy, anger, sadness, suspicion, love, regret, hope, disappointment, and much else in a manner I don’t think I’ve seen in a novel before.

I wonder, though, about my claim that the dialogue is unrealistic. The number of people I have talked to or overheard in my life is very, very small compared to the number of people out there talking, so who am I to say that people don’t really talk that way?


Filed under Books, Fiction

6 responses to “More good books: Manservant and Maidservant

  1. I’ve only read one Ivy Compton-Burnett but have been meaning to read more by her for years. Judging from what you and Stefanie had to say about this one, it sounds quite similar to the one I read (A House and Its Head), being full of dialogue, as well as a father who is tyrannical, if I’m remembering correctly (that must be a repeated theme in her books).


  2. I agree that the dialogue in the book is unrealistic, especially from the children. I don’t think it is unfair to say that people don’t talk that way. But people don’t really sound in real life like they do when they talk in novels anyway. Novelists sometimes sound like that, but well, they don’t count 😉


  3. I’m so intrigued by this novel, and was hoping you would write about it! Sounds like an intriguing mix of tradition & experiment; I think I’ll give it a try. I know what you mean (I think) about the unconvincing dialogue that just sounds bad, versus the dialogue whose oddity serves some kind of function.


  4. I’m afraid I didn’t get this one read. I started it but it felt disorienting to me to be just dropped into the middle of a conversation and I felt a little lost. It seemed that I would read and read but not make any progress in the book. I do want to read Ivy Compton Burnett and will try this one again, but I think I need to be in the right mood for it. I do like how you describe it–maybe I just didn’t stick with it long enough.


  5. Not having seen the book, I’m wondering if the author uses so many words when sometimes a facial expression or gesture by the speaker would help the writing feel more realistic? So much of our communication is nonverbal, and I would imagine that if you only tried to use words in place of other things, how tough going it would be to read.


  6. Emily B. — interesting. It seems likely that she explores that theme in a number of places and uses that structure often as well. I’d be curious to read more also.

    Stefanie — it would be interesting to read a close comparison between how people talk in real life and how they talk in novels. I suppose novelists clean up all the stops and starts and repetitions of real-life talk. It would be highly annoying if they didn’t, right?

    Emily — I would love to know what you make of it, especially the dialogue. The book does feel experimental to me. I suppose the writer she most reminds me of is Henry Green, and the two were writing about the same time. Both of them move their story along largely through dialogue.

    Danielle — it does take some time to get into the book, and I found it a little slow as well. But I suppose I liked the dialogue enough to keep going, and I stopped trying to understand every nuance of what everyone said, which felt impossible. It’s the kind of book you have to adjust your expectations a bit to enjoy, I think. I’m curious how you will like her the next time you pick her up!

    Debby — good question. I’m trying to remember how much description of gesture and facial expression she includes. I don’t think she includes a whole lot. In that sense, it’s a lot like reading drama — you have to fill in the blanks a little bit.


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