The terror of Compton-Burnett’s Manservant and Maidservant is not the terror of tyranny, as the blurb by Edward Sackville-West supposes, and the cover photographs of Rachel Whiteread’s negative casts of internal spaces are much too simplistic metaphors for the content of Ivy’s novels. The tyrannical father presiding over the social space of the Victorian family unit may be the figure drawn by the novel, but it is drawn with mirrors, colored glass, and light, not rigid plaster casts, and the canvas is not framed by an era.
Months ago, a co-worker asked me what I’d been reading lately, and I mentioned Muriel and Ivy. Recently, the same coworker asked me again. She said she’d read a few pages of one of them—couldn’t remember which—and found it much too confusing, that she’d had to reread those two or so pages to understand what was even happening. Ah; Ivy, I said, it must be Ivy. She should try Muriel, I said. Muriel goes down much easier. But Ivy! Yes, she can be obtuse—I told the anecdote of the editor who, nonplussed, explained to the novelist that she had forgotten to indicate that a character was talking on the telephone, to which she reacted by adding a ‘, he said.’
It is the terror and the comfort of relationships. The title of this book is mostly puzzling, until the last chapter. Until the last chapter, the servants, while prominent, do not reveal much.
The guest seemed uncertain of her purpose in coming, and he [Bullivant] resolved her doubt.
“You bethought yourself of our situation, Miss Buchanan, and came to say the word of a friend.”
“And so did the action of one,” said Cook.
Miss Buchanan sat down, as if doing so meant consent, and in her case it did.
The terror is balanced by its comforts, our submission to it, and the weight it takes from us. Bullivant has served for decades, as has Cook, and each tries to teach, respectively, the young George and Miriam the way of servitude. George gags on his medicine, and Miriam seems not ever to have had to think about swallowing.
There is a one-star review of this book on Amazon. The disappointed customer’s most specific complaint, as I remember, is that the children do not speak at all like children. But the adults, for that matter, do not speak like adults. No one speaks like this. The characters operate only in their relationship to each other, and their speech reflects this. Every word (and every silence) affects the social setting, and so explaining what a character meant, or describing their reactions, when they are the expected ones, is pointless. This is the foundation of the strangeness of the children’s language. The common is common and assumed; the expected reactions of children are expected, and so Ivy need not bother with telling you of them. It is the uncommon that Ivy deals in, and the extremity of her setups—the introduction by Diane Johnson is right about Horace’s superior villainy, if not much else—produces such uncommonness with frightening ease (but so do most situations we face, and we rely on social standards to pass over it). When George, late in the novel, makes a desperate, direct assertion of hypocrisy on his superior’s part, the response is laughter unexpected by all present (even by the two laughing, I believe). Where most novelists would give at least a sentence, if not a paragraph or a page, to the feeling of shameful inconsequence such a reaction would prompt in the accuser, Ivy does not even mention George. He does not reappear until the moment has passed and the topic changed.
Cousin Mortimer may be the funniest character I have ever had the pleasure of reading.
‘You told me not to write you, but I am never so malicious as to take people at their word. It is almost like telling them that they have made their bed and must lie on it. Thank you very much for your letter. It has broken my heart, but that is the natural result of the use of words. When human speech developed, it was a foregone thing. It allowed people to communicate their thoughts, and what else could come of that? And putting them on paper renders it a certainty. People can keep on returning to them.’
The “made their bed” bit is piquant because Mortimer has been excommunicated, if you will, and resides in a room in a boarding house arranged for him by Bullivant. A middle-aged bachelor, older than his brother Horace, Mortimer is dependent, and yet Horace would be nothing to depend on were it not for his money by marriage. Mortimer, unlike most, responds to his situation with wry acceptance (‘Thank you for your letter; it has broken my heart’). He cannot go anywhere but where he is put, so he do not go anywhere, and so he is amused by where he is.
It is one type of tyranny to expect all should act like George. It is another to expect all should act like Miriam. It is another to expect all should to act like Bullivant. It is another to expect all should act like Mortimer.