The first thing that strikes the reader of Ivy Compton-Burnett’s novels is that they are written almost entirely in dialogue, with the merest stage directions to place people or indicate who is speaking. This was considered their innovation, the something “modern” about them when her first books were published in England in the 1920s, to growing acclaim. It also explains their difficulty. Their difficulty may in turn account for the fact that they were fashionable, and that they are not much read today, so that a new edition of Manservant and Maidservant may be for many readers an introduction to the works of this fascinating novelist.
Though she had published a novel at the age of twenty-seven, Compton-Burnett’s productive career did not begin until she was well into her forties; the much-praised Manservant and Maidservant, her eleventh novel, came out in England in 1947 when she was over sixty. It was the first of her novels to be published in postwar America, under the title Bullivant and the Lambs (the publisher fearing, perhaps, that references to maids and footmen might seem too undemocratic or too old-fashioned), and was instantly successful here as well.
To address, first, the modernity that was claimed for her novels by early critics: they were seen as “post-Impressionist,” and compared to the paintings of Cézanne. (“Post-Impressionism, indeed!” says E.M. Forster’s Mr. Fielding. “Come along to tea. This world is getting too much for me altogether.”) Today postImpressionism seems an even more ambiguous term, meaning, perhaps, no more than innovative, a reputation Compton-Burnett still maintains. But now we can see that these novels are more clearly rooted in Victorian literature, especially the late Victorian theater, than related to the modernist literary impulses of people of Compton-Burnett’s age, like James Joyce or Virginia Woolf, or to younger writers like Evelyn Waugh who were publishing at the same time as she. Her stylized repartee can remind one of Oscar Wilde, and is more directly the forebear of, say, Harold Pinter, than of the British novels of today. Her preoccupations too are Victorian: the destructive force of tyranny in all its forms, especially tyrannical parents; stifling family relations; shattering glimpses into the fragile accommodations of the seemingly solid nineteenth-century social structure.
The utterances in her work that were at first received as witty asperities are in fact revelations of a world of pain and cruelty that few writers have dealt with so straightforwardly, or, it must be said, obsessively. Recent biographies of Compton-Burnett suggest that her novels, seemingly so stylized, were more realistic than they seem and must have borne considerable resemblance to the facts of her life, especially its dramatic family configuration.
The dreaded Victorian burden of fertility shadows her work, with its ample casts of characters, as it did the Compton-Burnett family. Ivy was born in 1884, the seventh child of a London doctor, and the first child of her mother, Katharine, who was the second wife of this paterfamilias and who would …