Manservant and Maidservant is so different from anything I’ve read – classic or contemporary – that I struggled with it at first (though that may also have been due to the tiny font and yellowing paper of my ancient library copy). I’m so glad I persevered.
Although it was published in 1947, the novel is set some fifty years earlier. It tells the story of the Lamb family. Horace Lamb is a petty tyrant in his own household, though he in turn is beholden to his wife’s wealth. His dependent cousin, Mortimer, his five children and their servants are all bound by his whims. Then Horace discovers something that makes him change his ways.
The novel has on first impression the feel of a drawing-room drama. Most of the ‘scenes’ are set indoors, many of them in the Lamb house. The chapters are long, and there are no white spaces to denote change of time or place, which can bring you up short when there is a sudden shift.
It is largely written in highly stylised dialogue – beautifully constructed sentences, effortless aphorisms and words weighted with irony and ambiguity are awarded to every character, children included.
But the artifice, paradoxically, highlights the emotion of the writing. There is a subtle and fierce compassion, and an unflinching eye on the small cruelties and humiliations within the household.
There is a careful dissection of the psychology of the characters: the conservatism of the senior servants, the rebellion of George, the recruit from the orphanage who refuses to be grateful for his place in the hierarchy and rages against the confinement of his life.
Mortimer could be despised for his refusal to make his own way in life, but his self-awareness and compassion to others makes him far more complicated. Miss Buchanan, the shopkeeper who is ashamed that she cannot read, isolates herself by giving barbed responses to anyone who tries to gain her trust.
Manservant and Maidservant feels oddly contemporary with its minimal exposition and distinctive voice. The combination of craft and complexity reminds me of the best TV box sets. Some criticise the novel’s ‘unrealistic’ dialogue, but I don’t suppose the people of Kentucky speak at all times with the lyrical beauty and dark philosophy of the characters in Justified.
This is a book that requires effort and attention but it is rewarded. It doesn’t distract with big plot twists or an epic sweep. It anatomises one small corner of the world, and in so doing gives you everything.