The reader is suddenly dropped in on the Lamb family arguing over a smoking fire. Very quickly we learn that Horace, the head of the family is a tightwad who allows only the smallest of fires, the cheapest of food, and keeps his five children in rags. The house belongs to the Lamb family but they have no money, the money belongs to Charlotte, Horace's wife. Also living in the house is Mortimer, a penniless cousin of Horace's who grew up in the house, and Emilia, Horace's aunt, also without income. Charlotte gave control of her money to Horace when they married and Horace rather prides himself on not touching the principal and managing to live frugally off the interest as well as having some to reinvest. Everyone, however, is miserable and Charlotte has had enough. She and Mortimer are planning to run away together.
Also in the house are the servants. Bullivant is the head house servant and Mrs. Seldon is the head cook. Each has an assistant George and Miriam respectively. George was born in the workhouse and Bullivant is trying mightily in a domineering sort of way to shape the boy up and turn him into a younger version of himself. However, George will have none of it. Miriam came from the orphanage and Mrs. Seldon is trying to shape her up into a younger version of herself as well. Mrs. Seldon uses a sharp tongue and the fear of God and has somewhat better success than Bullivant but only because Miriam is generally more compliant and without ambition. And of course, as is the usual in houses with servants, the servants know everything that is going on in the family even when all the family members don't know.
The book feels at once old and modern. Published in 1947, the story has an end of the Victorian era sensibility to it. It is clear from the gulf between Bullivant and George that times are changing. George has ambitions to get ahead. He frustrates Bullivant endlessly for refusing to accept his place in the servant class. Unfortunately for George, his ambition doesn't quite match his intelligence. Or perhaps it is a lack of skill and resources that hold him back and direct his energies into troublesome paths.
At the same time that it feels old fashioned, it feels modern. Not the story itself but the way that it is written. The book is almost entirely dialog. There is hardly anything in the way of expository narrative except the barest of directions to indicate who is speaking and where the speaker is located. There are no transitions between scenes; at one moment we are in the drawing room at the Lamb's and the next we are in the kitchen or at the grocery store of Mrs. Buchanan. It is sometimes rather disorienting. However, in a way, it puts the reader in the story, as if we are a silent servant overhearing all the various conversations. As a character in the story we do not have benefit of a narrative except the one we create for ourselves, just like in life. Life is all dialog and we create the narrative for ourselves, the stories to make sense of it all.
This style makes for difficult reading, not only is it hard to follow as I mentioned, but the reader remains on the outside, we are not able to get inside any of the character's heads. Compton-Burnett makes up a bit for this by having the characters say things and have conversations that bothered me at first. No one talks like that! Unfortunately I can't seem to find a passage to illustrate what I mean without making it long and providing quite a lot of explanation.
I suppose Manservant and Maidservant can be called a drawing room drama as well as a comedy of manners. There is no real plot, yet quite a lot happens. One of the characters sums it up nicely:
I suppose a good deal happens in daily life," said Charlotte. "We only have to look at what is near to us, to find the drama of existence. It seems such a pity that that is so."
And just as we began the book in the midst of a conversation about a smoking fire, we end the book in the midst of a conversation of a smoking fire. As far as everything in between, some things get resolved and some things do not. Just as there are no neat and tidy beginnings in life there are no neat and tidy endings either. The past is always with us and continually cycles around and intrudes upon the present and the future.
Cross posted at So Many Books