(Masterpieces of British Fiction)

The eleventh of Ivy Compton-Burnett’s novels shows her remarkable ability to dramatize fully the complicated relationships that arise in a family where master, servants, children, and relatives know nearly everything about one another and their accepted interconnections. BULLIVANT AND THE LAMBS, published in England as MANSERVANT AND MAIDSERVANT, is at the same time the novel that represents best Compton-Burnett’s ability to create children, servants, and their masters involved melodramatically in a meaningful interpretation of life’s inevitable strange turnings and the novel that shows first her modification of her earlier view that human nature rarely changes for the better. One cannot say, of course, that Compton-Burnett ever denied man’s ability to alter as well as edit himself. Still, it is true that the novels preceding BULLIVANT AND THE LAMBS are most frequently an exploration in depth of the quantity of evil men can bear equably in themselves and others. All of them, from PASTORS AND MASTERS, published in 1925, through ELDERS AND BETTERS, which appeared in 1944, show characters in apparently self-satisfied, self-centered action in which they may conceal but not change their “good” or “bad” natures. As one of the characters in A FAMILY AND A FORTUNE, published in 1939, says, it is impossible to choose the pattern we follow and so, if we are wise, we must, like the author—and for a very unbiblical reason—judge not lest we be judged. Most of us have committed or wished to commit major sins; indeed, as ELDERS AND BETTERS made evident with particular vividness, those who are without sin are condemned to a virtue that is too pallid to be admirable and too unavoidable to be admired.

Perhaps it was the extremity of her portrayal of “evil” in ELDERS AND BETTERS that impelled Compton-Burnett to show the possibility of change for an apparent better in BULLIVANT AND THE LAMBS. Certainly, in her preoccupation with cold fact, she had not turned to it in her novels. Nevertheless, it is difficult to see how she could have gone further in the portrayal of the...

(The entire section is 882 words.)