Last Updated on May 10, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 882
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 depths of unenlightened selfishness than she did in ELDERS AND BETTERS. There, Anna Donne, from the first to the last page, is an unswerving egomaniac portrayed with devastating vividness. She treats the servants like members of the family and the members of the family like servants. She never forgets that Nature is ruthless in tooth and claw or feels that anyone but herself will serve her own interest. Anna’s one accidental act of kindness to dying Aunt Sukey does not prevent her from destroying her will that would keep Anna from an inheritance. With ruthless believability, she drives Sukey’s sister to suicide, marries her son, and even wins Aunt Sukey’s rings as a token of her esteem without a faint sign of remorse. No one who has read ELDERS AND BETTERS can be surprised by dictators or overcome the terrifying knowledge that they are a fact of nature.
In the beginning of BULLIVANT AND THE LAMBS, Horace Lamb seems quite as horrifying as Anna. He tyrannizes through parsimony. An extra cutlet on the dinner table, a coal more than is needful for minimum comfort on the fire, and he is full of righteous indignation that encompasses his five children, his wife, his mother, and his servants. Only Bullivant, his butler, can accept his awfulness calmly, because he is a factualist like Compton-Burnett. He accepts even what he cannot account for and judges no one because he does not believe he or anyone else could bear to be judged. Horace Lamb does not love his children, who nevertheless maintain a precocious capacity to be witty in desperation, nor does he allow them a chance he can prevent to adjust to life normally (although somehow they do, like some citizens of totalitarian states).
Because of his ubiquitous awfulness, his wife intends to run away with his cousin so that both she and the children can escape a situation that never shows any indication it will grow less unbearable. No one can blame her. When Horace learns that his wife is to leave him and understands why, he nevertheless changes; these actions are both believable and praiseworthy. The children get new clothes and are urged to eat what they will. The house is kept warm, and there are no complaints about the coal it requires. Horace shows his affection so demonstratively that his children (always as delightfully candid and witty as any of Compton-Burnett’s characters here and elsewhere) become amusedly uncomfortable. He even forgives George, Bullivant’s helper, for an unsuccessful plot on his life. That both characters and the reader come to love him almost—especially if they can see with Mr. Bullivant and Cook the pathetic phoniness his character imposes upon him while he is a tyrant and when he changes to a benevolent dictator—is one of the finest triumphs of Compton-Burnett’s art. It also marks the beginning of a new phase in her work, for, from BULLIVANT AND THE LAMBS on through A GOD AND HIS GIFTS, published in 1963, Compton-Burnett’s vivid factualism presents plentifully the sensational capacity for “evil” that inheres in all of her characters that matter, an ability to bear themselves without totally editing their true selves out of consciousness.
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