'Is that fire smoking?' said Horace Lamb.
'Yes, it appears to be, my dear boy.'
'I am not asking what it appears to be doing. I asked if it was smoking.'
'Appearances are not held to be a clue to the truth,' said his cousin. 'But we seem to have no other.'
Yes, I've been reading the strangely addictive Ivy Compton-Burnett again - who else would open a novel with such an exchange (the first of many, as it turns out, on the state of the fire)? The novel is Manservant and Maidservant, the author's personal favourite, written in 1947 and set in the 1880s. The speakers are Horace Lamb, domestic tyrant and cruel paterfamilias, and Mortimer, his dependent cousin (and the cause of the smoking fire is a dead jackdaw in the chimney). Mortimer is in love with Horace's wife and hopes to take her and the cruelly tyrannised children away from Horace. 'Horace,' ICB explains, 'had married her for her money, hoping to serve his impoverished estate, and she had married him for love, hoping to fulfil herself. The love had gone and the money remained, so that the advantage lay with Horace, if he could have taken so hopeful a view of life.'
There is a downstairs world also, to mirror, comment on and caricature the horrors of life upstairs, and there is even another household nearby, consisting of the young man who is tutor to the unhappy Lamb children, his ghastly mother who plumes herself on a resemblance to George Eliot, and his sister who will play a pivotal part in the plot - as will another subsidiary character, the illiterate woman who runs a poste restante service for letters the locals don't want delivered to their houses. An intercepted letter is crucial to the plot - as is the gloriously improbable contrivance of a nearby ravine with a broken footbridge across it. The author seems to be fully aware of the absurdity of her plot - it is part of the novel's dark comedy - and, as ever with ICB, everything that happens, all the real action and substance of the work, is in the dialogue, dialogue such as was never spoken (one hopes) by any living being. This dialogue - heightened, stylised and artfully wrought - is so fraught with nuances, with ulterior meanings and coded insults, that it has to be read, and often reread, with care; it is a minefield. Above stairs it is used chiefly to insult, manipulate and humiliate; below stairs the butler and cook pursue similar aims in an orotund, biblically inflected style; while in the nursery the children talk like wholly disenchanted, precociously wise and aware (they have to be) miniature adults.
But the funny thing about Ivy Compton-Burnett is that she is really, really... funny. It's a dark and painful kind of comedy, but comedy it undoubtedly is. Despite the invariable tendency of her fiction, ICB's imagination is essentially comic. She delivers, if you like, Beckett's risus purus - 'the laugh that laughs - silence please - at that which is unhappy'. And if one thing is certainly true of her work it is that there is nothing else in English fiction remotely like it. If you've never read her, brace yourself and take the plunge - Manservant and Maidservant would be a good place to start.