Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 773
Horace Lamb, the middle-aged head of a British household of gentry. He is tyrannical, domineering, selfish, ruthless, pompous, and humorless. In the face of his difficulties in supporting a menage of family and relatives, he is avaricious. He has married Charlotte for her money in an effort to preserve his position. He strives to economize to save his estate, while his wife, feeling powerless, pretends not to notice. Meanwhile, Horace denies his household basic material comforts—heat, food, and proper clothing—because his commitment is to the past, his property and heritage, rather than to his future, that is, his children. His conception of serving his dependents involves sacrifice on their part, not on his. Horace is always suspicious of them and their motives. He ostensibly reforms in the wake of three brushes with death and his wife’s planned elopement with his own cousin, Mortimer, who shares his household. His change of heart may be genuine and permanent, or it may merely be a strategy to outmaneuver the others.
Charlotte Lamb, Horace’s fifty-year-old wife, who has no faith in herself as spouse or mother. She married Horace for love, hoping to fulfill herself. Charlotte is a good woman, and her plan to leave Horace now is motivated more by her desire to provide her children with a happier home than by her love for Mortimer Lamb. On her return from a long voyage, she finds a “reformed” Horace and castigates him for his past behavior.
Mortimer Lamb, Horace’s dependent, fifty-four-year-old cousin, a good but ineffectual man. He resents his situation as well as Horace’s harshness and constant efforts to economize, especially by keeping the house chilly to save coal. Mortimer is attracted to Horace despite the latter’s tyrannical rule, and he recognizes that he needs his cousin. After his aborted elopement with Charlotte Lamb, he consents to wed Magdalen Doubleday, the sister of the Lamb children’s tutor, Gideon Doubleday. Mortimer discovers that Magdalen had deliberately placed a compromising letter in Horace’s way, thereby warning Horace of Mortimer’s relationship with Charlotte. On learning of her deviousness, Mortimer abandons his plans to marry Magdalen.
Bullivant, the late-middle-aged butler who, with his preaching, cunning, and bullying, dominates the other menials “downstairs” just as Horace Lamb lords it over his household “upstairs.” Bullivant is pompous but also humorous, mischievous, curious, and good-hearted, especially to women. His extreme articulateness, with many circumlocutions and clever turns of phrase, is unusual for an individual of his standing and bespeaks verbal skill beyond that of his employers. Although Bullivant holds witty conversations, especially with Mortimer Lamb, he is sententious with the servants. Bullivant is extremely efficient and unruffled by the worst crises. He is fanatically loyal to the Lamb family. Bullivant strives to justify Horace’s scrimping, mean-souled tight-fistedness. The butler also evidences infinite patience in explaining the meaning of hierarchy and the matter of status to Miriam Biggs, the kitchen maid at the bottom of the menials’ pecking order, and to George, the houseboy. In this endeavor, Bullivant is assisted by the nonconformist, hymn-singing cook, Mrs. Selden.
Miss Buchanan, a taciturn but humorous woman who owns a general store and runs a private post office in the nearby village. She keeps mostly to herself to guard the secret (uncovered by George, the rebellious houseboy) that she is illiterate. Miriam Biggs, the ungainly sixteen-year-old scullery maid, offers to teach Miss Buchanan to read.
George, the houseboy born in the workhouse, an obstreperous youth. Unlike Miriam the maid, George refuses to accept his status. His sole ambition is to rise above his menial station, in any way possible, without necessarily offering anything in return. He steals food and removes the warning sign from a dangerous bridge over a ravine so that Horace Lamb might be killed.
Sarah (aged thirteen),
Tamasin (ten), and
Avery (seven), Horace and Charlotte Lamb’s children. Horace intrudes into their lives by demanding their obedience to his arbitrary and petty rules. Except for Tamasin, who harbors some affection for her father, the other children fear and despise him. They voice their resentment of Horace’s oppression and unfair treatment, even as he portrays himself as a devoted and selfless parent. Although Horace deprives his children of creature comforts, his chosen form of abuse is psychological. Marcus and Jasper fail to warn their father of the defective bridge that Horace is about to cross, speculating that they might be better off if he were dead. Their father, however, escapes harm once again.