(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

Loneliness is a recurring theme in the novel. Many of the characters lead solitary lives and depend upon Father Tim and friends for emotional support. Father Tim is lonely, too. Through prayer, he maintains a close spiritual relationship with God, but at mealtimes and in the evenings, he imagines how much richer life would be if he had a wife. He neglects his house and his health and appearance until Emma and the vestry hire Puny, a housekeeper, to look after him. The big, affectionate dog Barnabas and Dooley Barlowe become Father Tim's surrogate children, and he relies on his cousin Walter, Hal and Marge, and Cynthia for adult companionship.

Miss Sadie is lonely in her Fernbank mansion. She eats Swanson's frozen chicken pies and apples from her orchard. With Father Tim, she reminisces about her happy childhood and youth, when she met Willard Porter in Paris and fell in love. After her father forbade their marriage, she isolated herself from social activities. The arrival of Louella, her childhood playmate and servant, renews her energy and inspires her to contribute money for a retirement home.

Dooley Barlowe has watched his mother sink into alcoholism and neglect his younger brothers and sisters. He kept the family together and looked after the little ones until the day that his mother gave them away "like candy." Dooley lives with Russell Jacks, his maternal grandfather, until the old man is hospitalized. His experiences make him an aggressive, hostile boy who trusts no one. At school, he has fights; he is rude and stubborn. Father Tim slowly wins his confidence, and Dooley finds security at Meadowgate Farm with Hal and Marge and their new baby.

Uncle Billy is especially lonely, having lived for many years with Rose, a schizophrenic. Her eccentric clothing and behavior isolate them from others in the community. Because Uncle Billy knows that Father Tim will welcome them, they "crash" his dinner party and enjoy the food and conversation. For once, Rose behaves: she does not disparage Uncle Billy or comment unfavorably on the food or guests.

Another recurring theme is the revelation of secret lives. Placid on the surface, Mitford is a setting for hidden conflicts. For instance, Miss Sadie Baxter notices that Olivia Davenport resembles a photograph of her mother. Later, Louella confides to Father Tim that Sadie Baxter's mother had a child out of wedlock, who later became Olivia's mother....

(The entire section is 996 words.)