(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

To this polished, stodgy, upper-class British family replete with house servants and a governess, Ninian Middleton, the father, who is a widower, announces that he is engaged to marry Teresa Chilton. The news is ill-received by all, because the forthcoming event requires redefining family roles and relationships.

Teresa visits the family and conversation turns to such trivial matters as what the children should call their new stepmother. She is made to feel uncomfortable and unwanted by the family. After her visit, she writes a letter to Ninian saying that if he wants out of the engagement all he needs to do is ignore the letter; that is, not reply to it. Lavinia, in a misguided attempt to protect Ninian, hides the letter (not yet read by Ninian), which is not discovered for some ten days after Teresa’s appointed deadline. Ninian contacts Teresa and the two are married, but it remains a mystery as to which family member had hidden the letter. Eventually, it is revealed that Lavinia is the culprit. Ninian and other family members are ostensibly forgiving, but in truth they are not—Lavinia is to be made to live in her family as a sinner.

Ransom, Ninian’s younger brother, arrives home and reveals that he is terminally ill. Dying, he has taken a flat near Ninian’s house; he wants one of the children to come and live with him during his last days. He chooses Lavinia, because the two of them are the family’s appointed reprobates. Before...

(The entire section is 599 words.)