Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 599
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.
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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 dying, Ransom devises a trick on Ninian that is designed to reveal Ninian’s honesty—or lack thereof. Ransom writes two wills, one in which Ninian is named chief benefactor and the other naming Lavinia. Ransom asks Ninian to burn the will that lists Ninian as chief inheritor of Ransom’s estate. Ninian fails the moral test. Ransom reveals all to the family. Thus, it is proved that the father is as morally reprehensible as both Ransom and Lavinia.
Ransom dies, leaving his wealth to Lavinia. Lavinia and Hugo, Ninian’s adopted brother and Lavinia’s uncle, are to be married. All are in a state of shock, although it is well established that the two are not blood kin. Selina, mother to Ninian and Hugo, then claims that Hugo is a family member by blood. Specifically, that the dead father had brought Hugo home as a bastard son and that Ninian and Hugo are half-brothers. Hugo, professing his love for the now-rich Lavinia, insists that the story is not true. He departs to investigate. Shortly, he returns with proof that Selina is lying and that he is not a blood member of the family. Thus, all is cleared for the wedding.
Selina devises her own plan to control the event from beyond the grave. She, too, has become sick to the point of death; she writes a will in which she makes Hugo her chief benefactor. Upon her death, Hugo succeeds to great sums of money. He decides that he does not want to marry, after all, because he likes his life of debauchery and bachelorhood too much. Lavinia is then welcomed back into the family, since it is agreed that her own treachery in hiding the letter is certainly no greater than her father’s in burning the will, in Selina’s for telling the lie about Hugo’s birth, or in Hugo’s for being so quickly and manifestly bought off from love with money. All of the mighty family members are fallen, a fact commented upon by the servants in the kitchen.