Places Discussed

(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)

Ninian Middleton’s house

Ninian Middleton’s house. Upper-class home in an unspecified English town of Ninian Middleton, a self-righteous widower who wants to take a new wife and provide his children with a stepmother. Most of the novel is set within this house, but the novel is nearly 90 percent dialogue that never describes it or any other place in any detail. Thus, while it is clear that the house has rooms, descriptions of them are limited to labels of their functions. For example, the house has a downstairs kitchen, a dining room, a hall, a cloak room, a school room, and at least one bedroom; other rooms can only be assumed to exist. The text contains occasional references to furniture, such as a table, a wastebasket, and a bed, but nothing else is described beyond the fact that the house stands in a garden, which is also not described. In any case, no significant action takes place in the garden, in which only Middleton’s youngest children play.

There is a village somewhere beyond the house, where Miss Starkie, the children’s governess and keenest observer of the family’s activities, lives. Only she and Ninian Middleton himself regularly leave the house.

In many respects, Middleton’s home is a cipher, simply a container for his family that seems to have little existence in its own right. Indeed, from the ways in which author Ivy Compton-Burnett opens chapters with little or no indication of their individual settings, or how much time has passed since previous chapters, readers might almost see the home as a dollhouse, whose front is open to view and whose characters are randomly moved from room to room like dolls, without regard for conventional human ways of moving around within a house. Significantly, however, many key moments in the...

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(Great Characters in Literature)

Baldanza, Frank. Ivy Compton-Burnett. New York: Twayne, 1964. Set in the context of the author’s biography and career, the novel is discussed in terms of characters, plot, and theme.

Karl, Frederick R. The Contemporary English Novel. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1962. Contains a chapter that delineates all of the important characteristics of Compton-Burnett’s novels: problems of Victorian and post-Victorian families, moral choices that involve material values, familial attachments and relationships, drawing room ethics, the roles of governesses and servants, and tragic and semitragic events.

Kiernan, Robert F. Frivolity Unbound: Six Masters of the Camp Novel. New York: Continuum, 1990. One of the masters is Compton-Burnett, her ironically formulaic banality is discussed.

Ross, Marlon B. “Contented Spinsters: Governessing and the Limits of Discursive Desire in the Fiction of Ivy Compton-Burnett.” In Old Maids to Radical Spinsters: Unmarried Women in the Twentieth-Century Novel, edited by Laura L. Doan. Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 1991. Discusses the role of governesses in the novels of Ivy Compton-Burnett. Miss Starkie and Selina Middleton fill the role in The Mighty and Their Fall.

West, Anthony. Principles and Persuasions: The Literary Essays of Anthony West. New York: Harcourt, Brace Jovanovich, 1957. An overall discussion of Compton-Burnett’s writing style and methodology.