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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 726

Miss Burke, who has applied for the post of paid companion to Miranda Hume, finds her so rude and overbearing that she feels obliged to refuse to continue the interview with the rigid and autocratic potential employer. Instead, Miss Burke blunders into the neighboring house and accepts a position as...

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Miss Burke, who has applied for the post of paid companion to Miranda Hume, finds her so rude and overbearing that she feels obliged to refuse to continue the interview with the rigid and autocratic potential employer. Instead, Miss Burke blunders into the neighboring house and accepts a position as a housekeeper to Emma Greatheart, who lives with her cat, Plautus, and her old schoolfriend, Hester Wolsey. However, Hester feels forced by economic necessity to get a job, despite her friend’s willingness to provide support, and applies for the still-available position as companion to the austere and forbidding Miranda. Hester is given the position without an interview.

Although Miranda continues to fail in health, she still finds the strength to bully and intimidate her family. Her general hostility excludes, however, her son, Rosebery, on whom she dotes and who remains loyal instead of striking out on his own. However, her husband, Julius, prefers the three children of his late brother—Francis, Alice, and Adrien—who have become his wards. Their alienation from Miranda’s regime, reflected in their bitter jokes, is a marked contrast to the behavior of Rosebery, who basks in his role as his mother’s favorite. As Miranda’s health declines further, Hester is drawn deeper into the family circle.

At a moment when Miranda is particularly unwell, her husband decides to confess that he is in reality not the guardian but the father of the three younger children. Miranda, who has based her life on a belief in her own godlike omniscience, dies as a consequence of the shock and fury she feels at the thought of her husband’s secret past. The confession of Julius, which can be said to have been a murder weapon, and Miranda’s consequent death are witnessed by both the appalled Rosebery and the keenly interested Hester.

Hester is also present when Rosebery learns a second secret. In a letter that Miranda had kept hidden, Rosebery discovers that Julius is not his birth father and that he is the product of an earlier liaison on Miranda’s part. In short order, Rosebery sees both of his respectable Victorian parents exposed as adulterers. On an unconscious level, however, the parents seem to have known all along. The loyalty of Miranda and Julius has always been to their own gene pools, which they have privileged over other bonds, exposing their animal cunning and their human narcissism. However, Rosebery achieves a moment of nobility in surrendering his rights to Julius’s estate, in favor of Julius’s birth family.

Miranda’s death becomes the occasion for rejoicing among the younger children and the occasion for sorrow on the part of Rosebery. Hester finds herself under pressure to assume Miranda’s position within the household. Recovering from his grief with suspicious haste, however, Rosebery immediately proposes to Hester, who declines, hoping instead to marry Julius. Hester becomes infuriated when Julius proposes to Emma and when Rosebery proposes to Miss Burke. Overcome by feelings of jealousy and envy, it suits Hester’s purpose at this time to reveal the Hume family secrets concerning the paternity of Rosebery and the other children. These revelations bring Miss Burke and Emma to their senses.

Emma and Hester return to their original domestic arrangement, with the addition of the helpful Miss Burke. They remain free from marriages that promised more convenience than love, but they have learned much that was distressing about human nature. The antics of their cat, Plautus, who brings, as a gift, a mouse he has captured, indicate to them the predatory, selfish animal instincts that simmer beneath the respectable appearances of the two households.

At the Hume household, Julius and Rosebery are left without mature female companionship. Instead of having a wife and family of his own, Rosebery continues to live in his mother’s house. He spends his time teaching the children the games his mother had taught him. The younger children, whose teasing, especially of their servants, can be sadistic, receive from Rosebery some of the affection that had been lacking in their relationship with Miranda. Although Rosebery briefly considers doing so, he does not leave the domestic sphere for a new life in the outside world. Instead, he takes Miranda’s place at home, although he also expresses a wish to find and meet his real father.

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