Ivy Compton-Burnett’s great subject is the family. Herself the product of a large and exceedingly dysfunctional Victorian family, she drew on her own experiences to explore the nature of the family as a social unity, addressing the ways in which parents tyrannize their children and how the children respond to such treatment. She also looks at the ways in which even dysfunctional families negotiate their relationships with the outside world and the fictions they construct to conceal and deceive the observer.
Mother and Son is dominated by the relationship between the autocratic Miranda Hume and her son, Rosebery. Initially, it is not clear to the reader whether Rosebery is in fact her son or her husband, such is the closeness between them. The introduction of Julius as her husband settles the legal relationship, but the emotional relationship remains unclear. Such is Miranda’s regard for Rosebery, her desire to have him close to her, that one begins to think in terms of some kind of emotional incest. For his own part, Rosebery seems to be content to remain close to his mother, but his motives are not entirely clear.
While both mother and son firmly emphasize that Rosebery is a confirmed bachelor, which is often social shorthand for a closeted gay man or a man in denial about his homosexuality, it is noticeable that as soon as his mother’s back is turned, Rosebery becomes deeply attentive to any woman in his vicinity. It remains unclear whether he is simply habituated to behaving in such a way because of his mother’s influence or whether he wants to establish a relationship with a woman his own age. Nonetheless, Rosebery insists on escorting Miss Burke back to the village after her unsuccessful interview. Later, he takes tea with Hester Wolsey when she first arrives at the house, before the rest of the family returns home. This seemingly insignificant event—having tea—is given extra resonance by the way in which Rosebery takes an almost illicit pleasure in rearranging things to his own taste. It also resonates by revealing that although his mother always serves him sugared tea, he prefers it without.
Miranda’s subsequent discovery of this last fact takes on the nature of a crisis because it confirms that even her own son, kept close, can dissemble and keep secrets from her, something she finds intolerable. Secrets are always intolerable to Miranda, and...
(The entire section is 983 words.)