The Kitchen House

by Kathleen Grissom

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

Lavinia McCarten

Lavinia is the protagonist and one of the narrators of The Kitchen House. As a toddler, she is indentured to James Pyke when her parents die indebted to him. She is of Irish descent and initially has no memory of her family. She considers the African American servants of the Pyke estate her “real” family, given that she grows up under their care. After having been given a proper education by the Madden family in Philadelphia, Lavinia returns to the Pyke estate as Marshall Pyke’s bride. It is through her eyes that we see Marshall’s violent abuse of her and her family. Lavinia is a sensitive, agreeable woman—eventually, however, she learns to fight back.


Belle is one of the narrators of The Kitchen House. She is an African American servant of the Pyke estate and works at the kitchen house. Unbeknownst to the rest of the Pyke family, however, she is actually the illegitimate child of James Pyke. Unlike the rest of the house servants, she was taught how to read and write when she was young. Belle is a stubborn woman, and she is strongly opposed to her father’s wish to free her and send her to Philadelphia. She thinks of the Pyke estate and of the kitchen house as her home. It is through Belle’s eyes that we are given a deeper look into the sorrows and troubles of the Pyke servants.

James Pyke

James Pyke, or “the captain,” as he is often referred to in the book, is the head of the Pyke tobacco plantation. He was forty years old when he married Martha Madden, who was much younger than him at the time. As he is a merchant and trader, James Pyke is often away from his estate for months at a time. He is a fair, stern man, yet he remains indifferent to his servants’ condition. His decision to keep secret his parentage to Belle, for example, causes her great difficulties throughout her life.

Martha Pyke

Martha Pyke—or Miss Martha, as she is often referred to—comes from a well-off family in Philadelphia, the Maddens. As we learn through Lavinia’s eyes, Martha often experiences extreme loneliness in the Pyke estate, since the captain is always away. She has three children with the captain: Marshall, Sally, and Campell. Sally dies at a young age due to Marshall’s careless temper. Campbell, too, passes away from yellow fever soon thereafter. Martha begins to abuse opium as a means to cope with these losses. The loss of her children and the belief that Belle is her husband’s mistress leads to her addiction and gradual descent into madness.

Marshall Pyke

Marshall Pyke is the eldest son of James and Martha Pyke. He is the primary antagonist of The Kitchen House. As a child, Marshall is physically and sexually abused by his tutor, Mr. Waters. Marshall feels a deep hatred for African Americans, as he was taught to do so at a young age by Mr. Waters and Rankin, the estate overseer. Marshall mistakenly believes that Belle is his father’s mistress and angrily beats and rapes her when he is sixteen years old. After finishing his studies in Williamsburg, Marshall comes back to manage the Pyke estate. He is heavily abusive of his wife, Lavinia, and the servants. He also drinks heavily and gambles away the assets of the estate.

Mama Mae

Mama Mae is a middle-aged African American servant of the Pyke estate. She is the head of the kitchen house. All of the household servants at the Pyke estate see Mama Mae as a maternal figure, especially Belle. She looks out for her “family” and provides comfort and guidance to those in need. She also takes in Lavinia when she was first brought to the Pyke estate and raises her as one of her own. Even as Lavinia grows to be a woman, she continues to address Mama Mae as “Mama”. Mama Mae’s absolute loyalty to her family, however, leads to her unfortunate demise.

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