Staffed by domestic servants who all sleep under the mansions’ roofs, run to rigid timetables, and organized into hierarchies over which parental figures have absolute control, these traditional stately homes reflect Victorian family life at its most crushing. While this world is modeled on that of Compton-Burnett’s own large and troubled Victorian family, the houses of her fiction are even larger and more traditional than the house in which the author herself lived. The enlargement and enhancement of her own childhood house enabled Compton-Burnett to use her mansions symbolically rather than literally–they became microcosms of Victorian society. This is particularly the case because Compton-Burnett almost completely dispenses with description, instead preferring dialogue to further her narrative.
In Mother and Son, a large Victorian household is presided over by the typically autocratic matriarch Miranda Hume. The presence of easily cowed servants in the house and the imperious manner of Miranda suggest that she feels that she is entitled by a kind of natural law to her present position of power. That Miranda is the unassailable mistress of an intimidated and discontented group of family and servants is, for Miranda, part of the Victorian way of life and is not subject to question.
The solidity and prosperity of the house itself gives Miranda a status that makes it impossible for those who live there to interpret her behavior as psychopathic or criminal. Instead, Miranda successfully represents herself as a model of Victorian probity, whose severity should be an occasion for praise rather than interrogation. Because of her domestic tyranny, the house gives an impression of complete discomfort–an atmosphere of fear, anxiety, and even madness prevails, punctuated only by the malicious teasing of the younger children, whose satiric jibes are the only defense they have against Miranda and her rigid domestic rule.
Ultimately, the house stands for the hypocritical and authoritarian social structure of Victorian society, and especially the Victorian family. As the parental authority, Miranda bullies and intimidates her family remorselessly, especially her own son Rosebery. Believing utterly in her godlike powers of omniscience, Miranda actually dies of shock when she is confronted with family secrets of which she has been previously unaware. These concern her husband’s sexual activities, which resulted in the birth of three illegitimate children who also live in the household. When Miranda’s husband tells her about his sex life, one could say that he literally murders his wife with the truth. A further devastating disclosure reveals the secret, illegitimate parentage of Rosebery himself. Driven by biological imperatives and instincts, Miranda from the start forges a twisted bond between herself and her son that deliberately excludes Rosebery’s ostensible father. In the end, the real nature of Miranda and her family cannot be covered over by its surface of Victorian domestic respectability.
Emma Greatheart’s house. This neighboring house in which Emma Greatheart lives is of secondary importance in the narrative. In contrast with Miranda’s house, Emma’s home is more welcoming. Although also a traditional Victorian home, it is a happy one precisely because it is free of the family structure imposed by Miranda and of the weight of Victorian tradition. Emma and her two friends live happily free of marriage and family, in contradistinction to the Hume household, which is exposed as a venue for loveless power struggles in which humanity’s darker instincts are given free reign.