Places: The Mighty and Their Fall

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: 1961

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Domestic realism

Time of work: Mid-twentieth century

Places DiscussedNinian Middleton’s house

Ninian Mighty and Their Fall, TheMiddleton’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 narrative occur as characters enter or leave rooms, and the movement of the plot relies heavily on snatches of conversation overheard and then questioned through family discussion.

The Middleton house and Middleton family would seem to be synonymous, at least to Ninian Middleton, the head of the family. As his relationship with his children approaches a crisis point, he says to his mother, almost plaintively, that he should know the “temper of the house”; however, his frequent absence from the house either suggests that he does not know the house and its occupants, or that if he does recognize that the house is more of a prison than a home–particularly to his eldest daughter, Lavinia–he is content with the situation. Indeed, much of the book’s narrative, a merciless dissection of a claustrophobic and dysfunctional family, rests on Middleton’s complacent view of his family as his possession and consequent failure to see its constituent members as individuals, each with individual needs. To him his children can be treated as easily as models in a dollhouse.

Ransom Middleton’s house

Ransom Middleton’s house. Home of Ninian’s brother, Ransom Middleton, who has lived away from the rest of the family for many years for unspecified reasons. When he returns home to die, he chooses not to return to the family house but to a separate house that he has bought with the proceeds of his life’s work. This idea is novel to the Middleton family, whose members are accustomed to existing on income from their estate, dwindling though it is. Ransom Middleton recognizes, as does Miss Starkie and Teresa Chilton, Ninian Middleton’s new wife, that Ninian’s house is claustrophobic and inimical to a fully developed life. On learning that Lavinia tried to stop her father’s marriage by hiding letters from Teresa, Ransom takes Lavinia into his own house and makes provision for her future by rewriting his will in her favor, leaving her his house. Ransom’s house represents an escape for Lavinia, who will attempt to build a future for herself, including marriage to her adoptive uncle, Hugo. However, her father, Ninian, cannot accept this situation and attempts to destroy his brother’s will to ensure that Ransom’s house goes to him and is absorbed into his estate so that he can keep his family together, despite Lavinia’s wish to break free.

Like Ninian’s house, Ransom’s house is not described except by room function. Lavinia appears briefly in the house’s garden, but this scene is not described in detail.

BibliographyBaldanza, 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.
Categories: Places