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. 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.