Thoughts On A Novel
I read this book with great discomfort all the way through. I have a sense of having being conned. It was mentioned more than once in an Irish Times article Laugh in the time of Corona: Favourite funny books. It was also nominated for the Booker Prize in 1981, Hilary Mantel calls it an ‘overlooked classic’.
Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont, was also mentioned and I agree, there were many laugh out moments for me there and great compassion too, some recompense for the underlying sadness of a woman spending the end of her days in a hotel with strangers who become almost friends and the unexpected gift of a complicit friendship with a young man who makes up for an absent grandson.
In Molly Keane’s Good Behaviour, not only were there no laugh out loud moments, I may have grimaced all the way through. So utterly did I dislike the story and the characters, I questioned my understanding of the word behaviour, there wasn’t any good behaviour, even when the characters denied their true thoughts and said things to cover them, the behaviour remained appalling. The only exception being the maid Rose who kept the household going, working and caring her way through the narrative, shifting her alliances towards whichever household member required her attention.
The Anglo-Irish & Big Houses
Although Molly Keane was an Irish novelist and playwright, it felt like I was reading an old English novel and I saw many refer to her as Anglo-Irish, so I had to fill myself in on what that influence I could feel in the text was about. So for those like me who didn’t grow up in either of those countries, a quick explanation on what it meant to be Anglo-Irish.
The Anglo-Irish social class made up most of the professional and landed class from the 17th century up to Irish Independence around 1920, they were until that time the ruling aristocracy. They identified as Irish but retained English habits in business, politics, culture and society. They participated in English sports, they loved horse sports, racing, fox hunting, would send their children to boarding schools in England if possible and often intermarried with the ruling classes in Great Britain.
Many constructed large country houses in the first half of the 18th century, ranging from palatial mansions to more modest ‘large’ houses known as Big Houses, a symbol of their class dominance in Irish society. Maria Edgeworth’s Castle Rackrent, published in 1800 is one of the original Big House novels. Elizabeth Bowen chronicled the decline of the Big House in The Last September.
275 were destroyed, deliberately burned by the IRA (Irish Republican Army) during the Irish revolutionary period (1919-1921) including Molly Keane’s family’s own estate, her father ignoring warnings to leave and take his family to England, refusing to leave the place even when he saw them coming to burn it down.
The protagonist of Good Behaviour is Iris Aroon St Charles, daughter of an aristocratic Anglo-Irish family, who grows up with her brother Hubert in ‘Temple Alice’ one of the ‘Big Houses’, built by an ancestor as his temporary residence until inheriting his titles and estates.
Now the title extinct and estates entirely dissipated, Temple Alice, after several generations as a dower house (a house intended as the residence of a widow), came to Mummie when her mother died. Papa farmed the miserably few hundred acres that remained of the property.
While the novel opens with a chapter when she is fifty-seven-years old at her mother’s death-bed, the remainder of the novel focuses on their life under the tutelage of a governess Mrs Brock up until her sudden departure through to her twenties when she is an unhappy, overweight, unmarried daughter without prospect, living a life of gross deception and delusion. Seeds of her discontent are sown early on, with a mother lacking in maternal feeling.
She simply did not want to know what was going on in the nursery. She had had us and she longed to forget the horror of it once and for all. She didn’t really like children; she didn’t like dogs either, and she had no enjoyment of food, for she ate almost nothing.
Animals, food and her brother are her consolation, her mother rarely responds even when Aroon reports that she thinks her baby brother is dead, she enquires where the staff are. Her father responds and inspires hope. She seeks out his company, a kind word, favour, he seeks comfort elsewhere.
We adored Papa, and his hopeless disapproval paralysed any scrap of confidence or pleasure we had ever had in ourselves or our ponies.
When Mrs Brock intervenes and with kindness and encouragement succeeds in endowing them with the necessary confidence, he turns away shaking his head.
In those days one did not quite admit the possibility of cowardice, even in young children. The tough were the ones who mattered; their courage was fitting and credible. A cowardly child was a hidden sore, and a child driven to admit hatred of his pony was something of a leper in our society. It appeared to Papa that Mrs Brock has rescued our honour and his credit.
An awkward teen she revels in her brother’s company and his friend Richard. The time the three spend together is the height of her happiness, little realising they too are indulging in ‘good behaviour’ masking an ulterior motive, using her as an alibi. Her self-deception knows no bounds.
Here, to my delight , Hubert and Richard danced with me in turn. I almost preferred dancing with Hubert because I loved showing off to Richard…I was fulfilled by them. I felt complete. There was no more to ask.
Aroon is constantly striving for connection and endlessly blind to reality, and when connection is possible, where genuine friendship might have a chance to flourish, she is locked into the conventions of her class that forbid it. She lacks empathy and is unaware of her own bitterness, so we have little sympathy for her predicament.
The family live in denial of their escalating debt, living beyond their means and incapable of doing anything for themselves. When her father returns from war injured, Aroon tries to get close to him and is thwarted once again. Without prospect of marriage, her mother closing her out, her father’s attentions elsewhere, she seems doomed.
And then a final twist.
And yet. The thirty years in-between the beginning and the end leave a lot more unsaid.
Selina Guiness in the Irish Times says Keane writes the most spectacularly “nasty” black comedies in Irish Big House fiction and Keane herself request her daughter to make the biography she wrote about her more like a novel adding, “I’m afraid you won’t be nasty enough.”
Perhaps it is this that so disturbs, I like a book in which a character can in some way redeem themself, can change or transform, ‘nasty, black comedies’ and characters that take pleasure in using their wounds as weapons against another isn’t entertaining for me, I am unable to wear a mask and pretend otherwise.
I know I’m in the minority as this is a popular English novel, but I’m wondering if anyone else read this with a similar feeling of discomfort?
On Molly Keane
She was full of uncertainties, anxieties, even fears, capable of striking out in anger and of little streaks of prejudice and snobbery, but in spite of all of this, Molly’s essence was in the generosity, kindness and wisdom which won her so many instant friends. It was almost as though there were two of her, one shaped by class and family circumstances, against which she often rebelled but from which she would never quite escape, and the other which stirred into life whenever she worked her way through to writing level, and this Molly became able to see through her first self with calm amusement. Diana Athill
An excellent review by a reader who loved (5 star) the book – I do know how to behave – believe me, because I know. I have always known. Dear Molly, by Juliana Brina
Diana Athill on editing and befriending Molly Keane
Molly Keane’s Anglo-Irish life: ‘Courage, glamour and fantasy’