Great Granny Webster – Caroline Blackwood (1977, 96 pages)
My blogging slump meant I completely failed to take part in Cathy and Niall’s Reading Ireland 2019 (#Begorrathon) in March, and so I’m including a few Irish novellas this month. The first of these is by an author I’ve never heard of, which seems extraordinary given her quite astonishing life story.
The titular matriarch of this novel is a wonderfully Gothic creation:
“She had arranged her hair in two grey tufts that lay on her forehead like a couple of curly horns, so that what with the exaggerated narrowness of her elongated face, and her uniquely over-long upper lip, she often reminded me of a melancholy and aged ram.”
The narrator is sent to Hove to recuperate with her great-grandmother in 1947 when she is 14, as it’s thought the sea air will help her recuperate from an operation. It’s totally bizarre that her family would think this a good idea, as Great Granny Webster lives in severe austerity in a damp and gloomy house, alone except for her aged and devoted retainer, Richards.
“All she wanted from each new day that broke was the knowledge that she was still defiantly there – that against all odds she had still managed to survive in the lonely, loveless vacuum she had created for herself.”
Unsurprisingly, this is not a warm and affectionate portrait of the generations of a family. It is however, witty, astute, sad, and incisive. Great Granny Webster is entirely uncompromising:
“ ‘There really is nothing more unattractive than the sight of a young woman displaying a repulsive amount of arm. I am not going to mention this subject again.’
Great Granny Webster always told the truth. She never once referred to my sleeves or my arms again.”
We later learn that her daughter (the narrator’s grandmother) completely lost her mind, trapped in the family castle at Dunmartin. The echoes of previous generations are heard down the years. As an adult, the narrator is contacted by her fragile, enchanting Aunt Lavinia who is having similar problems:
“One day Aunt Lavinia rang me up to say it was too maddening, she was in prison. When I sounded astonished she admitted that it wasn’t exactly a prison, but it was just as bad, for she was being detained in a hospital where she had been put by the police.”
What Blackwood captures brilliantly is how in families, people can be superficially polar opposites but underneath it all, so very alike, much to their own alarm:
“Aunt Lavinia’s house was very warm. She liked to have log-fires burning and her central heating turned on even in the summer. Although her bedroom was rather like a hot-house and fragrant with the smell of her lillies, I had exactly the same feeling of chill I had experienced in the bleak, cold, flowerless drawing room of Great-Granny Webster when that old lady had predicted that eventually I would be very like her.”
In such a short space, Blackwood achieves fully-rounded portraits of three generations of women in an idiosyncratic noble family. Great Granny Webster is, like its anti-heroine, bleak, funny and unique.
I read this in an old Picador edition, but I’m delighted to say the wonderful NYRB Classics have re-issued it.