A little while ago I saw an epidemiologist on tv saying that eventually everyone will have had covid. And I thought, ‘no thank you all the same’, and carried on distancing as far as I could and wearing a mask. You can guess what’s happened, Reader. This post is brought to you from my covid-addled brain, apologies in advance if it’s even more waffly and incoherent than usual…
This is a contribution to Reading Ireland Month 2022 aka The Begorrathon, hosted by Cathy at 746 Books. It’s a great event so do join in if you can!
I’ve chosen two late novels by Molly Keane for this post and I really enjoyed revisiting this author who isn’t like anyone else. Her evocation of moneyed families in early twentieth-century Ireland is so deeply strange and disturbing, I always feel a sense of trepidation opening one of her stories…
Good Behaviour was published in 1981, when Keane had not published a novel for 29 years and nothing at all since the play Dazzling Prospect 20 years earlier. It was a huge success and shortlisted for the Booker Prize. It is a blistering, dark comedy of manners, perfectly paced and sharply observed.
“Rose smelt the air, considering what she smelt; a miasma of unspoken criticism and disparagement fogged the air between us.”
I knew from that line that I’d love Good Behaviour, and now having finished the novel I can say it sets up the story and themes brilliantly: the domestic setting, sense of things rotting, the odd power dynamics, the uneasy roles, the undercurrents of anger.
Someone dies early on, in a way that leaves the reader uncertain as to how far they were nudged towards it, and this sense of not quite trusting that we are being given the full story continues as we are taken back in time by Aroon St Charles, daughter of an aristocratic family living in Temple Alice, a decaying pile, with her indifferent mother and philandering father.
“Behind him the green luminous gloom of glass within glass retreated inside the doors of a breakfront cabinet that filled one end of the dining room. Mummie had lined it with grey linen, so that all the glass objects floated and were lost in its spaces. It was like water or air at his back, as though the end wall were open to air or water. The austere outdoor look I knew had melted from him into the air, like the glass in the cupboard. Sitting there, he seemed extraordinarily dulled, dulled and happy.”
The novel is Aroon describing her childhood and early adulthood amongst the trappings of her class in 1920s Ireland. This being Keane, of course there is hunting and horses, but aside from a few pages where I thought the litany of dead animals was never going to end, it wasn’t too bad for squeamish readers such as myself.
Aroon does not fit in: she is not her adored brother Hubert; she is not physically adept; she is not charming and witty; and she is not beautiful. She enjoys food and is tall, in a time where women were expected to be flat-chested and dainty. She is not rich and so no men are interested in her. Her father likes her but is absent in various different ways throughout her life; her mother is at best indifferent to her but often mentally abusive.
“I turned away, my loneliness walking with me, taller than my own height as a shadow is tall – and irremediable as my height was.”
Aroon is a complex creation. At times I felt she couldn’t possibly be as naïve as her narration would have us believe. Did she really think the housekeeper was rubbing her father’s missing leg under the bedclothes to relieve phantom pain? Does she really not realise her brother is gay and his best friend is his lover? Does she really think she is concussed rather than completely sloshed? This isn’t me viewing it with twenty-first century eyes; other characters are perfectly aware of her father’s behaviour, the full extent of the housekeeper’s role, and her brother’s sexuality. They try to tell her but she doesn’t hear it and blunders on regardless.
Whether or not Aroon is an unreliable narrator or just hopelessly naïve, this characterisation is a master-stroke by Keane in balancing out the pitch black comedy of Good Behaviour. Aroon’s voice is so credulous, the novel written with such a light touch, that it means you whizz through the story without becoming hopelessly depressed at how grim Aroon’s situation is or how deeply unpleasant many of the people are. Good Behaviour is both eminently readable and deeply disturbing.
Queen Lear (also known as Loving and Giving, which I tell you so you don’t make the same mistake as me and end up blissfully unaware that you own two copies of the same novel) was published in 1988. Like Good Behaviour it features a female protagonist, Nicandra (named after her father’s favourite horse “the first Nicandra”), daughter of gentry, lonely and unhappy.
The story opens with eight-year-old Nicandra doing a round of the enormous home she lives in, visiting her parents and servants, barely tolerated by all. Again, the opening is lovely piece of scene-setting, telling the reader all we need to know about the characters and setting.
Nicandra’s mother is glamorous and engaging, and entirely uninterested in her daughter:
“When she was absent, the shadow of her presence was the assurance of a world of love. To earn her displeasure was to forgo all delight; through the days Nicandra devised love tokens, as much to stimulate interest towards herself as to express her deep affection.”
In one particularly unpleasant scene, Maman ties Nicandra to a chair, not to be released until she eats the cold spinach she hates. Her Aunt Tossie rescues her, much to Nicandra’s dismay, who was trying to psych herself up to eating the spinach and making this sacrifice for her mother.
In a novel full of selfish, unpleasant people, Aunt Tossie was the nearest I got to actually liking someone:
“She enjoyed nearly everything, even widow’s weeds, as her married life had not been as exciting as she might have wished”
That day, her mother runs off with one of the servants. She doesn’t say goodbye to her child, and no-one explains to Nicandra what has happened.
“Whatever it was that had come over her family today, Nicandra could not guess at. She had done her utmost to excite, please, soothe, serve; yet everything had gone awry. Pigeons, butterfly, bantams, Maman, Aunt Tossie – she had given her all to each, only Dada was left.”
From these inauspicious beginnings, the novel jumps forward to Nicandra as a young woman in the interwar years. Unsurprisingly, she has grown up naïve and desperate for love. She remains almost wilfully blind to everyone else’s relentless self-focus, to the extent where it’s hard to feel for her. She seems so determinedly oblivious as to be as self-obsessed as everyone else.
There are also repeated references to her childhood bullying of Silly-Willie, a child on the estate who initially seems to have learning difficulties, expressed in the derogatory terms of the 1920s/1930s. Despite these prejudices, he grows up to essentially run the entire estate – albeit in a dilapidated condition due to Dada racing through money. Nicandra struggles with this arrangement as “a little incident” between them, buried in the past, is something she feels extremely uncomfortable about.
Nicandra of course falls for the first charming bounder to show her any interest, desperately seeking his love as she once did her mother’s, with about the same level of reciprocity.
“Although in manners bound, he held and played with her hand for the rest of the drive home, he felt he could have done instead with a nice talk about hunting.”
With very little else to occupy her, Nicandra marries Andrew. He enjoys her beauty and money, as well as an affair with her best friend Lal (this isn’t really a spoiler as the prospect is introduced almost simultaneously with the awful characters).
There are some very nasty elements for a novel titled Loving and Giving: the bullying, and Andrew’s crass and cruel suggestion of how Nicandra should procure money from her family for an abortion (that she doesn’t want) “say it’s to drain the West Bog”. Repulsive.
What stops Loving and Giving from being absolutely relentlessly bleak in its portrayal of “cheap and amusing” lives where “tragedy gets tidied away” is the humour. We aren’t supposed to take these characters particularly seriously, or think that they are admirable or lead remotely useful lives. I particularly liked this pithy comment on the butler’s behaviour:
“the slight upwards twist he gave to the bottle took the place of the wry smile he would never allow himself to give”
And this observation on family politics:
“Properly speaking, Aunt Tossie should have presented Nicandra at court, which she would have greatly enjoyed doing. Dada, however, raised every obstacle and objection he could think of to baulk this plan because, as he put it, (only to himself), the dear old girl might feel her oats and something unfortunate could happen.”
Molly Keane is pretty blistering in her characterisation of the upper classes and in portraying the lives they live. Her novels are almost Gothic – certainly there are ruined buildings, hauntings from the past, almost ghoulish characters – but no supernatural elements. I enjoy her original phrasing and sharp observation, I even enjoy her awful characters (some of them anyway) when I’m in the right mood. I do find I need a palate cleanser afterwards though!
To end, a song about a family house, albeit a very different one to the those which Keane’s characters live in, and which provided the title of last week’s post: