My fascination with early 20th century women writers continues.
Just last week, I wrote about The Great Fortune, the first book in Olivia Manning’s stellar The Balkan Trilogy.
And now Molly Keane joins this strong list as another wonderful discovery with her novel Good Behaviour.
Good Behaviour is narrated in the first person by Aroon St Charles, the main protagonist in the novel. When the book opens, Aroon is fifty seven and is living with her aged mother and their housemaid cum cook Rose in Gulls’ Cry, a gothic house built on the edge of a cliff.
In the starting chapter, it is hinted that Aroon has been dominating over the household – especially her mother and Rose – making life difficult for them. Or so Rose implies. And then a dramatic event happens but in such an understated way that it sets the tone for the events leading up to this moment.
After the first chapter, the rest of the novel goes back several years when Aroon is a child living in the estate called Temple Alice in the Irish countryside with her younger brother Hubert and her parents.
Aroon’s father is a gentleman, extroverted, who loves horses and manages the affairs of the estate. That said, despite the affection he has for his wife, he is prone to drinking and having extra-marital affairs, which Aroon’s mother strangely does not mind too much.
Aroon’s mother is just the opposite. She cherishes the intimate moments with her husband, but does not care much for running the household or looking after her children. She is largely withdrawn, preferring to lose herself in her hobbies – painting, gardening and even collecting antique furniture.
It is no surprise then that Aroon grows to love her father more, as her mother remains cold and indifferent towards her.
This brings us to Aroon herself. Throughout the novel Aroon is always at the fringes, longing to belong, to be included, to be loved. With no hope for affection from her mother, Aroon becomes greatly attached to her brother Hubert and their father, who, in fragmentary moments, does display kindness towards her.
It is a family that prides itself on manners and insists on ‘good behaviour’, where feelings and emotions are hidden, and not explicitly stated. As a result, when it comes to relationships, all of them in some form or the other come across as emotionally stunted.
Our good behaviour went on and on, endless as the days. No one spoke of the pain we were sharing. Our discretion was almost complete. Although they feared to speak, Papa and Mummie spent more time together; but, far from comforting, they seemed to freeze each other deeper in misery.
We are also, earlier, introduced to Mrs Brock, governess for Aroon and Hubert when they were children. Mrs Brock is more generous and expressive and naturally Aroon comes to love her as well. Through Mrs Brock, the details of her earlier stint as a governess are revealed to us. This is at the home of Captain Massingham and his wife Lady Grizel, where we are also introduced to their eldest son Richard.
Many years later, at one time, Richard comes to stay with the St Charles family during the holidays, and Aroon falls in love with him. But it becomes obvious that Richard mostly does not harbor the same feelings towards her.
This is just the broader outline of the novel.
What makes the novel so brilliant is that it is such a multi-layered work. Desire and secrets abound in the St Charles family, but its members do not believe in openness and frank discussion. This is conveyed by Keane in prose that is subtle, elegant and understated – much in line with how the family believes things should be; that keeping up appearances is what matters at all costs.
Major events such as suicide, death, which take place over the years and over the course of the novel, are brushed under the carpet, as there’s too much awkwardness in openly discussing these episodes and coming to terms with them.
The family also lives in a world of its own, choosing to eschew reality when it comes to finances and other household matters. The world of aristocrats and country estates is slowly fading away across Ireland and England, but the St Charles family pretends it has nothing to do with them. Their decadent household rots, the debts keep piling up, but all of this seems too much of an inconvenience to deal with.
In the midst of all this, Aroon stands out as a woman who is incredibly naïve and yet strangely compelling. Her physical attributes – she is big and ungainly – only amplifies her awkwardness.
Her naiveté becomes all the more apparent in her inability to grasp any deeper meaning in the way her dysfunctional family behaves. Hints or the significance of things she has seen pass her by. She is largely consumed by loneliness and it’s her desperation to be loved that takes the centrestage for her.
I stood for a moment waiting for Papa to say a word in my praise or favour. I stood there stupidly, betrayed in his silence. I saw her looking up at him, with something else to say.
I turned away, my loneliness walking with me, taller than my own height as a shadow is tall – and irremediable as my height was.
There are some brilliant set pieces that are peppered throughout the novel, and there is one towards the end, when Aroon is invited to a ball, that is particularly poignant. Here, Aroon’s isolation in the midst of company is so pronounced that it’s heartbreaking.
All of this makes Good Behaviour akin to a dark, delicious cake – it is rich, intriguing, wonderfully spiced and layered with dollops of hidden meanings. Molly Keane’s writing is superb and the narrative never sags. It had me riveted throughout.
Jane Gardam, in her introduction to this novel, writes that Good Behaviour is considered to be Molly Keane’s tour de force, and was written in 1981 when she was 77 years old.
Here’s another fact that Gardam throws light on…
What is so interesting is that Good Behaviour was turned down flat by two publishers because it was ‘too dark’ even in a time when ‘darkness’ was in fashion. In other words it was contemporarily realistic and had stepped away from the notion of romantic, lovely, comical Ireland. It is a hunting, shooting and fishing book but the great houses are crumbling and there is every kind of physical and moral decay.
All in all, Molly Keane has turned out to be another terrific writer whose back catalogue I certainly intend to sample and savour in the coming months.