It’s been a slow reading (an virtually none blogging) week, this week for me, and The Rising Tide was the book which kept me company during what often felt like the longest week of the year.
I think one does kind of know what to expect from Molly Keane (often previously published as M J Farrell), who wrote about the world she knew so well. Large Irish country houses, complicated families, horsey types and Anglo-Irish aristocracy, she re-creates this world with breath-taking honesty, warts and all, there is a wonderful exactness in the daily minutiae of a world lost forever. Molly Keane explores the depths of human psychology – here, particularly in the character of Cynthia; Keane shows us the toll that life takes.
In The Rising Tide, Molly Keane contrasts brilliantly the Edwardian era with its strict rules of propriety, fussy clothing and the kind of rigid conventions that so often imprisoned unmarried women in dull lives at home, with the freer, party years of the 1920’s. The title reflects the rise of Cynthia, but also those tidal like waves of time, the years pass, and one generation is replaced by the next, the conflicts of one mirrored in the next – time after time.
“Lady Charlotte rang for her maid. She then washed her hands in buttermilk soap, folded the neck of her combinations down towards the top of her corsets (those corsets which propped so conscientiously the bosoms like vast half-filled hot water bottles) and thus prepared stood while her evening dress was put upon her and sat while her hair was fiddled and redone. Her hair was never washed but it did not smell of anything but hair. The switches and curls of false hair were drier and frizzier in texture than her own.”
The novel opens in 1900 at Garonlea, a large gothic style house in Ireland, the home of Lady Charlotte French-McGrath and her family. Wife to Ambrose, Lady Charlotte rules her family of four daughters and one son with a rod of iron. Little does Lady Charlotte know how close her carefully controlled world is to coming to its natural end; two events however several years apart, come to seal the fate of Garonlea and to some extent the people who live there. The first is her son Desmond’s marriage to the beautiful Cynthia, a woman to whom so many – like Diana, the youngest daughter – are irresistibly drawn – but who repels Lady Charlotte. The second is the First World War, a conflict that changes so much across Europe, bringing inevitably, loss to Garonlea.
In 1900 the future for Lady Charlotte’s daughters; Muriel, Enid, Violet and Diana seemed predictable, but Enid’s error leads to a hasty marriage, and after Violet’s marriage to a suitable but older man, Muriel and Diana remaining embarrassingly unmarried are left at the beck and call of their dictatorial mother, still treated like young girls well into their thirties. Diana is the rebellious one, she tries to challenge her mother’s exacting ways with little success, and she is captivated by Cynthia, and the changing world she seems to represent.
After Cynthia is left widowed with two children; Simon and Susan, Diana who has always been especially attached to Cynthia takes the opportunity to move into Rathglass, the house across the river where Cynthia had lived with Desmond after their marriage. To live peacefully at Rathglass is all Diana really wants, she accepts Cynthia as she is, protects her and in turn Diana enjoys Cynthia’s sympathy and understanding. It is Cynthia who is very much at the heart of this novel, her rise – and eventual decline what drives the narrative. Cynthia must battle her mother-in-law first, then later her own children, and the rapidly passing years, as she indulges in her passion for hunting, inherits Garonlea for her son, and works her way through a series of lovers. The family move back to Garonlea, and Cynthia sets about improving the old place, in readiness for her son’s coming of age.
“She did not love her children but she was determined not to be ashamed of them. You had to feel ashamed and embarrassed if your children did not take to blood sports, so they must be forced into them. It was right. It was only fair to them. You could not bring a boy up properly unless he rode and fished and shot. What sort of boy was he? What sort of friends would he have?”
Cynthia is a brilliantly drawn character, selfish, insatiable and a little unscrupulous, she drinks more and more, and refuses to either acknowledge or understand her children’s dislike of hunting – which is such an enormous part of her own life. Just as Lady Charlotte had once held sway over the family at Garonlea, so does Cynthia direct her children, in this case by insisting they hunt, refusing to see their obvious almost paralysing terror. Her relationship with Simon and Susan is not an especially good one. Cynthia loves her hunting, she loves being in control, being admired but she doesn’t really love her offspring.
The Rising Tide is really a very good novel, psychologically astute, the portraits painted of Cynthia and Lady Charlotte in particular are enthralling. Surely these must be characters taken from life? – and I can’t help but wonder who inspired their creation.