I was delighted to have the perfect excuse for breaking open my copy of Good Behaviour by Molly Keane for Read Ireland month. I actually have several Molly Keane novel’s waiting to be read. Well you know how much I love my VMC designer editions – so Good Behaviour it had to be. (oh and if you’re wondering about the rabbits – you really need to read the opening chapter).
Of course for many years Molly Keane published under the name of M J Farrell, although her final three novels were published under her married name of Keane. Following a poor reception of one of her plays in 1961 – Molly Keane published nothing more for twenty years. According to the story which Maggie O’Farrell relates in her wonderful introduction to this edition, Peggy Ashcroft, the actress, was visiting Molly Keane when she came across a manuscript in a drawer. The book was Good Behaviour, and Peggy Ashcroft urged her to submit it for publication. Good Behaviour was longlisted for the Booker Prize of that year, missing out to Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children. Two more novels by Molly Keane were published in the 1980’s – almost sixty years after her first M J Farrell novel The Knight of Cheerful Countenance was published in 1926.
Good Behaviour is a satire with a very dark soul. It’s the sixth Molly Keane novel I have read so far – and in some ways it is pretty familiar – but there is more of the black comedy to this novel – and the characters are brilliantly conceived. I’m not sure what it is exactly that makes this Molly Keane novel so very good – but it really is very, very good. It might be in the wonderful tension between the characters, the spite, misunderstandings so much going on unsaid – the sad loneliness of being part of a family like the St, Charles.
Good Behaviour takes us to familiar Molly Keane territory – among the impoverished Anglo-Irish aristocracy of the 1920’s and 30’s. However the story starts many years later – as our narrator Aroon St. Charles is making lunch for her difficult, ageing mother, watched over by their cook/housekeeper Rose – with whom Aroon does not get on well. I won’t say too much – although it is only the opening, short chapter, but it is a brilliant opening. We feel acutely the years of resentment of a disappointed life.
Aroon St. Charles is the awkwardly large, unlovely daughter of an aristocratic Anglo-Irish family fallen on rather hard times. Having dutifully produced her daughter and son, Aroon’s mother employed nannies and Governesses to do as much of the child rearing as possible. Aroon takes us back to her childhood and introduces us to Mrs Brock – the governess who arrives when she is a little girl.
“The name of our governess was Mrs Brock and we loved her dearly from the start to the finish of her reign. For one thing, the era of luncheon in the diningroom opened for us with Mrs Brock, and with it a world of desire and satisfaction, for we were as greedy as Papa. Although governesses lunched in the diningroom, they supped on trays upstairs – that was the accepted rule, and Mummie must have been thankful for it as these luncheons meant a horrid disintegration of her times of intimacy with Papa. So much of his day was spent away from her. In the winter months he was shooting or hunting, and in the spring there was salmon fishing – all undertaken and excelled in more as a career and a duty than as the pleasure of a leisured life.”
Mrs Brock is a wonderfully colourful character; she arrives with the St Charles family, straight from the family of ‘Wobbly’ Massingham, a great friend of Aroon’s father. Mrs Brock regales Aroon with fascinating tales of the Massingham family – and particularly of Richard – who years later Aroon will meet through her brother. Mrs Brock’s story is not destined to be a happy one, and she becomes just one of the people in Aroon’s life to let her down.
While the St. Charles fortune might have crumbled away to almost nothing, their standards of aristocratic behaviour have not, these people are all a pretty nasty bunch in one way or another – but they pride themselves on their good behaviour. This is a world where tradesmen are considered to be robbers should they deign to send in their bills, a drunken nursery maid is sacked with a good reference – to do otherwise would not be the thing. A boy is walloped for reading poetry – deaths occur in shocking or traumatic circumstances and no one talks about it. Aroon should be the one character we sympathise with – but she’s not very nice either – although we do see why she isn’t very nice. Aroon is so desperate to feel beautiful, to be appreciated – her mother is so vile to her. Spiteful remarks about her size and what she eats, casually, subtly dropped into the conversation with apparent nonchalance.
“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 in misery”
With only eyes for her husband – who was rather prone to a wandering eye on the quiet – Mrs St, Charles was a particularly cold parent to her daughter – her preference was for Hubert, Aroon’s younger brother. Aroon’s father a keen hunter and horseman works hard to instil his love of the sport in his children. The children are often terrified though know not to show it – horses are a big part of the world they have been born into. Aroon enjoys some affection and understanding from her father – though he is so more often distracted with those things which interest him more.
As a young woman often feeling large and unattractive, Aroon becomes smitten with Richard Massingham the eldest son of the family Mrs Brock worked for before she arrived in Aroon’s schoolroom. Richard is friends with Hubert – and for a while Aroon enjoys the easy society of both of them, blind to how Richard really feels – she weaves fantasies around Richard long after he has disappeared from her life. Aroon is rather desperate to be loved, but when the family solicitor offers her friendship – her well learned aristocratic good behaviour kicks in – he is not of the right class – and Aroon shows her disgust.
Good Behaviour is beautifully written, the relationships are wonderfully complex, particularly that of Aroon and her horrid mother. Some of the dialogue between them is wincingly sharp. Keane gives us a lovely little twist right at the end – but don’t worry Molly Keane is far too subtle to fall back on a conventional ending.