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Good Behaviour by Molly Keane [book review]

country-houseThe ancestral home of Temple Alice might be crumbling and the debts piling up. But for the St Charles family, it’s imperative that appearances are maintained and they uphold the standards of good behaviour befitting the Anglo-Irish gentry. And on the surface they are successful. Papa occupies his time hunting, fishing and generally having a good time with his coterie of female admirers. Mummie is so busy with her gardening and her painting she has no time or patience for all the dull business of housekeeping and child rearing. Daughter Aroon and her younger brother Hubert are consequently left in the care of their beloved governess Miss Brock with whom they swim and picnic joyfully.

It all sounds a halcyon existence. But that’s only on the surface. Time and time again in Good Behaviour a darkness seeps through that is all the more disturbing because it’s so subtly introduced and then glossed over. The tone is set in the opening scene in which Aroon, now a mature woman, prepares a rabbit mousse for her invalid mother’s meal, despite protestations from housemaid Rose that mum gets sick if she eats rabbit. Mother takes one mouthful, is sick. and dies. The result of an error of judgement by a well-meaning daughter or a deliberate act of a woman grown embittered over the years? The reader is left to decide but that episode is already  a signal that maybe Aroon is going to prove an entirely unreliable narrator of her story.

The chapters that immediately follow the rabbit episode reinforce our initial impressions that more is going on beneath the surface than first appears. They seem to be series of entertaining anecdotes about Aroon’s childhood in her ancestral country home yet it’s obvious to us, even if it isn’t to her, that she is being largely ignored and starved of affection. Her mother is either distant or dismissive and cruel and her father only seems to pay attention when she is exhibiting her horsemanship even when this results in a near tragic episode where she clings onto a troublesome horse. She is further burdened by her size and shape. She’s tall and full blossomed in a way that is totally out of synch with the fashion in 1920s for slim, boyish figures.  To onlookers she looks like a Fat Lady in a peepshow with her “bosoms swinging like jelly bags”.

I have now come to terms with my height but in those years when I was nineteen and twenty, I bent my knees, I bowed my shoulders; I strapped in my bosoms until they burst out around my back.

Aroon is in essence an outsider. Although there are moments when she feels she’s “there at the heart of things” – like when her brother teaches her to dance and she finds there is something at which she can excel or the evenings when Hubert and his friend Richard invite her for drinks and music in their bedroom. Richard gets into bed with her one night.  Though nothing happens sexually, the fact Richard was in her bed is enough for Aroon to believe he is in love with her and to eagerly that anticipate nuptial bliss will follow.

But too soon the dream falls apart. Hubert is killed in a motoring accident and Richard disappears to Kenya. The death of son and heir and the earlier tragedy when Papa lost a leg in the battle fields of World War 1 barely disrupt the routine. For this is a house where every mishap or tragedy  is shaken off, never spoken of and never allowed to interrupt the gardening or hunting. “Our good behaviour went on and on. . . no one spoke of the pain.” says Aroon after Hubert’s funeral. “We exchanged cool, warning looks – which of us could behave the best: which of us could be least embarrassing…”

Though she does feel the pain when her hopes of marriage fade, she will not show it for she has learned to be a dutiful daughter and how to behave in the same socially impeccably manner as her parents. Phoning the doctor to report her mother’s death for example to the others she has time to observe:

… how the punctual observance of the usual importances is the only way to behave at such times as these. And I do know how to behave – believe me, I know. I have always known. All my life far I have done everything for the best reasons and the most unselfish motives.

What Keane lets us see is how Aroon is ‘right’ about behaviour but so often wrong about people. She doesn’t see that Richard’s romantic overture is designed to disguise his intense relationship with her brother or that the cook Rose isn’t just warming her father’s foot when he’s confined to bed after a stroke. Nor does she see her mother’s lack of affection as odd. It’s just the way things are. “I don’t blame Mummie… She simply did not want to know what was going on in the nursery. She had had children and she longed to forget the horror of it once and for all.  She didn’t really like children; she didn’t like dogs either…”

Is she really that limited in understanding that she doesn’t see her mother’s behaviour for what it is: cruelty.  It’s hard not to feel sympathy for this girl whose life has been blighted and who seems not to understand how this has happened.

It’s the gap between what Aaron knows and understands and what we as readers understand that makes Good Behaviour such a tremendous book. Added to that Keane’s characters are wholly believable; none of them come across in  flattering way. They wouldn’t dream of treating their dogs or horses badly yet are perfectly capable of being mean and spiteful to fellow humans in revenge for personal grievances whether real or imagined. That doesn’t mean this is a novel entirely devoid of humour. There is a wonderful set piece towards the end of the novel where Aaron, on the morning of her father’s funeral is despatched to the station to collect one of his old friends.She lets herself be persuaded to take a tipple in the station buffet – one brand and ginger ale turns into two and three and then she falls on the ice and spends the afternoon sleeping it off while everyone else is at the funeral. But Keane suddenly turns from humour to pathos as Aaron realises she has “let the side down”.

At that moment I knew myself entirely bereft. The sofa murmured and creaked under my sobbing. She [Mummie] was keeping strictly to the day’s essentials; things must be done, masks against any vulgar intrusions of grief. I felt like a child who wets her knickers at a party. Nowhere to hide, no refuge from the shame of it.

Impossible not to feel sympathy at moments like this for a girl who has only wanted ever to love and to be loved but whose soul has been suppressed through neglect and a lifetime of required good behaviour.

A wonderful book; faultless in its concept and in its execution.

Footnotes

About the book: Good Behaviour by Molly Keane was published in 1981 and was shortlisted for the Booker Prize that year. It is the first novel Molly Keane published after a writing break triggered by the death of her husband and was the first time she used her real name (rather than her pseudonym of Maggie J Farrell.) Apparently Keane sent it to a publisher but when it was rejected as ‘too dark’ she stuck it in a kitchen drawer. But then Peggy Ashcroft visited and struck down with flu, asked for something to read. Having read the typescript she urged Molly to try and publish.

About the author: Molly Keane was born as Mary Skrine in County Kildare in Ireland in 1904 into a ‘serious hunting and fishing family’. She wrote her first novel at the age of 17 to supplement her dress allowance, using the pseudonym of M. J Farrell to hide her activities from her sporting friends. Between 1928 and 1961 she wrote 10 novels and a clutch of successful plays.The death in 1946 of her husband, at the early age of 37, was a blow. She stopped writing and devoted herself to bringing up their daughters. Interest in her revived after publication of Good Behaviour. She continued to write well into her 80s. There is an excellent article in The Guardian in which editor Diana Athill reflects on her relationship with Keane – click this link

Why I read this book: I bought this in a library sale.   I’d read only one book by her – Devoted Ladies which I enjoyed but didn’t love. But I’d seen plenty of reviews by bloggers whose opinion I trust to the effect of persuading me I really should read Good Behaviour. So thank you Heaven Ali ( her review is hereand the many other reviewers in the Library Thing Virago group. Good Behaviour is one of my 20booksofsummer choices.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Devoted Ladies by M.J. Farrell #Virago

devoted ladiesWhen I spotted a Virago copy of Devoted Ladies by M.J. Farrell in an Oxford charity shop, I knew precisely three things about M. J Farrell:

  1. She was Irish.
  2. She also wrote under the name of Molly Keane – a name popular among bloggers who are avid readers of Virago Modern Classics.
  3. Her work was characterised by a sharpness of wit that was directed at the Anglo Irish landed gentry of which she was a member.

About Devoted Ladies I knew next to nothing. The back cover blurb told me it was her fifth novel and was unusual in that the elements which characterised her first four publications – namely, horses, romance and snobbery – were replaced by something rather more sensational and gritty. Rather more up my street in other words.

This is a tale of two women who live together within the fashionable London society circle of the 1930s. Farrell avoids any mention of a physical relationship between them but drops enough hints for us to detect this is a lesbian couple; a daring topic for a novel given that only a few years earlier Radclyffe Hall’s  novel on the same theme, Well of Loneliness was banned for obscenity.

It doesn’t take long to further establish that far from being ‘devoted’ Jessica and Jane have a rather stormy relationship. Jessica is butch, domineering and sharp-tongued; Jane is softer, a bit silly, and a drinker. She is easy prey to the cruel possessive behaviour of her ‘friend’.

Her cohort of friends don’t care for what they witness – particularly when things turn nastily violent – and fear for her safety. But they’re also rather tired of what they consider Jane’s histrionics. One of them, the playwright Sylvester Browne, is too wrapped up in his own world and anyway doesn’t see it as his business to intervene. It’s left to a newcomer among this group, George Playfair, an Irish gentleman of the hunting class, to come to Jane’s aid. When he finds Jane recovering from a bout of alcoholic poisoning he takes pity on her and persuades her to leave her London home and visit Ireland to aid her recovery. Since he doesn’t really comprehend the nature of her relationship with Jessica he’s oblivious to the way she will interpret his invitation as a challenge to her own control over Jane. The battle is set with Jane caught in the middle.

It took a while for me to warm to Devoted Ladies. I enjoyed the first scenes which lay out a world which has so few cares it can devote itself entirely to hedonistic pleasures. Jane isn’t a particularly likeable character – in the early chapters she plays a lot on the little girl lost act but is essentially a drunk much given to plaintive requests to her guests to”fix me a brandy and soda, I feel horrible.” when she feels she is being ignored. The first chapters set in Ireland didn’t set me alight either since much of this revolves around Sylvester and the Hester and Viola (Piggy) Browne, two cousins with whom he stays in Ireland and who struck me as rather pathetic initially.

Piggy is a charmless character when we first get to know her; lacking self knowledge and consideration for Hester, spending money on frivolous presents ye nothing that would make the house they share more habitable. But then Piggy began to get a hold on me the more I saw how Farrell  made her silliness and self centred nature a mask. Piggy is so desperate to be loved and valued, that she goes to quite extraordinary lengths to gain the approval of her so-called friend Joan though their every encounter uses her hours of anxiety. How to time her arrival at Joan’s house so as not to appear too eager yet not lose a precious moment of time with Joan? And then the vexed question of what to wear, requiring a delicate balance between looking good and yet not looking as if she’d gone out to buy something new especially.

How To Look One’s Best in Old Clothes was a question that fevered Piggy to her very soul. The passion that was on her to look her very best on these lovely days was set about miserably by the knowledge that her appearance in Castlequarter in any clothes not in rags would be met by a cold scrutiny, and Joan’s faint ridiculing voice would examine the matter, saying “Why are you so grand today Piggy?” or “i did mean to take the children ratting in the manure heaps this morning but it seems a bit severe on your nice new clothes.

Poor Piggy resorts to deliberately cutting holes in perfectly good clothes, wearing clothes stained with a dog’s footprints and an odd ensemble, just to try and pass muster. This is a woman whom Farrell shows, is not living – and has never really lived – but merely existed; a victim to stronger characters who know exactly how to pull her strings. Though Devoted Ladies is meant to be comic – and indeed it has its witty moments – my overwhelming feeling when I learned Piggy’s fate was of profound sadness for a life wasted.

What started as a novel I was ambivalent about – and at times considered abandoning – became by the end a moving experience. It’s apparently not Farrell/Keane’s best work (that seems to be considered Good Behaviour which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1981) but it’s given me enough of a taste to read her other novels.

Footnotes

Author: Devoted Ladies by M. J Farrell

Published: 1934. Re-issued as Virago Modern Classic number 138 in 1984

Length: 303 pages

My copy: bought second hand and sat on the shelf until All August/All Virago month and #20booksofsummer 2016

Opinions about this novel differ considerably according to some of the reviews on Goodreads. For another fan take a look at the review by heavenali

 

 

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