Posts Tagged ‘Ireland’

Good Behaviour

September 3, 2012

I really was shocked by Molly Keane’s novel, Good Behaviour.

It bobs along, all hunting, gardening and dancing, but then, just as you begin to sink into the relaxing comfort of this old-fashioned, grand way of life, out thrusts a hideously dark, utterly shocking occurrence. But the reader is not allowed to dwell on this horrible thing. Indeed we can scarcely process it before the narrative forces us to return to the shimmering surface of grand country life. It happens again and again, thrust after horrible dark thrust disrupting the frothy surface, until the two fall into an uneasy co-existence. The narrator, Aroon, now middle-aged and looking back on her youth, insists on focussing on the surface, but the reader can’t ignore the sinister goings on underneath.

I read Good Behaviour with the unnerving sensation of feeling my jaw actually drop when the first of these dark moments erupted. It was all the more shocking thanks to the way Aroon refuses to let the narrative even so much as pause to let us give these moments our full attention. I blinked in disbelief. These hideous occurrences scream out at you as you are ushered past, instantly vanishing under the carpet as your attention is pulled away to the next hunt or dinner.

It’s hard to write about these dark moments without giving away the plot and taking away the element of surprise. But here is one instance that happens early on and doesn’t give much away. Aroon’s father has returned from the First World War without a leg. A page or so earlier he has written back from the front about the death of Ollie Reilly, one of the servants of the house, who had fought with him and – back in Ireland – had had a romance with another servant, Rose. In the letter he wrote: ‘Tell Rose he died instantly; he never knew what got him’. A little later, we get this:

This was an interval in his recovery; later in the year he was to have his wooden leg fitted. In the meantime he must rest, he must eat. He did both, and drank as well, growing every day more irritable and rather fatter. He followed Mummie about the garden at first; he even sat in the studio and watched her painting, after he had absorbed the small amount of racing news in the daily papers. All the time he seemed sadly unoccupied, as indeed he was. He couldn’t ride. He fell into the river when he went fishing. Long afterwards I knew things were on his mind then. Reeking, new, they must have been terrible. He had shot Ollie Reilly as he lay mutilated and dying; when he talked to Rose, Ollie’s death seemed quite enviable, here and gone, out like a light.

Such things were so near and so apart from the honeyed life in Ireland. Every day was a perfect day that April. The scrawny beauty of our house warmed and melted in the spring light.

So we get the shimmering ‘honeyed life in Ireland’ full of ‘perfect’ days and beautiful spring light. We get a young woman observing her father following her ‘Mummie’ around like a lost puppy, seeming ‘sadly unoccupied’ because he can’t ride or fish, and growing plump and crochety. But snuck into the middle of this, contained in just a single sentence is the horrible fact that ‘He had shot Ollie Reilly as he lay mutilated and dying’. It is obvious to the reader that Aroon’s father isn’t ‘sadly unoccupied’, but that he is dwelling on the horror of war, of having shot his mutilated servant to put him out of his misery. Yet this awful thing which so preoccupies him isn’t spoken about, is scarcely even mentioned. The narrator wants to believe – and wants us readers to believe – that her father was only irritable because he couldn’t hunt.

In this disparity between the shiny ‘honeyed’ surface and violent undercurrent, Molly Keane has quite ingeniously pulled off the feat of rendering a gap between what is understood by the narrator and what is understood by the reader. To my mind, this is one of the cleverest things a novelist can do. The writer has to create a blinkered narrator, deliberately limiting their knowledge, while at the same time dropping sufficient hints of the greater truth for the reader to grasp it. It’s a tough balance to get just right – not too obvious, not too obscure.

This gap between the false surface and the dark thrust of tragic reality is why the narrator – and indeed the whole family – relies upon the ‘good behaviour’ of the title. When a tragedy occurs, everyone does their best to behave perfectly – to see who can cry the least, never mention it, ignore it and return to gardening or reading the Tatler. By forcing themselves to live in the surface, they try to make the surface cover up and suppress the underlying tragedy.

In Jane Gardam’s elegant introduction to this beautiful Folio edition, she tells us about an episode when Molly Keane’s six-year-old daughter wanted to weep at the death of her father. Apparently Molly Keane told her child, ‘We mustn’t let [the butler] see us crying.’

Evidently this rule of ‘stiff upper lip’, ‘not in front of the servants’, always acting in accordance with social mores, was experienced, and to some extent, followed by Molly Keane. Perhaps this is why she examines it quite so expertly in this novel. It is from first-hand experience that she has created these characters who adhere so impeccably to the code of ‘Good Behaviour’, and yet, by creating these dark jolting interruptions to the otherwise well-behaved narrative flow, she challenges the code. The reader can’t help but see that some things deserve to be spoken about, ought to be grieved over, mustn’t be swept under the carpet.

As the novel progresses, we see that Aroon has spent her youth learning, however uncomfortably, how to behave as socially impeccably as her parents. We can see how appalling the parents’ behaviour actually is – the mother cruel beyond belief to Aroon, and the father sleazing on to every woman in sight – and yet this is masked with their fantastically ‘good behaviour’, gliding along and looking the other way. Feat after feat of horrible cruelty is disguised and excused by good manners. It is like a more literary incarnation of that nightmarish character from Harry Potter, Dolores Umbridge, inflicting cruel pain from a fluffy pink frilly smiling exterior. And so we gather from the main body of the novel, the excuse for what must be one of the most shocking opening scenes in all literature.

Good Behaviour begins with middle-aged Aroon murdering her mother. She does this, however, in such a polite, well-mannered way – insisting on feeding her sick mother, who she has propped up on a million soft pillows, rabbit mousse – that you almost can’t believe it.

This polite murder is startling at the beginning, but by the end of the book you realise that really it is the very pinnacle of ‘good behaviour’. Aroon has developed manners so finessed, so smotheringly good that they really will allow her to get away with murder.

Good Behaviour is an extraordinary book. It is dark and lethal, but deliberately frothed up into something that appears to be comforting and palatable. I suppose it is like that fatal rabbit mousse which Aroon serves to her mother.

It was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1981, the year that Midnight’s Children won. I can’t think of two more different novels. Good Behaviour is so restrained, so poised, so preoccupied with what is unsaid; Midnight’s Children is a splurging explosion, madly exuberant, bursting on to the page with a million highly-charged words. Each novel is a masterpiece. While Good Behaviour might appear to be the less remarkable of the two, in fact it is just understated – a mark of really very good behaviour indeed.

Bath-time with the Bowens

March 21, 2011

I’ve just had rather an unusual experience of reading a book.

It began with Alexandra Harris’s utterly wonderful Romantic Moderns. I’ve blogged about this one before, but in case your memory needs refreshing, Harris meanders around several English writers and artists from the first half or so of the twentieth century, showing how their work is rooted in the past and the countryside. It isn’t all John Betjeman, rather she looks at how the modernism of Woolf, Piper, Brandt, Waugh (and many more) has more in common than Betjeman and his ilk than many people would care to admit. Encyclopaedic knowledge is dispensed with wit, charm and a rather endearing British eccentricity.

I adored every single moment of reading Romantic Moderns, but the added benefit, which I’m only beginning to reap, is the desire to read or re-read some of the books that attracted her attention.

First of all, I re-read Rebecca. That was one of the best reads of last year. What a wonderful novel! As I’d last read it when I was fifteen or so, it yielded rather a lot from a re-reading. I even gave copies to my Granny and my fiancé, and, feeling rather impassioned, hand-sold around ten copies the following week, desperate for others to share the pleasure. And one lady actually came back into the bookshop a few days later to tell me how much she absolutely loved it! (Both my Granny and fiancé enjoyed it too – I’m not sure quite what that means.)

And, most recently, I’ve just read Bowen’s Court by Elizabeth Bowen.

Elizabeth Bowen is one of those names that’s always floating around the literary ether. But, for some reason, I’ve only ever caught her name out of the corner of my eye, as it were. She’s mentioned in an interview with an author, for instance, or is dropped in as a comparison in a book review. She never came up in the course of my English degree at Oxford, and, in the bookshop, I’ve never sold any of her books.

So I was intrigued to read about Elizabeth Bowen’s Bowen’s Court in Romantic Moderns. Alexandra Harris argues that Bowen’s intricate detailing of a building gains significance from the fact that it was written during the Second World War, when buildings were being blitzed to smithereens:

Bowen’s Court resists fragmentation and builds something solid over the “broken surface” of the present … Stones, bricks, mortar plead against transience.

My own writing, at the moment, is rather preoccupied with houses, so I was quite excited about reading Bowen’s Court – which promised to be quite a big, quite a brilliant, personal history of a house. And it’s now out of print, so I also had a somewhat geeky sense of academic adventure. As though I might be about to discover a ‘lost classic’.

But I have to be completely honest here and say that, when I started reading Bowen’s Court, I found it a bit boring. And – even worse – as I continued to read it, I still found bits a bit boring.

You see, Bowen’s Court isn’t just an intricate detailing of a house, it is a history of the English in Ireland, and the Bowen family’s part in that history. In many ways, in fact, it’s not dissimilar to The Hare with Amber Eyes in its movement between the microcosm of the family history and the macro of the country’s. And it was tempting to skim through long passages about Irish history or long extracts from old family wills. I want to know more about the house, I kept telling myself, and – aside from the first chapter’s description of it – Bowen’s Court itself doesn’t enter the book until 140 or so pages in, when it was built.

But then this peculiar thing happened. Despite finding it a bit boring, I began to feel a strange tie to the book. It became a source of comfort. As soon as I opened it up and started reading, a calmness descended upon me, together with a smile and an odd feeling like a warm glow.

What a weird feeling to have while reading a history book!

This feeling was entirely down to Elizabeth Bowen herself. She wrote Bowen’s Court in such a personal way that she utterly endeared herself to me. I know this sounds unforgivably naf, but I felt like I’d made friends with her. I felt almost as though I were sitting down for a cuppa and a natter with a best friend.

She may be telling the stories of her ancestors (and, by proxy, the story of Bowen’s Court and the history of Ireland) but it is always, undoubtedly, Elizabeth Bowen – the ever-present ‘I think, I shall tell, I want, I do not want, I have shown, I feel quite sure …’ in the book – who is telling these stories. Take, for instance, her introduction of the first major character in the book:

[Henry] was the first of our Bowens to die in Ireland, he was the founder of the Bowen’s Court family, so from now on I shall call him Henry I.

Oh ok, Henry I it is, then. And, as the book goes on, we get all the way up to Henry VI!

Another idiosyncratic moment is in the story of Miss St. Leger and the Freemasons:

In a small alcoved room in Doneraile Court, a Miss St. Leger became the only lady Free Mason. The popular story is that she hid in a clock, her family say she happened to fall asleep on a couch: anyhow, whether by design or accident, she overheard what the Free Masons were saying, so they made her one of their number.  In her portrait the lady, who later married an Aldworth, has a dogged, impassible face.  I support the idea of the clock.

We get a place – the ‘small alcoved room in Doneraile Court’, the two versions of the story – clock and couch, a bit of Debrett’s-style placing of families – ‘who later married an Aldworth’, a very personal interpretation of her portrait –‘ dogged, impassible face’. And finally, most personal of all, Bowen’s choice of stories: ‘I support the idea of the clock.’

The prose is littered with little asides and anecdotes like this. It’s a very colloquial style, chatty and intimate. I wish it didn’t sound so patronising and disparaging to call it ‘tea-time writing’, only because I feel as though Elizabeth Bowen is leaning over her teacup, having just scoffed a biscuit, a few crumbs on her jacket, to whisper about the clock quite conspiratorially.

Perhaps it’s a bit gossipy and ever so juicy with it. But I also felt that in her writing of the book, in her telling of the stories, Bowen was trying to make sense of them, set things straight in her head. So in the Miss St. Leger and the Freemasons story, we get rather a brisk: ‘anyhow, whether by design or accident’ before coming down in favour of the clock version. There are endless summings-up, ‘What happened was this,’ or, ‘it was no doubt …’ or ‘in fact.’ It’s another way in which it feels like a conversation, as though the story is being finalised, a particular version of events settled upon, in her telling of it.

Bowen’s Court is quite a long book – 450 pages or so – and so I spent a good couple of weeks in Elizabeth Bowen’s company. My favourite time for it was bath-time, after dinner on a quite work-night, disappearing into a hot tub with a whisky and Elizabeth Bowen for an hour or so at a time. I imagine she might have preferred this description to the tea-time one. I felt increasingly fond of her as time went on.

But, the funny thing is, now I’ve finished the book, I don’t feel particularly bereft. Perhaps because it wasn’t really the end of a story. I don’t feel as though the characters have been extinguished, rather that there’s now a pause after several long conversations about them. It’s as though she’s gone away on holiday for a short while and will be back soon with more tales to tell. I can’t wait!