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.