It must be one of the most delicious opening scenes in literature.
Aroon St Charles and servant Rose are fighting for superiority over Mummie’s luncheon. Aroon eventually asserts dominance – ‘I can use that tone of voice which keeps people in their places’ – and presents Mummie with her luncheon: a rabbit mousse.‘Forced through a fine sieve and whizzed for ten minutes in a Moulinex blender’, Aroon asks herself: ‘What could be more delicious and delicate than a baby rabbit?’ Almost anything it transpires. Mummie takes one sniff of rabbit mousse, protests, vomits and then dies. Most chillingly of all, Aroon instructs the distraught maid – screaming and cursing at her mistress – to put the mousse over some boiling water: ‘it may be hours until luncheon.’
Matricide most foul, but all with a wonderful whiff of utmost gentility. How refined a disposition must it take to be killed by a dainty dish? And what refined manners; rabbit is a dish more suited to the ‘bog Irish’ or children than to the upper echelons of Anglo-Irish society. It is this class that Molly Keane understand and presents with such a light comic touch and also imbues with a faintly ridiculous tragedy. Mummie is not a simply murder victim, in fact she is displaying her final bit of good behaviour. She would literally die than eat such a degrading dish, and so she becomes a martyr to the decorum of a dead and gone class.
While W.B Yeats saw the big houses of the Anglo-Irish as essentially noble, and their destruction as tragic, Molly Keane was more perceptive; in fact, she saw through them. Born into the strange society she portrays in her novels, Molly Keane had lived as a big house gel – obsessed with horses and the hunt, who kept her literary endeavours safely concealed by a pseudonym – until her marriage. It wasn’t until twenty years after the early death of her husband that she published Good Behaviour – the story of the decline of the St Charles family and their Temple Alice estate in Ireland – and around sixty years after the events of the novel. This perhaps reflects the political mood of the ‘New Ireland’, an Ireland that wasn’t interested in the eccentric upper classes she portrays where boys are beaten for reading poetry, dogs receive better food than the servants, and it is considered the height of bad manners to send in bills.
The Irish-Anglo world – long a part of Ireland, but never quite integrated – had long since disappeared from the land by the time Keane came to write the novel. As Aroon looks back ‘beyond any shadow into the uncertainties and glories of our youth’, simultaneously at both at her family and this lost world, it becomes clear that their own ‘good behaviour’ was very much to blame. As their world crumbled around them, they decided that the correct way to conduct oneself was through selective silence. The suicide of a governess is not discussed; neither is the death of the only son. ‘We exchanged cool, warning looks’, Aroon says, after her brother’s funeral: ‘which of us could behave best: which of us could be least embarrassing to the others?’
The title of the novel is of course ironic, as the behaviour of the family at its centre is nothing short of execrable. Mummie is all beauty and hauteur, torturing her plain daughter through loaded asides. Daddy is a true horse and hound man, conducting affairs left, right and centre under Mummie’s nose, who is too well-bred to pay attention to such things. Even the long suffering Aroon, who’s pitiful search for someone to love and be loved, is no simple victim. When she is in fact offered marriage by the family lawyer, she proved herself to be her mother’s daughter: “You must be out of your mind … I was after all, Aroon St Charles’. In acting thus they understand nothing, they resolve nothing and they turn on each other. As Mummie unveils her new economic drive, which essentially boils down to neither mother nor daughter having anything to each, she notes to Aroon: ‘They say whales can live for months on their own fat – do they call it blubber’. Asides like acid come to casually fall from the lips of mother and father.
By the end of the novel, good behaviour has instead become a byword for justifying cruelty and revenging yourself on all your relatives, all with the utmost discretion and elegance, of course. It’s a tragedy at its core – a tragedy of manners, of distant parent-child relations, sexual repression and bad food – but Keane’s deft comedy, the ease of her prose and dialogue prevent it from becoming unrelentingly grim. It’s wicked, it’s psychologically sound, and, above all, it is brilliant.
Image: Brandon Warren/Flickr (all creative commons)
Originally Published 30th October 2016