Molly Keane. Photo: © D. Donahue.
“All my life so far I have done everything for the best reasons and the most unselfish motives,” says Aroon St. Charles, the tall, bosomy antiheroine of Molly Keane’s Good Behaviour, minutes after killing her mother. “I have lived for the people dearest to me, and I am at a loss to know why their lives have been at times so perplexingly unhappy.”
As a narrator, Aroon is a monster of repression, revealing things she herself does not know on every page. Take this first scene, in which she—well, murder is such an ugly word. Let’s just say the book opens with Aroon speeding her invalid mother’s twilight years to their inevitable conclusion with the aid of an indigestible rabbit mousse. When, afterward, she orders the housekeeper to save the leftovers for lunch—mustn’t waste!—we know, even if she doesn’t, that this act of symbolic cannibalism is meant to perfect her revenge. But revenge for what?
To answer that question, Keane takes us back to Aroon’s origins in Temple Alice, the Anglo-Irish “big house” where she was born. It is a world of horses and hounds and endless gin cocktails, actively hostile to the inner life; a world where a child caught reading a book is admonished and sent back outside. Bodies and their functions are taboo, as are excessive feelings of any kind. Grief, in particular, is forbidden.
Aroon is cursed from the start with an ordinary need for love and a body out of sync with the 1920s fetish for slim, boyish figures. Starved for affection from her philandering father and chilly, distant mother (“She had had us and she longed to forget the horror of it once and for all”), she yearns to be “a small cherished person” but is referred to instead as “massive.” Deprived of food, comfort, and love, instead of shrinking, she grows.
So do her blind spots. To solve the whydunit of Good Behaviour, the reader must penetrate its narrator’s protective shell of denial, divining the truth through odd silences and peculiar lapses in the narrative point of view. The most notable of these is a long digression about Aroon’s plump, sentimental governess, Mrs. Brock. Layering Aroon’s past and present points of view with those of characters who haven’t yet been introduced, Keane masterfully reveals the coexistence in Aroon of deep, instinctual knowledge and willful ignorance. After all, she must know enough to know what she must not let herself know. Mrs. Brock’s fate acquires a mythic significance, a prime example of bad behavior brutally punished.
Aroon’s desperation to avoid that fate leads her from cringe comedy to what I can only call cringe tragedy. Good behavior requires lying, and the more Aroon lies to herself, the more she is lied to by others, often with sociopathic callousness. Thus are monsters born.
But then, in a world where “one did not quite admit the possibility of cowardice even in young children,” sociopathic callousness is the very definition of good behavior. Throughout the book, everything from crushing debt to unrequited love to the sudden deaths of loved ones is shaken off and never spoken of again: “We had behaved beautifully. No pain lasts.”
Molly Keane’s life was defined by precisely the kind of good behavior that Good Behaviour skewers. Born Mary Nesta Skrine in 1904, a daughter of the fading Anglo-Irish gentry, Keane was a moody, red-haired child with a rebellious streak; the cook called her “that right red rip.” She longed for affection from her chilly, withdrawn mother, a celebrated poet of sentimental verse, but struggled to embody her Victorian ideals of modesty and composure. Due to Mrs. Skrine’s ruthless economies, Ballyrankin, the family estate in County Wexford, was always kept cold and uncomfortable, the food downright nasty. There was no money for new clothes; Molly’s older sister Susan was sent to a coming-out ball in a tennis dress.
This vision of landed wealth crumbling into poverty forms the backdrop of Keane’s books. Thanks in part to the increasing gains of the Irish independence movement, the colonial Anglo-Irish class was in steep decline by the time she began to write. The Irish War of Independence raged during her teenage years, though you’d never know it from reading most of her novels; in her last year at boarding school, Ballyrankin was burned to the ground by armed insurgents. One of the gunmen dragged armchairs out onto the lawn so the family could sit and watch.
Through it all, the Anglo-Irish kept up their foxhunting and their lawn tennis. Keane was no exception. Her first taste of social life came at her cousins’ house, where she was sent while a new house was being built near the charred ruins of the old one. Once back at Ballyrankin, however, she contracted a mysterious illness that her biographer, her daughter Sally Phipps, suggests may have been psychosomatic. She wrote her first novel at seventeen while sick in bed, either to deal with unspeakable loss or, as Keane herself always maintained, to supplement her dress allowance. She must have seen some adorable clothes at her cousins’ house.
Either way, this was the start of a long career. The Knight of Cheerful Countenance was published by William Collins, Sons, in 1926, under the pseudonym M. J. Farrell—a name Keane saw on a pub sign—because being an author wasn’t good behavior, especially for a woman. If anyone found out, she later said, she would have been considered “brainy.” In her twenties she wrote Young Entry (1928), Taking Chances (1929), Mad Puppetstown (1931), and Conversation Piece (1932), all witty horse-and-hound romances chronicling a dying way of life. Her sixth novel, Devoted Ladies (1934), features gay and lesbian characters modeled after the theater types she’d met at the home of her bisexual friend John Perry, and it marks a major break from her earlier novels, heralding a more mature phase. The next three books show Keane stretching herself in style and experimenting with darker subjects: Full House (1935) introduces the first of many monstrous mothers; The Rising Tide (1937), her best novel barring Good Behaviour, is an acid melodrama about a widow clinging to her Edwardian youth; and Two Days in Aragon (1941) takes on the Irish War of Independence, house-burning and all.
Widows and spinsters had always appeared as minor characters in her books—marriageable men were thin on the ground after World War I—but in this new phase of her career, when Molly was an unmarried woman in her thirties, they took center stage. Keane’s fascination with these “excellent women,” who were expected to toil socially while suppressing all private feeling, aligns her with Barbara Pym, Muriel Spark, Sylvia Townsend Warner, and the other British grandes dames of spinster lit—many of whom were themselves spinsters and widows.
Molly’s happy marriage in 1939 to the much younger Robert (“Bobbie”) Keane saved her from the former fate but not the latter. Bobbie had been barred from serving in World War II due to a stammer, only to die in 1946 of a blood clot after a minor surgery when the couple was in London. Doctors did not know then that patients should be encouraged to get up and walk after surgery. This absurdly preventable tragedy left Keane with two daughters to raise alone in a society where grief was considered the worst behavior of all. Shocked and in something of a stupor, she went lamp shopping with a friend upon hearing the news, not bothering to learn where he would be buried. She died not knowing.
After Bobbie’s death Molly’s attention, divided between novels and the stage ever since the surprise success of her play Spring Meeting (1938), cowritten with John Perry, turned almost entirely to theater. She needed money, and perhaps the brooding, melancholic tendency that came out in her novels felt too dangerous. In a culture where grief was the ultimate taboo, widows were supposed to glitter. Her next two novels, both adapted from her plays, have very little interiority to them. Her hit play Treasure Hunt (1952) was the most sparkling story she’d ever written. But eventually the stage failed her, too. In 1961, an ill-conceived sequel to Spring Meeting flopped, pilloried in the press by critics sick of elegant drawing-room comedies. The theater critic Kenneth Tynan claimed he could hear the audience neighing.
Keane stopped working and threw herself into domestic hobbies. “My writing is dated,” she said. “This is the end and there is nothing I can do.”
For years she had expressed the unspeakable in her writing, caricaturing her acquaintances to sell out the secrets of her class. Her witty, melancholic books had chronicled their abortions and suicides and affairs, their neglected children and abused elders, their inadmissible loneliness and the shameful, ever-present fear of being killed on a horse. She had done it all under a pseudonym. But the best behavior of all is silence.
Good Behaviour didn’t break the silence so much as bring it to the page. A narrator in denial; a style purged of description; a plot never spelled out; a love that dares not speak its name. Its satire a blade sharpened nearly to transparency, Good Behaviour was Keane at her keenest.
Keane’s publisher of nearly fifty years rejected it, saying it was too nasty and suggesting she write at least one “nice” character. She refused. It sat in a drawer for years until her friend the actor Peggy Ashcroft read it during a visit and urged Keane to try again. Published to instant acclaim in 1981, it was nominated for the Booker Prize but lost to Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children. She was nearly eighty years old. It was her first book published under her real name.
Keane was severely disappointed by the loss (which she shared with Muriel Spark and Doris Lessing). Once more, she had been judged obsolete; Rushdie’s boisterous postcolonial novel of India must have felt very new next to Keane’s satire of a long-dead ruling class. And yet there is something undeniably modern about Good Behaviour. If it’s too quaint to be new, it’s too cruel to be old. Perhaps the perfect time to read it is now, in a global pandemic, when time feels stopped, present and past atrocities knit together on a single stitch. Fueled by an undercurrent of rage yet as taut and crisp and tidy on the surface as a perfectly turned Sally Lunn cake, Good Behaviour is as delectable a horror story as you are likely to encounter. Enjoy every crumb. Mustn’t waste.
Amy Gentry is the author of the novels Good as Gone, Last Woman Standing, and, most recently, Bad Habits. Her essays and reviews have appeared in the Chicago Tribune, Salon, The Paris Review, and elsewhere. She holds a doctorate in English from the University of Chicago and lives in Austin, Texas.
Excerpted from the introduction to Good Behaviour, by Molly Keane, published this week by New York Review Books. Copyright © 2021 by Amy Gentry.
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