Thursday, September 10, 2009

Good Behaviour - Molly Keane

Good Behaviour

Along with every other lover of vintage fiction I have a list of pet authors whose work has slipped out of print for no reason I can comprehend. I understand why Virago can’t keep every modern classic they once rescued from obscurity in print, but there is something particularly poignant about the ones that have fallen by the wayside again, the jaunty little sentence in the introduction brightly proclaiming that this book is about to reclaim its rightful position in the cannon leaves me mourning over lost hopes.

I am relieved that this fate hasn’t entirely overtaken Molly Keane who is definitely one of my pet causes, but she is still under read, and definitely under appreciated. (Molly is one of the authors by whom I judge the quality of a bookshop – if she’s on the shelf I consider it a good one.) I wonder if it’s because she writes from the point of view of the Anglo-Irish aristocracy, and writes about a time that’s still remarkably sensitive? Sympathy for the landed classes is often problematical, no matter how evil the times they have fallen on.

Good Behaviour’ is from Molly’s later career, first published in 1981, and short listed for the booker, it is a black and bleak comedy of manners. Written with acid rather than ink, not a single character appears in a flattering light. The St Charles family living beyond their means behind the gates of Temple Alice utterly unwilling, and unable to conceive of a different way of life slip further into poverty and decay. Told by the unlovely and unloved daughter of the house Aroon, mistress of self deception, good behaviour – behaving according to the rules of caste - is a mask that slowly slips revealing the deficiencies and desires just under the surface.

The world Aroon inhabits makes the Mitford set look positively socialist and liberal in its attitudes, her parents have sufficient charm in manner and person to carry this off, not Aroon unpopular with servants and peer group alike, she is forced resentfully to accept her “...powerless status as daughter at home – a child of the house living in the grace and favour of unexplored obedience.” Apparently Molly had an exceptionally poor relationship with her own mother, and every mother she creates is monstrous. Mrs St Charles is no exception, her unconcealed dislike, often spilling over into open contempt, for her daughter poisons both their futures.
It’s not a happy book, but I find the coldly dispassionate tone robs events of the potential to be viewed as tragedy; it could almost be a horror story but that it’s too deft and subtle to be so easily categorized. What this book does feel is true, which is why I hope people carry on reading it.


  1. I adore Molly Keane. I discovered her after finding Viragos of 'The Rising Tide' and 'Full House' in a charity shop. After devouring them I realised I had a copy of Good Behaviour at home, but I still haven't read it. I must get hold of her other novels, I'd love to read them all.

  2. I discovered her when I was at university and looking for women writers to prove a point, I fell in love with her writing, and later discovered that my grandfather had known her. It was one of the last conversations we had together,when I read her books now I think of him too.