The Solace of Intrigue

Good Behaviour

by Molly Keane
Dutton, 245 pp., $6.95 (paper)

Time After Time

by Molly Keane
Knopf, 249 pp., $13.95

By the Twenties the Anglo-Irish gentry—the “Ascendancy” as they were called—rapidly became a remnant. After the treaty, some stormed out shouting at the receding Wicklow Hills. Those who stayed on resorted to irony; for centuries they had been a caste in decline on a poor island-within-an-island in Britain’s oldest colony. They stuck to their wild passions for huntin’, shootin’, fishin’, the turf, drink, and, above all, genealogy, as the damp rose in their fine but decaying houses. Debts and mortgages gathered around them, but they had long settled for not knowing history socially except when it presented itself in the form of family trees (sometimes done in tapestry) going back to the Normans, the Elizabethans, or even to Charlemagne. The snobbery approached, as Stendhal would have said, the Sublime.

In their time this race had produced great generals, clever colonial servants, excellent playwrights, writers in prose and poetry. In these last, their particular gift lay in clear swift writing, in the unrelenting, almost militant comedy of manners or in uproarious farce. How often, in the expectant stare of their eyes, one noticed a childlike or ranging innocence and the delight in mischief. Their condition was the nearest thing in Western Europe to, say, Gogol’s or Turgenev’s Russian landowners, and this in the everchanging light of an often graceful landscape, and in a climate that either excited the visionary in them or drove them in on themselves.

As one who knew something of the period of Molly Keane’s Good Behaviour I was astonished to find there no hint of the Irish “Troubles,” the Rising of 1916, the later civil war, or the toll of burned-down houses. Was this an instance of the Anglo-Irish, indeed of the general Irish habit of euphemism and evasion? What, of course, is most real to Molly Keane is the game of manners, the instinctive desire to keep boring reality at bay yet to be stoical about the cost.

The Victorian and Edwardian codes stayed on far longer in southern Ireland than in England. Good Behaviour, published in 1981 and recently reissued in paperback, is less a novel than a novelized autobiography which exposes the case of Anglo-Irish women, especially in the person of the narrator, a shy, large, ungainly, horsy girl. The males, young or old, are always away, either fighting in the 1914 war or shooting and fishing or dangling after less-innocent girls abroad. For the women at home sex is taboo, yet marriage is the only hope—so long as you remember that men by their nature “have to do something to women—and that it hurts.” Love, like sex, is really a state of cease fire. One of the rules of good behavior is that you say nothing about it unless it is done by animals. The native Catholic servants, untroubled by the use of euphemism or “place,” burst with gaudy oaths to your face. They are chiefly excited by illness and death and are passionate adepts …

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