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 at wakes and the “last rites.” The young girl has to rise above it all. Her duty is to know the voice of command that “puts people in their places.”
So the amiable war hero and landowner, the girl’s father, reckless in the saddle, will have a heart attack in mysterious circumstances; he is a charming drinker and accepted pursuer of young girls when he goes to London. When he is dying his freezing wife is indifferent; her role is to conserve the “things” of the family—pictures, silver, fine inherited furniture, and the remains of the status and money. The role of the young girl is to control the war between wife, nurse, and the head-tossing servant who sneaks into the sickroom with fatal draughts of whiskey. She is the peasant with the pacifying art of giving sexual relief under the sheets: she pretends she is warming the old man’s feet.
What does the daughter crave? All the excitements of the freedom she has heard of in the Twenties: to be loved by the young man who has merely flirted in a gentlemanly way at a dance or two, and has vanished. She is red-faced, gauche, and clumsy in society, and has scarcely been educated by an ignorant governess hired cheaply, mainly to teach her a few phrases of French as an item of gentility. What she craves is the assurance that her father is convinced of her virginity and that he loves her: he certainly hates his selfish wife. In the end he does show that he loves his daughter. He punishes his wife by leaving the girl the property. And the book ends with that great national festival, the classic Irish funeral at which the girl gets majestically drunk.
This book is an entertainment which in parts recalls the one outstanding Irish novel of the nineteenth century, The Real Charlotte by “Martin Ross”—the more sensitive and serious partner in the collaboration of Somerville and Ross in Some Experiences of an Irish R.M. Somervile was the mistress of country-house farce and its metaphors (“Birds burst out of holly bushes like corks bursting out of soda water bottles.” We remember old Flurry Knox whose “grandmother’s curry” was so powerful that “you’d take a splint off a horse with it”). Ross was the subtler social moralist who could almost match Mrs. Gaskell’s Wives and Daughters or, on native grounds, Maria Edgeworth.
Molly Keane’s real novel, substantial and ingeniously organized, is the more recent Time After Time. It is more Ross than Somerville in temper than the earlier book. Now good behavior is in abeyance, although its shadow is there. We are now in a period closer to the present day. Still no politics, though there is a horrified glance at a political crime abroad, the Holocaust.
For the rest, the Irish imbroglio tells its own tale. Elderly Jasper Swift and his three sisters look back on past glories as they quarrel in the Big House while its remaining acres have become a wilderness. The family are all old, the youngest in her sixties, the others in their late seventies. There are no comic servants, there is little money. Jasper, once at Eton, paces about in the patched clothes of his dressy youth: he has been left the terrible legacy of looking after his bickering and pitiless sisters. His realm is in the kitchen. He does the cooking, specializing in dubious menus with strange sauces which he recalls from a gourmet’s past; some of the stuff has been rescued from the dogs and cats and is made anonymous by a last-minute scattering of herbs. He is a quiet, nervy fellow and doesn’t bother now to conceal his faintly homosexual past; a sort of half-fey cunning saint whose main relief—apart from cooking—is ruling his sisters by getting his own back. They are tough, high-spirited, unsexed ladies but bottled in illusions about their youth. In a confusing narrative which ingeniously brings back glimpses of the family past—and without any clumsy use of flashback so that the past secretes itself in fragments—we are grateful that the ladies are conveniently called April, May, and June.
Fiercely they lock their bedrooms against one another. They have all, including Jasper, been emotionally maimed by the monstrous, possessive will of their “darling Mummie,” long ago dead. We are back in a forgotten Anglo-Irish, perhaps totally Irish, puzzle: how do the women survive? The answer is by secretiveness, rancor; liberated by isolation, they go “underground” and “make do,” all expert in the “home truth.”
Shut up in her room seventy-five-year-old April, the ex-beauty, lives among the beautiful dresses of her past. She is a childless widow—she knows what the others don’t, that thing men “have to do.” (Her husband, a pornographer, liked “doing it” in trains.) She lives in the past; and is deaf and carries a pad on which the others have to write down what they have to say. Her chief occupations are weight-watching and push-ups. Her deafness seems to enhance what was once beauty: she is “armoured for loneliness.” She sips vodka and is bemused by tranquilizers.
May’s room is as bleak as a room in a nursing home. She looks and lives like a robot, has never been desired, but is frantically busy as a bad artist. She makes pictures out of tweed, grasses, dead flowers, and leather. She loves to collect china rabbits—her obsession. She is also light-fingered where bright little objects are concerned: tinsel, marbles, anything that shines—a jackdaw. Her dexterity with her hands is astonishing for she was born with a “cropped hand with only two fingers.” She knows how to conceal this wound at local talks on flower arrangement. She is in conspiracy also with the local antique dealer—a new type in modern Ireland—and is not above some skillful stealing.
Baby June, the youngest, aged sixtyfour, has reverted to the peasant condition and is indeed a by-blow. Fit to do the work of two men, illiterate, she is a powerful girl in the stables and has been, in her time, a rider who has been the terror of every point-to-point in the country and has “the shape and weight of a retired flat-race jockey.” She is an expert at delivering calves, killing lambs, knows how to deal with farrowing pigs. She clumps into the house, satisfied by the blood on her hands and clothes. Her closest friend and pupil is a pious Catholic stable-lad she is training to become a jockey. Around the sisters crowd their lascivious dogs and cats in Jasper’s filthy kitchen. (His cat sits on the bread board.)
And then, a pitiless figure descends on them—old indeed, fat but in gorgeous clothes, reeking of Paris and insinuation. She is Leda, half-Jewish, the daughter of a famous restaurateur in Vienna who had married into the family before the 1940 war. To her cousins she brings back the childhood memories of past wealth and pleasure. Miraculously they feel rejuvenated. They had never liked to talk about her because of her Jewish blood, for they were sure she had been trapped by the Nazis and had died in Belsen. They half-remember that, when staying with them as a girl, she had been suddenly, without explanation, and in one of the high moments of “good behavior”—“so sorry you cannot stay”—firmly sent off at a moment’s notice by “darling Mummie,” a genius of the final goodbye. Perhaps it was something to do with Daddy or Jasper? It doesn’t matter now: they are ravished by her miraculous chatter. They are overcome by pity for her state: she is blind. Only Baby June, illiterate, dirty, has no time for her. Jasper himself, the man who had always longed to be a “complete human being,” is excited. He returns to compete with Vienna in his kitchen. Leda, in short, brings the family to life. They put her in Mummie’s sacred room and thenceforth she worms their secrets out of them. It is seduction with a special compensation: her blindness; she cannot see how aged they all are, any more than she can know her own ugliness.
But when we see Leda installed alone in Mummie’s sacred room we watch her do a strange thing. She gropes toward the wardrobe where Mummie’s beautiful dresses still hang and, fingering the material, pulls the finest one out and spits all over it. Leda, we see, is here for vengeance. (Here is a real echo of the appalling jealousy Martin Ross evoked in The Real Charlotte.) One by one she worms out the eager secrets: April, full of erotic notions picked up from her dead husband the pronographer; May the artist and nimble shoplifter; guilty Baby June who once shot Jasper in the eye when she was a child of seven; and Jasper, with his peculiar meetings with a local monk. At a terrible breakfast scene she comes out with all of it. Jasper in his lazy, evasive, semi-saintly way gladly makes himself out to be worse than the sisters who drive him mad, in order not to look nicer than they are.
There is more to this thoroughly well-organized traditional study of intrigue, malice, and roguery. It is rich, and remarkable for the intertwining of portraits and events. It is spirited, without tears. The ingenious narrative is always on the move and has that extraordinary clean athletic animation that one finds in Anglo-Irish prose. Mrs. Keane has a delicate sense of landscape; she is robust about sinful human nature and the intrigues of the heart, a moralist well weathered in the realism and the evasions of Irish life. No Celtic twilight here! Detached as her comedy is, it is also deeply sympathetic and admiring of the stoicism, the incurable quality of her people. When Leda herself is exposed and is taken off and put back with her nuns again, a helpless, cynical, evil creature, April relentlessly goes with her, almost like a wardress, to make her do her slimming exercises. Jasper, who has never quite been able to become a “human being,” has one less sister to torment and turns once more to his cooking and gardening. So Irish realism, with the solace of its intrigues, dominates this very imaginative and laughing study of the anger that lies at the heart of the isolated and the old, and their will to live.
April 12, 1984