In the opening scene of Molly Keane’s Good Behaviour, a novel about an Anglo-Irish household in the first half of the twentieth century, a fifty-seven-year-old woman named Aroon St. Charles is arguing with Rose, the family cook. Aroon has made rabbit quenelles for her elderly widowed mother, bedridden upstairs. Rose reminds Aroon that Mummie hates rabbit. Aroon says that Mummie is fine with rabbit. Besides, she’ll say it’s chicken and Mummie will never know the difference. Aroon brings up the tray before Rose can intervene. Mummie takes one whiff of the rabbit, vomits, and dies.
All this occurs within the first four pages. I have come to depend on this brief précis—some people laugh, some don’t—to distinguish future fans of the book from readers who will be appalled. After its dramatic start, the novel skips back to the early 1900s to tell Aroon’s tragicomic life story, tracking how her family and their “big house,” Temple Alice, change over the decades, mostly for the worse. Simultaneously light and dark, pleasurable and harrowing, Good Behaviour may appeal chiefly to readers drawn to characters who are a mixture of well-meaning and hilariously vile, victimizer and victim. In Keane’s novels and plays, justice rarely triumphs, virtue is infrequently rewarded. Even tragedy can wear the mask of the grotesque and absurd.
Good Behaviour was published in 1981, when Keane was seventy-six. It was the first of her works to appear under her real name; her eleven earlier novels and several plays were published under the pseudonym M.J. Farrell, which she said she took from a sign she saw over the doorway of a pub she passed, returning from a hunt. She wrote her first novel, The Knight of Cheerful Countenance (1926), at the age of seventeen, because she was ill and bored—and, she claimed, for money to buy dresses.
Some of Keane’s claims sound like the sort of offhand remarks people make about the past and repeat until they believe them. But until the late success of Good Behaviour, money had been a lifelong worry. She came from a class of Anglo-Irish families who could barely afford to heat their stately homes. She met her husband, Bobbie Keane, at a hunt ball in the early 1930s, and they had two daughters—Sally, born in 1940, and Virginia, born in 1945—but Bobbie died young, in 1946, following surgery for a stomach ulcer, and from that point on she supported her family by writing. Her income was unsteady; much of it came from her plays.
Later she would say that she wrote under an assumed name because she was afraid that, if anyone knew she was a writer, she would never find a boyfriend: “The chaps dreaded a clever girl.” A literary career seemed unlikely to endear her to the Anglo-Irish Bright Young Things with whom she attended house parties, foxhunts, horse shows, and dances. Yet it wasn’t her being a writer that alarmed people so much as the books she wrote. Sexual passion, gratified and denied, is everywhere in her work, as are serial adulterers. Once word was out that she was M.J. Farrell, she told The New Yorker in 1986,
I was rather disapproved of for writing…. Very disapproved of. I mean, the [local] strict mums thought I really shouldn’t be asked around…. They thought about love as dirty sex. I mean, just plain love was dirty sex, and no nice girl should know that about it. It was very mal vu. Very.*
Keane’s second novel, Young Entry (1928), was, like her first, a frothy romance set among the horsey crowd. In a later novel, Devoted Ladies (1934), she mocks a young woman named Jane for wanting to read Young Entry, by a certain M.J. Farrell: “Girlish friendship and fox-hunting…. What a revolting bit of camp…. Plenty of picturesque discomfort and cold bath water.” Even more ridiculous is Jane’s desire to live like the novel’s characters. She gets her wish, but we know she won’t enjoy those cold baths for very long.
By the time Keane wrote Devoted Ladies, a note of asperity had crept into her fiction. Her plots can seem driven by the angry disappointment of a bright child who has just discovered that the grown-ups are lying. The “good behaviour” is all habit, convention, conditioned response. Underneath the wit and polish, the illusion of amiability, these men and women can’t help insulting, deceiving, and betraying one another, any more than they can admit, even to themselves, that they are being insulted, deceived, and betrayed. In Molly Keane: A Life, Sally Phipps—the elder of Keane’s two daughters—reports that when she agreed to write her mother’s biography, Keane said, “I trust you completely…the only thing I’m afraid of is that you won’t be nasty enough.”
“Nasty” may not describe Keane’s tone in her own work, but there’s plenty of cruelty here. The humans inflict pain on one another and on the animals unlucky enough to cross their path. Contemporary readers may have trouble understanding (much less approving of) the obsessive passion for foxhunting that animates these plots. A proposal is made, a flirtation progresses, all in the midst of a hunt, with the pace and spirit of the chase—the heated pursuits alternating with leisurely conversations—mirrored in the fiction. Chattiness and refinement overlay a current of terror and danger.
Keane struggled from childhood with the fear of being afraid, and it’s a battle that her characters wage, often at great cost. “In those days one did not quite admit the possibility of cowardice even in young children,” Aroon says in Good Behaviour. “A cowardly child was a hidden sore.” Some terrors—of falling off a horse or packing the wrong clothes for a house party—were specific to Keane’s milieu; others—the fear of loss, of loving and not being loved—are more universal.
Even if we resist seeing fiction as disguised memoir, it’s hard to overlook the autobiographical elements in Molly Keane’s work. “Everything is based on my life,” she told The New Yorker. “I have no imagination.”
The unhappy childhoods of Aroon in Good Behaviour and Nicandra in a later novel, Loving and Giving (1988), were modeled on Keane’s own. She was born in 1904, in County Kildare, the third child of Walter and Agnes (Nesta) Skrine. Her English father had grown up in a grand house in Somerset and was a brilliant horseman. Her Irish mother—who wrote under the pen name Moira O’Neill—translated Dante and wrote children’s stories, magazine articles, and a popular book of poems, Songs of the Glens of Antrim (1900). A cold, elegant recluse who didn’t care about indoor heating or edible food, Nesta saw her five children as annoyances. Some of them (the boys) bothered her less than others. Molly irritated her most. “I was the unloved, unattractive child, and I was often sick,” Keane recalled in her daughter’s biography. “My mother hated me and I hated her.”
Mummie, in Good Behaviour, is a barely disguised Nesta. “She had an enormous distaste for housekeeping,” Aroon says.
When we were children the food in the nursery was quite poisonously disgusting…mostly rabbit stews and custard puddings riddled with holes. No wonder the nannies left in quick succession….
I don’t blame Mummie for all this. She simply did not want to know what was going on in the nursery. She had had us and she longed to forget the horror of it once and for all.
Educated by governesses, Molly was sent, at fourteen, to the French School, outside Dublin. She was there when her home, Ballyrankin, was burned by insurgents in 1921, during the Irish War of Independence. (A similar event occurs in her 1941 novel, Two Days in Aragon.) The rebels piled the furniture in the hall, doused it with gasoline, torched it, then thoughtfully invited Nesta and Walter Skrine to sit in armchairs set out on the lawn and watch their house burn. The Skrines chose to stand, leaning against the haystacks.
Much of Phipps’s biography charts the long and important friendships that liberated Keane from the arctic chill of her family. Among her friends were Fred Astaire’s sister and dance partner, Adele, and many theater people—including Dame Peggy Ashcroft and Sir John Gielgud—whom she met when her plays were produced in London. It was also in London that, at a literary party, she was introduced to Elizabeth Bowen. Because they shared a similar Anglo-Irish background, it was thought they might have something to talk about. Molly was struck by Bowen’s stammer and her ability to command male attention. Later, in Ireland, they would become close:
Sometimes, a little tired after the journey, [Bowen] would lie down flat in front of the fire, smoking elegantly—not guiltily as people do now…. She told Molly once that when you are young you think of marriage as a train you simply have to catch. You run and run until you have caught it, and then you sit back and look out of the window, and realise you are bored.
Directed by Gielgud, two of Keane’s plays—Spring Meeting (1938) and Treasure Hunt (1949)—were huge successes when they opened on London’s West End. The first appeared just before her marriage to Bobbie Keane; it was, her daughter writes, “Molly’s dowry.” The effort involved in writing and staging Treasure Hunt helped her recover from her grief after his death. Her last play, Dazzling Prospect (1961), was, her daughter notes, “perilously entitled”; in retrospect, the title came to seem ironic, and destined to tempt fate. Designed as a frothy drawing-room comedy, a sequel to Spring Meeting, the play, which featured Margaret Rutherford, was a disaster—and the reviews were merciless. Not only were its tone and setting out of step with an audience that had by then discovered the work of Beckett, Pinter, and Osborne, but the writing was lifeless. “She was physically and mentally exhausted when she wrote it; the strain shows,” writes Phipps. “It makes depressing reading today with heavy-handed jokes and no sparkle.” She wrote almost nothing else for twenty years.
In 1979 Peggy Ashcroft visited Keane at home in Ardmore, in southern Ireland. Ill with the flu, Ashcroft asked for something to read and her hostess gave her the manuscript of Good Behaviour, which, Keane said, was inspired by a recurrence of the urge to make money and by the idea of writing a book about somebody “who really never knew what was hitting them—like in the theatre when the audience shouts ‘turn round William is going to shoot you.’” Encouraged by Ashcroft’s enthusiasm, Keane sent it to a series of publishers, who turned it down. Accepted by André Deutsch, it was edited and championed by Diana Athill, and shortlisted for the Booker Prize; it lost to Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children. Keane was blunt about losing: “Prizes are all right if you win them and hell if you are listed and don’t.”
Good Behaviour had evolved into a book far beyond the story of someone who doesn’t know what’s hitting her. Aroon St. Charles, whom the novel follows from childhood into her late fifties, has never ventured far from her parents’ home. Self-conscious and socially awkward, she longs for true love and romance but fears that her hopes will be forever blighted by the fact that she is “a big girl” surrounded by slim, stylish young women, “the beauties of the twenties”:
I have now come to terms with my height; but in those years, when I was nineteen and twenty, I bent my knees; I bowed my shoulders; I strapped in my bosoms till they burst out round my back.
She adores her handsome, athletic brother Hubert, whose popularity affords her a measure of acceptance in their social circle and whose sportsmanship consoles their father for Aroon’s limitations: “I think Papa was most grateful for the way Hubert lifted me off his conscience. And I was Hubert’s escape and salvation from the girls who besieged him.”
It’s not easy to portray the consciousness of a narrator who constantly, and often willfully, fails to see the obvious. Keane lets us watch Aroon catch flickers of knowledge and—partly because of her own naiveté, partly because of the strictures and conventions of the world in which she has grown up—choose to ignore the uncomfortable truths (mostly having to do with sex) that will seem clear to the reader. She claims not to understand what Papa sees in their neighbors, the “Crowhurst girls,” thirty-year-old identical twins nicknamed Nod and Blink.
Some part of Aroon knows very well why Papa goes to their house to drink and spend time with Blink, his favorite. The twins are exciting: gifted, sexy, eccentric, free, sharp if you cross them. “Of all their talents,” Aroon thinks, “their talent to amuse was the one I found most repellent.” Later in the novel, we realize that Papa has been partly supporting the twins, and when his help ceases, they’re “faintly in a pickle.” On a visit to their house with Mummie shortly before Papa’s death, Aroon notices the change
in the room since that day when Papa and I had visited the girls. Then the room was bright and dignified. It had a gleam in its eye. Today a sticky dust of cold wood-ash hovered on the tables. The fire was not only cold and dead, it had the look of a fire not cleaned out or set or lighted for days…. All the small shapeliness and delicate contrivances in the room were overlaid by this new sluttish ambiance.
Certain realities—and emotions—cannot be mentioned or expressed. Hubert, by then a student at Cambridge, is killed in an auto accident while traveling with their friend, Richard:
Our good behaviour went on and on, endless as the days. No one spoke of the pain we were sharing…. There was to be no sentimentality. It was the worst kind of bad manners to mourn and grovel in grief.
At such moments Keane acutely captures the loneliness of a young person in a world of propriety where so much goes unspoken.
Only Hubert’s horse, Arch Deacon, mourns openly. Grown murderous, “devious and abominable,” the horse throws Aroon and gallops off, scaring and shaming her in front of Papa. “‘Bit much for you, sweetie.’ He laughed. ‘You weren’t nervous, were you?’ ‘Nervous’ was Papa’s word for terror. I laughed too. Laughing took the horror out of what had been happening.”
The subject of sex is even more taboo than death. Richard’s parents, Lord Wobbly and Lady Grizel Massingham—friends of the St. Charles family—never discuss their worry that their son might be gay. But why else are they so enraged when as a young boy he’s caught reading in a tree house instead of tending to his pony? Why else does he say he’s reading Robinson Crusoe, more masculine-sounding than the book of poetry he’s actually reading, but still a novel about two men on an island? Why is he beaten by his father for lying? Why is his governess, Mrs. Brock, fired for encouraging Richard’s unmanly interest in poetry and music?
Aroon says that she has no idea what her parents have in common, then describes a moment from her early childhood when she witnessed her father regretfully detaching himself from looking at his wife’s arms, “their flesh firm as partridge breasts,” just long enough to register that their daughter is present:
When they saw me in the doorway, when I said, “I think Hubert’s dead,” he raised his eyes from her arms (it seemed a long time, while Hubert and I were shut out) to her shoulders, to her eyes, and then he visibly let her go. If my dressing-gown had been in flames round me it would have taken them just as long to part.
Her husband’s love affairs are one of the many things (like unpaid bills) that Aroon’s mother finds regrettable but not worrisome. He’ll sleep with any woman who seems interested, and many are interested. Papa is generous and charming. Like the Crowhurst twins, his girlfriends are having fun, as long as they don’t take him seriously.
“Things happened in our house which, afterwards, seem only to have happened in my mind,” Aroon muses halfway through the novel. “Except that I remember them perfectly, they become extinct.” Aroon is recalling her first intimation of a secret and mysterious connection between Papa and Rose, the family cook, “something easy and practised that I could not name.” After Papa has a stroke and is bedridden, Rose brightens his final days by sneaking him whiskey and masturbating him under the blanket, but is caught by his visiting nurse. When Aroon protests that Rose has only been warming Papa’s cold foot, the nurse screams: “Foot?… You can’t name it, and I won’t name it. It’s a nasty name for a nasty thing.”
Another of Papa’s conquests is Mrs. Brock, who becomes Hubert and Aroon’s beloved governess after being fired by the Massinghams for letting Richard read poetry in the tree house. The Massinghams’ letter of reference, written merely to get rid of her, praises her for being “a strong swimmer,” which boosts Mrs. Brock’s pride. Later, when Mrs. Brock takes the St. Charles children to the beach, Aroon recalls:
We screamed and spattered in the breaking waves while Mrs. Brock took her real swim. I watched her fat body, a frilled torpedo in the black bathing costume, standing balanced and poised, ridiculous on a rock, before she dived—a joyous plunge into the deep water. Then she struck out into the bay with the strength and buoyancy of a seal; indeed, when the black bathing dress was sleeked by the water onto her body she had all the armoured rotundity of a seal—the same easy glory and enjoyment of an element that frightened me.
That comparison lodges in Aroon’s mind, so that when she’s older, she thinks of Mrs. Brock after a particularly vicious remark from Mummie:
“My poor girl—don’t let’s talk about your size. There are some subjects I do avoid…. They say whales can live for months on their own fat—do they call it blubber? Or is it seals?”
“Seals, I think.” The memory of a summer day came to me, unlocked and visible in that word “seal.” It was Mrs. Brock, diving and plunging and playing in the water. Kindness was the word linked with seal…. This was the present, and that time, before I knew I was ugly, was a myth.
One day, when Aroon is still quite young, she sees her governess talking to Papa in the schoolroom: “Tears poured over her face, her hands tried to hold on to his coat. He put her hands away from him.” It’s the worst possible moment for Mrs. Brock to decide to tell Aroon the facts of life. “No schoolroom in 1912 was lacking in white mice,” and the nursery at Temple Alice is no exception. Previously, when the male mouse climbed on top of the female, Mrs. Brock assured Aroon that he wasn’t killing her, it’s “just their play”—speaking of this near-sacred subject in “a hushed, special voice, as though her hands were softly touching the keys on her piano.” But after it’s clear that Mrs. Brock is merely one of Papa’s “Dorises and Dianas and Gladyses and Enids and a couple of Joyces,” her biology lesson gets rather more raw:
“Minnie’s had her babies,” she said, her voice still thick from crying. “Look—aren’t they disgusting?” They were, squirming and twiddling in their nest. “You’re always asking me how they do it,” Mrs. Brock went on. “Well, I’ll tell you. It’s that horrible Moses; he sticks that thing of his, you must have seen it—Hubert has one too—into the hole she pees out of, and he sows the seed in her like that.”
“Oh.” I felt myself becoming heated; horrified and excited.
“That’s how it happens,” Mrs. Brock went on, and she gripped me by both my arms. “That’s how it happens with people too. It’s a thing men do, it’s all they want to do, and you won’t like it.”
She still held my arms. “Is it true?” I had to know. “Papa and Mummie don’t. They couldn’t…”
“Oh, couldn’t they?” Mrs. Brock laughed and laughed. She was still laughing when I tore my arms away and ran out of the classroom…. When I joined Hubert and Papa in the yard I looked at him with quite new eyes. Could he and Mummie really do such a dirty thing? Was it possible? There he sat, elegant and easy on his young horse—but I knew it was true, horribly true. No wonder people kept it so secret.
Much of the rest of the novel turns on Aroon’s refusal to face the things she fears are true, including the nature of her brother’s relationship with Richard, whom Aroon hopes to marry. It’s clear (and disturbing) to Mummie and Papa that Richard and Hubert are lovers. But even after Aroon walks in on the two young men, half naked and getting dressed, she clings to the hope that Richard will marry her. She wants to believe that when Richard crawled into her bed when Hubert was still alive, just to ask her about him while complaining about her size (“Every time you move you tilt the bed over”), it meant that they were lovers: “My great body had been blessed by love. True. It was true. Some merciless shaft had been ready to pierce me with denial. I must run from it, and keep that truth whole for myself.”
When at last, after Hubert’s death, she receives a letter from Richard—listing the trophies he’s bagged hunting and fishing in Kenya—she realizes that it doesn’t contain one word of endearment, let alone a declaration of love:
I would not read the letter again. I did not want to know it so well that familiarity could dissolve my assurance. I had breathed my own truth between the lines—it was the breath of hope, to shelter and harbour and keep secret.
Aroon St. Charles is Molly Keane’s great creation, Good Behaviour her masterpiece. No longer worried about alienating friends and potential dance partners, she had nothing to lose by publishing it under her own name. The contempt in Devoted Ladies, the brittle quality of some of her later novels, including Loving Without Tears (1951)—there’s none of that here.
She hadn’t forgotten the injuries of childhood, the ice-cold house, the disgusting food, the unloving mother. But seeing them through Aroon’s eyes gave Keane a distance that inspired her best writing. Growing up in Keane’s world, but so much more helpless and hopeless, Aroon arouses the sympathy that would likely have struck Keane as self-pity—bad behavior—were she writing about someone more like herself.
When Keane told The New Yorker that she had no imagination, it was another of her little jokes. She lavished her imaginative powers on Aroon, picturing what it would have been like to endure her own youth without any of the beauty, style, wit, ambition, and luck that made her life not only bearable but joyful. Aroon has no one to defend her from the people who believe that her weight and height are crimes, and whose “good behaviour” doesn’t stop them from being vile about her size. It’s not only Mummie comparing her to a whale, or asking, “Must you look so majestic, darling?,” but the groom suggesting that Aroon be discouraged from riding in order to save the horses’ backs, the dressmaker who gushes that Aroon would make “a massive statue.”
Stunningly alone, Aroon has no one to ask if she might be in love with her brother’s lover. When others tell her the inadmissible truth, she doesn’t want to hear it. Toward the end of the novel, she’s devastated to learn that Richard is engaged to another woman. When, over drinks before her father’s funeral, Richard’s father says that Richard has ended the engagement, he seems surprised that anyone ever believed his son would get married:
He looked like an angry blue-eyed baby with a pain it can’t explain. “Broken off his engagement,…upset his mother, and taken himself off to a farm in Kenya with Baby Kintoull.”
The glory drained, the hope failed—always the same. The post comes daily and no letter for me. I was licking my lips, alone again. Baby Kintoull—I could see her in whipcord trousers and an open-necked shirt, blond and sunburnt. I might as well know the worst: “I suppose she’s beautiful?”
“Good-looking,” he corrected me.
“Married?” His blue eyes dropped open. “I don’t think you quite have the riding of it,” he spoke gently. “They were in the same house at Eton. Let’s have another drink,” he said.
But Aroon still doesn’t quite have “the riding of it.” She’s elated to hear that Richard is still unattached and available.
Leading up to the end of the story, Papa’s illness unleashes Mummie’s demons: “Penance for all was her final object. She felt we must all suffer.” Aroon is scolded for feeding the dogs too well, instructed to eat less and refrain from lighting the lamps:
Maids were sacked. Food became impossible. She stopped painting. She stopped gardening. She prowled the house, bent on economies. It was a game in which every vantage point presented a new economy.
Having read the opening of the novel, we know how Aroon will repay Mummie’s punitive tyranny, long before Mummie declares that Aroon and the maids should eat cheaper red meat and even rabbit, which, as Aroon knows, Mummie detests. By the final pages the reader will have come to better understand, and to sympathize with, Aroon’s act of culinary revenge.
An earlier version of this article stated that Molly Keane’s home was burned during the Irish Civil War; it was in fact during the War of Independence.