For certain families, keeping up appearances in public is of prime importance. The St Charles family is one of these. Daughter Aroon, now the ungainly, unmarried daughter, looks back on her childhood at Temple Alice and how expectations of “good behaviour” ultimately brought unhappiness and even tragedy. Aroon and her brother Hubert grew up in the care of a cool and distant mother and a philandering father. Mummie preferred to look the other way, rather than confront Papa’s infidelity. Papa loved his children on one level, but preferred riding, fox-hunting, and women to life at home. When Papa is wounded in the war, his convalescence provides Aroon and Hurbert an unexpected opportunity to enjoy a new level intimacy with their father. Mummie remains aloof, and can’t hold back a sadistic glow when she realizes her husband is unable to ride.
As Aroon grows into a young woman, she sets her sights on Hubert’s best friend Richard. She wildly misinterprets his behavior towards her, and convinces herself they are lovers. She fails to see what’s obvious to the reader: Richard and Hubert are much more than friends. When Richard suddenly goes off to Africa, Aroon continues her delusion, sure he will return for her one day. When a letter finally arrives, she is at first disappointed — until she finds a way to infuse each paragraph with hidden meaning.
Inevitably, the family’s fortunes change. They have lived way beyond their means, with a bad habit of stuffing every bill into a drawer. Their solicitor knows the score and tries to help, but Mummie and Papa are compelled to maintain the illusion of wealth and society, so their irresponsible spending continues unchecked. Even in the most intense and private situations, good behaviour rules:
When the last speechless hand-grip was completed, Papa, Mummie, and I were left in the hall, with empty glasses and the empty plates; funerals are hungry work. We exchanged cool, warning looks — which of us could behave best: which of us could be least embarrassing to the others, the most ordinary in a choice of occupation? (p. 113)
Good Behaviour landed Molly Keane firmly on my favorite authors list. Her characterizations are classic examples of an author showing, not telling. At an early age Richard is “caught” reading poetry in a treehouse. Richard and Hubert go to great lengths to be together alone. Slowly, the reader comes to realize they are gay. It’s brilliantly done. She conveys emotion with similar skill. When Aroon goes to a party alone and finds she’s been paired with an older, misfit of a man, her pain is palpable. And yet there are also moments of delightful wit, such as Mummie’s visit with neighbors, when she finds the primary bathroom already in use. Her host directs her:
‘You’ll have to try the downstairs. I’ll just turn out the cats. They love it on a wet day.’ I could imagine them there, crouched between the loo and the croquet mallets and the Wellington boots and the weed killer. (p. 157)
My Virago Modern Classics collection includes several more books by Molly Keane (who also wrote under the pseudonym M.J. Farrell). I can’t wait to discover more of her talent.