In The Rising Tide, Molly Keane captures perfectly early twentieth-century Irish gentry: a social class in decline, although its members were certainly unaware of it. Lady Charlotte French-McGrath rules her family and their estate, Garonlea. She is a distant, cold woman: “mean, although not so mean as her husband whom she had taught to be mean.” Lady Charlotte treated her daughters with disdain, wishing they would marry well but looking down on all aspiring suitors. As a result, eldest daughter Muriel never married. Enid married for love, but paid a high price. Beautiful Violet chose a man beneath her, but since “she was twenty-four and still unmarried the outlook seemed gloomy enough to justify the acceptance of the gentle ornithologist’s slightly abstracted suit.” And Diana attached herself to her brother’s wife Cynthia, whom she adored.
Cynthia is a beautiful socialite whose life revolves around horses and the hunt. Everyone loves her, even Lady Charlotte. But when Cynthia comes into power at Garonlea, her darker side emerges. She is hard on her children, who fear the hunt much more than they enjoy it. She toys with people’s emotions, and manipulates them to her advantage. She gets worse with age and with drink. As her children come of age, the power struggle begins again. Cynthia struggles to hold on to a certain lifestyle, even as the younger generation is looking for something very different.
The characters made this book. Lady Charlotte is really awful. Cynthia is simultaneously likeable and horrible, and her son Simon is a more sympathetic character, uncomfortable with the station he was born to. The loyal Diana is ever-present as Cynthia’s doting conscience. And there are many others who revolve in and out of Cynthia’s life, all drawn with Keane’s trademark wit. While this isn’t my favorite Molly Keane (that would be Good Behaviour), it was still an enjoyable satire.