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Good Behaviour by Molly Keane

Good Behaviour (1981)

by Molly Keane

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'Dark, complex, engaging'
By sally tarbox on 7 Jan. 2013
Format: Paperback
Set amid an increasingly impoverished Irish family of the early 20th century, we follow narrator Aroon through her early life. Mummie is distant and Papa, for all his fondness, is largely occupied with field sports and women.
When brother Hubert brings a friend to stay, the overweight Aroon convinces herself that she has at last found a lover:
'Looking at my bed, I knew I was no unwanted grotesque: a man had lain there with me.'
But Aroon is deluding herself, Richard prefers her brother; throughout the book, Aroon complains of being excluded, whether it's the two men not wanting her in their social life; her mother and the servant ganging up on her; even Mummie and Papa hurting her feelings.
Aroon contemplates a bleak spinster future:
'The unmarried daughter who doesn't play bridge, letting out the dogs for evermore. Mummie and Rose would be in power over me, over Temple Alice,until I was old, or middle-aged at best, beyond even the remembrance of time past. They may starve me too- the idea filled me with panic. Mummie doesn't eat and Rose won't cook for me alone. They will enjoy starving me. It will be called economy. Daughters at home are supposed to do the flowers. Mummie does the flowers...'
But the future may not be as she imagines...
Absolutely rivetting read! ( )
  starbox | Jul 10, 2016 |
Good Behaviour is a satire with a very dark soul. It’s the sixth Molly Keane novel I have read so far – and in some ways it is pretty familiar – but there is more of the black comedy to this novel – and the characters are brilliantly conceived. I’m not sure what it is exactly that makes this Molly Keane novel so very good – but it really is very, very good. It might be in the wonderful tension between the characters, the spite, misunderstandings so much going on unsaid – the sad loneliness of being part of a family like the St, Charles.

Good Behaviour takes us to familiar Molly Keane territory – among the impoverished Anglo-Irish aristocracy of the 1920’s and 30’s. However the story starts many years later – as our narrator Aroon St. Charles is making lunch for her difficult, ageing mother, watched over by their cook/housekeeper Rose – with whom Aroon does not get on well. I won’t say too much – although it is only the opening, short chapter, but it is a brilliant opening. We feel acutely the years of resentment of a disappointed life.

Aroon St. Charles is the awkwardly large, unlovely daughter of an aristocratic Anglo-Irish family fallen on rather hard times. Having dutifully produced her daughter and son, Aroon’s mother employed nannies and Governesses to do as much of the child rearing as possible. Aroon takes us back to her childhood and introduces us to Mrs Brock – the governess who arrives when she is a little girl.

“The name of our governess was Mrs Brock and we loved her dearly from the start to the finish of her reign. For one thing, the era of luncheon in the diningroom opened for us with Mrs Brock, and with it a world of desire and satisfaction, for we were as greedy as Papa. Although governesses lunched in the diningroom, they supped on trays upstairs – that was the accepted rule, and Mummie must have been thankful for it as these luncheons meant a horrid disintegration of her times of intimacy with Papa. So much of his day was spent away from her. In the winter months he was shooting or hunting, and in the spring there was salmon fishing – all undertaken and excelled in more as a career and a duty than as the pleasure of a leisured life.”

Mrs Brock is a wonderfully colourful character; she arrives with the St Charles family, straight from the family of ‘Wobbly’ Massingham, a great friend of Aroon’s father. Mrs Brock regales Aroon with fascinating tales of the Massingham family – and particularly of Richard – who years later Aroon will meet through her brother. Mrs Brock’s story is not destined to be a happy one, and she becomes just one of the people in Aroon’s life to let her down.

While the St. Charles fortune might have crumbled away to almost nothing, their standards of aristocratic behaviour have not, these people are all a pretty nasty bunch in one way or another – but they pride themselves on their good behaviour. This is a world where tradesmen are considered to be robbers should they deign to send in their bills, a drunken nursery maid is sacked with a good reference – to do otherwise would not be the thing. A boy is walloped for reading poetry – deaths occur in shocking or traumatic circumstances and no one talks about it. Aroon should be the one character we sympathise with – but she’s not very nice either – although we do see why she isn’t very nice. Aroon is so desperate to feel beautiful, to be appreciated – her mother is so vile to her. Spiteful remarks about her size and what she eats, casually, subtly dropped into the conversation with apparent nonchalance.

“Our good behaviour went on and on, endless as the days. No one spoke of the pain we were sharing. Our discretion was almost complete. Although they feared to speak, Papa and Mummie spent more time together; but, far from comforting, they seemed to freeze each other in misery”

With only eyes for her husband – who was rather prone to a wandering eye on the quiet – Mrs St, Charles was a particularly cold parent to her daughter – her preference was for Hubert, Aroon’s younger brother. Aroon’s father a keen hunter and horseman works hard to instil his love of the sport in his children. The children are often terrified though know not to show it – horses are a big part of the world they have been born into. Aroon enjoys some affection and understanding from her father – though he is so more often distracted with those things which interest him more.

As a young woman often feeling large and unattractive, Aroon becomes smitten with Richard Massingham the eldest son of the family Mrs Brock worked for before she arrived in Aroon’s schoolroom. Richard is friends with Hubert – and for a while Aroon enjoys the easy society of both of them, blind to how Richard really feels – she weaves fantasies around Richard long after he has disappeared from her life. Aroon is rather desperate to be loved, but when the family solicitor offers her friendship – her well learned aristocratic good behaviour kicks in – he is not of the right class – and Aroon shows her disgust.

Good Behaviour is beautifully written, the relationships are wonderfully complex, particularly that of Aroon and her horrid mother. Some of the dialogue between them is wincingly sharp. Keane gives us a lovely little twist right at the end – but don’t worry Molly Keane is far too subtle to fall back on a conventional ending. ( )
  Heaven-Ali | May 5, 2016 |
Well-written enough, but peopled with thoroughly unlikeable characters. ( )
  JRuel | Apr 14, 2015 |
Good Behaviour by Molly Keane; VMC, in memory of englishrose60, chosen from her library; ROOT; (4 1/2*)

Good Behaviour is a very well written book. It is a dark comedy of manners which is narrated by a totally unreliable narrator, the almost delusional and pitiful daughter of the house, Aroon. It is Keane’s great strength that she can give us a tale told by a tall, heavy daughter of privilege which is completely misinterpreted by the narrator but is clear and sad to the reader. In the end Aroon wants what all humans want which is to love and be loved. Unfortunately, she has a mother who is cold as ice, a father who hunts and shoots six days a week and does not attend properly to the dwindling family fortune and a handsome, charming, & intelligent brother whose sexual orientation is obvious to the reader and yet is completely missed by Aroon.
Yet Aroon is not completely unaware. The chapter where she goes to the grand holiday party of wealthy neighbors demonstrates that Aroon can read many social cues quite well. There is a central significant tragedy and loss in the first half of the book that the reader will recognize as the most tragic loss of Aroon’s life. This loss is central to Aroon’s later life but somehow she never comes to grips with the gravity of this loss upon her family, a family with good behavior, and thus the inability to grieve. How does someone who is unattractive and is never nurtured by her parents make it through life? Keane portrays Aroon as taking every tiny bit of affection or regard and expanding it in her mind as meaningful. This romantic illusion keeps her going. Whereas this can be comic, it is dark comedy, carefully constructed and revealed bit by bit, but a tragedy nevertheless.
Highly recommended to those who do not feel the need for a lot of action to embellish their reading material. ( )
1 vote rainpebble | Mar 18, 2015 |
I have never quite read a book like Good Behaviour, and I read a lot of novels about life among the upper classes set in various periods in the history of the British Isles. This is a (very black) comedy of manners centering around an impoverished family of Irish gentry set in the interwar period. So far, so familiar.

What is not familiar is the tragic, blindly innocent, overlooked narrator, a fully-realized woman with extremely complex feelings that she isn't able to articulate and doesn't seem quite to understand. In a strange way Aroon reminds me a bit of the (stereotype of the) Millennial Generation: constantly navel-gazing, but without any true self-awareness. Throughout the book, she lies to herself, failing to see what is really going on because the proprieties of "good behavior" have left her sheltered and the coldness of her dysfunctional parents has left her emotionally stunted.

The skill of the book lies in Keane's ability NEVER to tell us what is going on but to allow us to figure it all out. She never strays from seeing things through Aroon's eyes. I mean, a lot of books are written in first person, but they don't always commit the way Keane commits. I was just blown away by how fully some of Keane's simple sentences conjure Aroon, with all her weaknesses and stupidities (and her occasional bursts of cunning), a real live character that you feel you really know. Outstanding. ( )
  sansmerci | Oct 27, 2014 |
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Molly Keaneprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Keyes, MarianIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Rose smelt the air, considering what she smelt; a miasma of unspoken criticism and disparagement fogged the distance between us.
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Behind its rich veneer, the estate of Temple Alice is a crumbling fortress, from which the aristocratic St Charles family keeps the reality of life at bay. Aroon, the unlovely daughter of the house, silently longs for love and approval, which she certainly doesn't receive from her elegant, icy mother. And though her handsome father is fond of her, his passion is for the thrill of the chase -- high-bred ladies and servants are equally fair game. Sinking into a decaying grace, the family's unyielding codes of 'good behaviour' is both their salvation and their downfall. For their reserved façades conceal dark secrets and hushed cruelties . . .
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A comic novel about Anglo-Ireland that was shortlisted for the Booker Prize. A mistress of wicked comedy, this novel established the author as the natural successor to Jean Rhys.

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