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Good Behaviour (1981)

by Molly Keane

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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7631524,217 (3.99)171
I do know how to behave - believe me, because I know. I have always known...' Behind the gates of Temple Alice the aristocratic Anglo-Irish St Charles family sinks into a state of decaying grace. To Aroon St Charles, large and unlovely daughter of the house, the fierce forces of sex, money, jealousy and love seem locked out by the ritual patterns of good behaviour. But crumbling codes of conduct cannot hope to save the members of the St Charles family from their own unruly and inadmissible desires. This elegant and allusive novel established Molly Keane as the natural successor to Jean Rhys.… (more)

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English (13)  Spanish (1)  Italian (1)  All languages (15)
Showing 1-5 of 13 (next | show all)
Aroon St. Charles is an unlovely character but pitiable in her naiveté (or was it willful ignorance?). As she narrates the tale of her life, imagining herself to be, if not the heroine, the sympathetic protagonist, what clearly comes across to the reader is a different picture than she desires. For example, Aroon tells herself & the reader that Richard Massingham loved her. It is obvious to the reader (and indeed to several of the other characters) that instead Richard and Aroon's brother Hubert were having a homosexual affair.

Aroon, as she says multiple times, is big. It took me some time to decipher this code - she isn't just tall but tall and obese. Whether this is the cause of her inept searching for love & security or the result of not finding that love from her mother growing up is unclear to me. Certainly there are many indications in the book of an overwhelming Electra complex in Aroon. Her life in Anglo-Irish society in the years both before and after WW1 is extremely restricted. She doesn't go to school (she has a governess) and she is discouraged from associating with the children of the 'lesser' classes so basically she only has her brother as a companion. Since her mother is emotionally distant, she relies on her father and brother for love. As she grows up, her belief that she correctly understands social and emotional situations is increasingly laughable. Aroon has had a very sheltered upbringing but she never seems to feel the need to spread her wings, experience more of life, so it is hard to place all the blame of her ignorance on her upbringing.

Another example of her self-delusion involves the relationship between Rose & her father after he has a stroke. There are several very transparent clues that Rose has been, to use vulgar parlance, giving the Major a hand job. Aroon even walks in on this once but says (believes?) that Rose was massaging the Major's cold foot! Even Aroon must know the location of a foot - it must have been obvious that the activity was occurring a bit higher than that!

While I can feel a certain amount of pity for the child and young woman Aroon was, the opening scene of the book makes it hard for me to like Aroon. Most of the book is a flashback, giving Aroon's view of life & events leading to a time some 25 years before the opening chapter. Her insistence on having things her own way in that first chapter as well as some of the events in it make her decidedly unappealing. Having finished the book and then reread that first chapter, the idea of her controlling behaviour with her mother lasting 25 years is appalling! ( )
  leslie.98 | Apr 9, 2020 |
The writing was excellent. I even reread the first chapter after i had finished the book as i knew there had been a murder, but i didn't get it the first time around. Unfortunately, i didn't like Aroon, or her mother and was glad to leave their household. ( )
  TheWasp | Oct 11, 2019 |
'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! ( )
2 vote 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. ( )
3 vote Heaven-Ali | May 5, 2016 |
Well-written enough, but peopled with thoroughly unlikeable characters. ( )
1 vote JRuel | Apr 14, 2015 |
Showing 1-5 of 13 (next | show all)
Molly Keane achieved fame and critical acclaim in 1981 aged 75, when she published the novel Good Behaviour, a razor-sharp social comedy about the Anglo-Irish in the 1930s. Her success was the more sensational because it was unexpected.
added by KayCliff | editThe Spectator, Jane Ridley (Feb 1, 2017)
In Good Behaviour, she had the bold idea of inventing a character, upper-class Aroon, who did not know herself at all: readers had the satisfaction of knowing her best. The novel was dark, singular and had her hallmark charm. She followed it with Time After Time (1983) and Loving and Giving (1988), written when she was in her 80s. Fans disagree about the trio’s relative merits, but she is rightly acclaimed in this book as the best of the Anglo-Irish ascendancy writers – and the last.
added by KayCliff | editThe Guardian, Kate Kellaway (Jan 29, 2017)
With Good Behaviour she achieved something quite extraordinary. She makes Aroon, her narrator, tell a long and complicated story without ever understanding what that story is about. This is mindblowingly clever – and the best thing about it is that it is never clever for the sake of cleverness. There are moments when the reader pauses to congratulate him or herself for being astute enough to twig what is really going on – but never any when he or she is exclaiming “Clever Molly”. But clever Molly has used her “distancing” technique to turn us into something nearer watchers than story-readers. It is as though we are seeing events unfold which we can then interpret for ourselves, and the effect of this is much more poignant than explication would be.
added by KayCliff | editThe Guardian, Diana Athill (Jan 21, 2017)

» Add other authors (1 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Molly Keaneprimary authorall editionscalculated
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.
"I suppose I must re-address the [letter]." He set off for the library, as no gentleman carried a pen about in his pocket.
Practical gifts were bound to bring a definite acknowledgement. "Just what I've been wanting. Look, dear -" to Papa - "a pen-wiper. She knows what a letter-writer I am", and they would both laugh immoderately.
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I do know how to behave - believe me, because I know. I have always known...' Behind the gates of Temple Alice the aristocratic Anglo-Irish St Charles family sinks into a state of decaying grace. To Aroon St Charles, large and unlovely daughter of the house, the fierce forces of sex, money, jealousy and love seem locked out by the ritual patterns of good behaviour. But crumbling codes of conduct cannot hope to save the members of the St Charles family from their own unruly and inadmissible desires. This elegant and allusive novel established Molly Keane as the natural successor to Jean Rhys.

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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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