If I had to describe your novel Good Behaviour (1981) in one word I would say: merciless. As merciless as the code of conduct in which your characters lock away lies, family secrets, sex, power struggles, and grief: the social mores, the rules of caste and patterns of good behaviour. Underneath this etiquette’s delicate fabric, we are soon to find a crumbling moral sense, and the most appalling savagery.
The novel is narrated by Aroon, daughter of the aristocratic Anglo-Irish St Charles family. When the story opens, she is a 57-year-old spinster who is about to murder her ailing mother. However, as a mistress of good behaviour, Aroon does that with finesse: she insists on feeding her mother with rabbit mousse. Your protagonist has achieved the pinnacle of refinement in her social conduct: it is impossible to sort out morality and savagery. Furthermore, she seems to have no clue about the nature of what she is really doing.
The narrative jumps back to Aroon’s childhood and teenage years in her ancestral mansion, Temple Alice. Aroon is a plain, shy, large-boned girl with no hopes of striking a profitable marriage arrangement. To make matters worse, she is ignored by her charming father and openly bullied by her icy mother. It’s the 1920’s, and the family is living beyond their means, bogged down on debt, and sinking into ruin. Deemed unmarriageable – and therefore, as a woman, socially useless -, Aroon is both starving for affection and struggling to hide her lack thereof behind a veneer of good behaviour. So much so, that she develops a keen capacity for fooling herself.
And this is the strength of the book for me: the narration itself enacts the fissure that is about to be narrated, the fissure between the well-mannered surface and its violent undercurrent. Aroon seems to be both a naive woman and an unreliable narrator; we are not sure if she is only playing by the rules of good behaviour – if, albeit refusing to acknowledge troubles of any kind, she is fully conscious of the events around her; or if she really has no understanding of the story she is telling us.
When her father returned from the First World War without a leg, Aroon describes him as a man “following Mummie” everywhere, restless, but “sadly unoccupied”. Meanwhile, she tells us that “the scrawny beauty of our house warmed and melted in the spring light.” What is hidden behind this “scrawny beauty”, though, is the fact that her father is not simply sad at being unoccupied, but dwelling on the horror of having shot a mutilated man, the horror of war. Her father wants to believe – and Aroon believes, or wants us to believe – that he is only bored. “When he talked to Rose, Ollie’s death seemed quite enviable, here and gone, out like a light.” There is no place for horror in the strict code of good behaviour.
Aroon is a mistress at fooling either herself, or the reader. The art of good breeding seems to come hand in hand with the art of self-deception. Her mother conceals her contempt for her socially useless daughter behind a cool façade of good manners; Aroon fools herself into believing she is being courted by her brother’s friend, when she is being used as an alibi for her brother’s homosexual liaison. It’s impossible to disentangle the delicate fabric of good behaviour from the web of lies needed to sustain it. The characters are always withdrawing information from each other, or painting nice pictures of difficult events. When thinking about her mother, Aroon says: “Everything she didn’t know about me was a strength.” When her father suffers a stroke, Aroon is barely able to conceal from herself the fact that she is glad that he might never disclose a lie she had told, because he might never speak again. Pedalling faster and faster to forget her satisfaction, she muses: “I escaped from my terrible wish”.
Faced with their impeding decay, the members of this once influential but now chronically dysfunctional family cling to the only thing they have left from their golden days: the torn fabric of etiquette, the crumbling rules of their caste. The need to behave according to what was expected was more important than the values from which this code of behaviour originally emerged. By pushing the values themselves aside, these characters force themselves to live in the surface of things, locking tragedy away: they never cry, never hug, never mention the events, always look the other way. They behave just perfectly. The surface is all they are left with. They rely upon good behaviour to bridge this fissure between the appearance of a “scrawny beauty” and its violent undercurrent. In fact, at some point one gets to wonder if the “scrawny beauty” itself is only made possible because of the very violence it implies and tries to conceal. “We had behaved beautifully. No pain lasts.”
Your restrained writing style sheds light into everything it leaves unsaid. The dispassionate tone Aroon assumes as she narrates her family tragedy has an unsettling effect, and prevents the story from falling into drama. Quite the opposite, yours is a black comedy of manners, acid in its sharp sense humour.
Aroon’s sociopathic nature makes her the best exemplar of her caste’s values (or lack thereof). And it makes her the best narrator as well: she masters the art of never speaking openly of what lies beyond the surface, and of “smiling across her shame”. She is the mistress of disguise: there is nothing that good manners are not able to excuse and conceal. Her impeccable social deportment, albeit homicidal, is the very core of good behaviour: the ultimate refinement of savagery.
“The lie came jumping out of my mouth.My thumping heart delivered it like a great frog – a monster to torment me as soon as I was sane again.” – Molly Keane, Good Behaviour
“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.” – Molly Keane, Good Behaviour
“We kept our heads above the morass, stifled screaming despairs only by the exercise of Good Behaviour.” – Molly Keane, Good Behaviour
About the book
- Virago Modern Classics, 2011, 291 p. Goodreads
- First published in 1981
- Shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize (1981)
- My rating: 5 stars
- This book was read for The Virago Modern Classics Book Club (#VMCBookClub) in January