Good Behaviour: A BBC 2 Between the Covers Book Club Pick – Booker Prize Gems (Virago Modern Classics)

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Good Behaviour: A BBC 2 Between the Covers Book Club Pick – Booker Prize Gems (Virago Modern Classics)

Good Behaviour: A BBC 2 Between the Covers Book Club Pick – Booker Prize Gems (Virago Modern Classics)

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Discover this wickedly funny classic about the very bad behaviour of an aristocratic family – A BBC2 Between the Covers pick! We kept our heads above the morass, stifled screaming despairs only by the exercise of good behaviour. Keane’s brilliant sleight of hand is to allow her blinkered heroine to narrate her own development from neglected child, to ungainly debutante, to bitter spinster: Aroon understands nothing, yet she reveals all. When Mrs Brock intervenes and with kindness and encouragement succeeds in endowing them with the necessary confidence, he turns away shaking his head. Aroon is constantly striving for connection and endlessly blind to reality, and when connection is possible, where genuine friendship might have a chance to flourish, she is locked into the conventions of her class that forbid it.

Rabbit has always sickened Mummie, along with other people’s illnesses, housekeeping, children, nannies, sex (rabbits again) – in fact anything concerning appetite or other people. And although part of me wants to know only the other (nicer) site, such novels like 'Good Behaviour' are a must-read for all who like to read about those times. She rented out her house to English friends fleeing socialism; for a time she took a wing of the Keane cousins’ mansion at Cappoquin House, until there was a falling out over money; when she had a windfall from her play Treasure Hunt (1949), she bought a bungalow by the sea, renovated and extended it. Versions of the dour Antrim aunts with whom the Skrine children were sent to stay every summer appear in all of Keane’s fictions. They were Edwardian popular songs of the sort that Bartell D’Arcy might have been asked to sing in ‘The Dead’, when he wasn’t having a go at ‘The Lass of Aughrim’, or even Molly Bloom, on her concert tours in the North of Ireland in Ulysses.

Here the doubled point of view is all within Aroon’s voice, which is a perfect mix of her inheritances: the suffocating good behaviour required by her caste, and the middle-class language of emotion she has learned from Mrs Brock. Part of the pleasure in reading this book arises from having to interpret what Aroon observes but does not understand. G. Farrell, who had won the Booker in 1973 with The Siege of Krishnapur, but it’s easy to see why Farrell’s surreal and witty portrait of postwar Anglo-Ireland in Troubles (1970) would have looked like literary kin, and Keane may well have enjoyed being promoted to the head of this arch Irish lineage.

Molly’s happy marriage in 1939 to the much younger Robert (“Bobbie”) Keane saved her from the former fate but not the latter. This is a solid novel that grimly marches through its story, jaw firmly set, while onlookers watch in disbelief--how can this plot be sustained by these characters? Aroon narrates her story in the late 1950s or early 1960s, and it’s hard not to compare it with Bowen’s pitch-perfect Anglo-Irish romance, A World of Love, published in 1955. I smiled, and hummed, and stood carelessly as the hall emptied into the ballroom and I waited, only for Uncle Ulick. The Land Acts of the second half of the 19th century were designed to redistribute land to tenant farmers.

A cowardly child was a hidden sore, and a child driven to admit hatred of his pony was something of a leper in our society.

Without prospect of marriage, her mother closing her out, her father’s attentions elsewhere, she seems doomed. O’Neill published children’s stories, ‘fairy fiction’ and poetry in Blackwood’s Magazine throughout the 1890s. Brock, as her single reliable source of affection, the young girl lacks the knowledge and experience to interpret what she sees with any accuracy.I ended up filled with pity for Aroon, and in a cheeky twist, thanks to the Major (whose serial infidelities become more and more forgivable--maybe), Aroon wins. I just, in this review, wanted to let you know my enthusiasm for this wonderful and clever work of fiction. She survives through her alliances with the world outside the Big House, first with Mrs Brock, and later with the local solicitor, Mr Kiely, to whom she demonstrates an utterly pragmatic and unfamilial way with money.

But this is a version of Anglo-Irish decline as far as possible from the plangent world of William Trevor, or even Elizabeth Bowen. They are realists, who know how to bargain with the monks, traders, middle-class Irish housewives and Travellers who live outside their demesne. The 1938 trial was reported in detail in the Irish Times, and throughout the war stories of infant death and abandonment appeared in the papers. The book was shortlisted for the 1981 Booker Prize which was eventually won by Salman Rushdie with “Midnight’s Children”.Aroon feeds “Mummie”, a heart patient, rabbit, a food that the woman loathes and which Rose, the family’s longtime cook and servant, warns has sickened the old lady in the past. She used her married name for her later novels, several of which ( Good Behaviour, Time After Time) have been adapted for television. Keane’s fiction knows this, and knows that for women, sexual violence and the struggles that trail sexual love persisted right up until the 1980s, when Good Behaviour was published, and beyond. As Molly Keane’s Booker Prize–short-listed dark comedy suggests, not only can kindness be deadly, it just may be the best form of revenge. Aroon is cursed from the start with an ordinary need for love and a body out of sync with the 1920s fetish for slim, boyish figures.

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