Molly Keane Sally Emerson - Essay

Sally Emerson

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The opening of Molly Keane's Good Behaviour is chillingly unforgettable. The narrator, 65-year-old Aroon St. Charles, relates the death of her mother in the small Gothic folly where they have moved, with one maid, surrounded by mementos of their past…. Aroon then takes us back to her childhood and we see the distance between the harsh woman she is now—as her mother used to be—and the affectionate girl she was then. We see where life has let her down.

The eccentricities of Aroon's mother and father as they pass their days at their ancestral home, Temple Alice, make the reader forget the macabre opening for a while…. This novel incorporates something of the sparkling, irresponsible mood of the 20s and 30s celebrated in her novels Conversation Piece (1932) and Devoted Ladies (1934). The language revels in the details of life in a grandish country house. Occasionally, when Aroon is at spectacular parties, looked after by her loving father and brother, or when she is mooning over her brother's handsome friend Richard, the reader is transported into a simple, romantic world. But always these moments are undercut by the dark reality seeping up between the floorboards of Temple Alice, whispering at the edges of Molly Keane's prose, because nothing is as it seems, nothing is simple and romantic.

When a governess, Mrs Brock, commits suicide and little Aroon does not know why, we do know (Aroon's philandering father has broken off his affair with her). When her brother forms a close friendship with Richard we know why their father is anxious, although Aroon never realizes. We are aware of the mother's frigidity, aware that Richard whom she loves will never love her. Homosexuality, drunkenness, cruelty of many kinds—they are all here, although never mentioned. Molly Keane's skill in letting us work out what is going on beyond the narrator's gaze is masterful.

Sally Emerson, in a review of "Good Behaviour," in The Illustrated London News, Vol. 269, No. 6998, September, 1981, p. 70.