Molly Keane’s gloriously camp novel, Good Behaviour, begins with the narrator, Aroon St Charles, a 57-year-old survivor of the Anglo-Irish Ascendancy, murdering her aged mother with a rabbit mousse. She doesn’t choke on it: Aroon has made sure that the quenelle in cream sauce is perfect, with ‘just a hint of bay leaf and black pepper, not a breath of the rabbit foundation’, the mousse irreproachable ‘after it has been forced through a fine sieve and whizzed for ten minutes in a Moulinex blender’. It’s the smell that kills her.
She lifted the small silver fork (our crest, a fox rampant, almost handled and washed away by use) as though she were heaving up a load of stinking fish: ‘The smell – I’m – ’ She gave a trembling, tearing cry, vomited dreadfully, and fell back into the nest of pretty pillows.
Aroon picks her mother’s hand (‘limp as a dead duck’s neck’) out of the sick and puts it down on a clean place. She wipes her fingers on tissues taken from a cardboard box that she has covered, she tells us, in shell pink brocade. And then she has a battle with Rose, the servant, who can’t believe that she wants the mousse kept hot over a pot of boiling water so she can eat it herself. After all, ‘it may be hours till lunchtime.’ Nothing gets in the way of Aroon and her food. ‘If it was a smothering you couldn’t have done it better,’ Rose screams. 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. This is a novel about taste, about a style and sensibility that kept Anglo-Irish society extant, if not quite alive, until it smothered it instead.
Molly Keane was in her late seventies when Good Behaviour was first published in 1981 and shortlisted for the Booker Prize (Midnight’s Children won). It was her twelfth novel but the first she published under her own name. Between 1926 and 1952 she wrote eleven novels and several popular West End farces as M.J. Farrell. Keane liked to explain that she stole the name from a sign she saw over a pub when she was out hunting, and even if this wasn’t strictly true it was apt. Hunting, horse shows, form and fences are pivotal in nearly all her plots. Conversation Piece (1932) is so horsey it feels wrong to read it anywhere but in the saddle. Hunting was a passport to a social life in 1920s and 1930s Anglo-Irish society, and therefore a route, too, to romance, sex and marriage – although not necessarily all three, in that order, or with the same person. If you were going to be ‘peculiar’ (as Keane once described her fiction) and write books, it must have seemed like a good idea to pass them off as a by-product of the hunt, like a yarn overheard in the boot room.
The thirty-year gap between her early novels and Good Behaviour (there was an unsuccessful play in 1961, which gave her years of writer’s block) meant that she had no readerly expectations to live up to. Most readers encountered Molly Keane as a new writer, and even those who knew the connection with M.J. Farrell weren’t quite sure what it meant. The journalist Maureen Cleave wrote to Keane that the earl of Longford, Thomas Pakenham (Anglo-Irish historian and brother of Antonia Fraser), ‘is dying to meet you. He has been reading all your old novels under the impression that you are J.G. Farrell’s mother. In any case he thinks they are very good.’ She was not related to J.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. Good Behaviour allowed her to inhabit a second version of herself – and the novel is about the need to do just that.
Keane was born Mary Nesta Skrine, in Newbridge, County Kildare in 1904, the third child of Walter Skrine, an upper-class Englishman from Bath, and Agnes ‘Nesta’ Shakespeare Higginson, who came from an austere unionist family in Antrim and was better known as the Celtic Revival poet Moira O’Neill. (Versions of the dour Antrim aunts with whom the Skrine children were sent to stay every summer appear in all of Keane’s fictions.) O’Neill published children’s stories, ‘fairy fiction’ and poetry in Blackwood’s Magazine throughout the 1890s. Her most popular work, Songs of the Glens of Antrim (1901), a collection of slightly fey dialect poems, was much praised by the poet laureate, John Masefield, and set to music by the Irish composers Charles Villiers Stanford and Hamilton Harty. 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. They are songs of love and loss, and many of them were written while Walter and Agnes Skrine were ranching in Alberta, having moved to Canada after their marriage in 1895. The Skrines were true imperialists: Canada was as much their orbit as Bath, Antrim, or even Mauritius, where Agnes had been born in 1864, to parents who were first cousins and colonial administrators. Her grandfather was governor of Mauritius during the 1850s. I imagine he would have felt quite at home in J.G. Farrell’s Krishnapur.
Two years before Molly was born, the Skrines sold up in Alberta and moved, first to Kildare, and finally to Ballyrankin House in County Wexford, where the five little Skrines were brought up with nannies and governesses and lots of horses. The Skrines would pass as landed gentry, but they were not echt Anglo-Irish Ascendancy. For a start, when they decided to abandon the ranching experiment and move to Ireland they had to buy their big house. There was no Bowen’s Court to write a history of, as Elizabeth Bowen did. They made up for this shortcoming with an unquestioned loyalty to the empire and a cult of the stiff upper lip. The two were inextricably entwined, as Keane acknowledged in an interview when Good Behaviour came out:
Mother’s father governed various little islands like Mauritius and she came back from there to marry my father. She loved her sons but she didn’t love me. I was jolly hard to love. Totally disobedient. She feared for me as she would if I had been a hippy and taken drugs. She never stopped being a Victorian. It was a class thing I grew up with, good behaviour. Don’t whine and don’t make a fuss. If you broke your neck you must pretend you hadn’t.
No one broke their neck but cousins were killed in the First World War (‘One put on a face of black tragedy but you didn’t really know these cousins, and you didn’t really know what the war was like … The whole thing was very much played down anyway’). In the aftermath of the 1916 Rising, Agnes Skrine, writing as Moira O’Neill, published a piece in Blackwood’s asking for law and order, and justice and punishment for the rebels. Not unrelatedly, Ballyrankin House was burned down in July 1921. Even this was not to be spoken of. Keane’s daughter Sally Phipps describes the event as managed on both sides with bravado, courage and politeness, none of which made any difference to the outcome: ‘A beautiful 18th-century house went up in flames.’ With one or two exceptions Keane’s novels pass over the Rising, the Anglo-Irish War of 1919-21 and the Civil War of 1922-23 in silence, a bit like the ‘dead silence’ that greets Fanny Price’s inquiry about the slave trade in Mansfield Park (Austen was one of Keane’s favourite writers). Rather than surreal lacunae, it might be more accurate to think of the absent ‘troubles’ as Anglo-Irish hyperrealism: a true picture of the evasive strategies employed by a group of people determined to ignore what was happening to them.
Keane’s accounts of her childhood, both in interviews and in the portraits of lonely and unruly girls that populate her novels, were of life on an unacknowledged battlefield. She felt shut out by the bond between her parents, and excluded by her mother’s preoccupation with writing. Throughout Molly’s teenage years Agnes Skrine was up in her study working on More Songs from the Glens of Antrim and a set of translations from Italian (Dante, Leopardi, Tasso, D’Annunzio). It could hardly have been less of a ‘hunt ball’ atmosphere. Keane refused to go to boarding school in England, as her siblings did, insisting on staying at home, an unwelcome intrusion into the lives of her reclusive parents. She was eventually packed off to a French boarding school in Bray, where she was miserable (‘unlinked and unloved’), but where she discovered Proust. After Ballyrankin was burned down, the family bought the house next door (‘New Ballyrankin’) and soon after they moved in Keane developed a mysterious illness which put her to bed for six months. ‘I hadn’t set out to be a writer. I’d really only started because when I was seventeen the doctor said there was a threat I might have TB and I had to stay in bed. There was absolutely nothing to do, no one paid me the least attention and I started to write.’ She wrote her first novel, a romance called The Knight of Cheerful Countenance, and sent it in secret to Mills and Boon, whose address she found in one of her mother’s copies of the TLS. Her illness doesn’t sound like TB to me. It sounds like a complicated case of rivalrous identification with her mother, even down to the use of a pseudonym. This was one way of inhabiting a second self.
Conflict between mother and daughter lies at the heart of Good Behaviour. The story mostly takes place in the 1910s and 1920s at Temple Alice, the St Charles family seat. It is narrated in retrospect by Aroon, the ‘unloveable’ daughter who has, in effect, been orphaned by her parents’ ‘impervious intimacy’ with each other. In this version of the tale the children’s mother is absorbed in painting abstruse, angular portraits and restoring Regency furniture. Aroon spends her time and energy looking for someone to adopt her, finding a candidate, for a while, in her governess Mrs Brock. A superb comic creation, Mrs Brock is a middle-class widow, given to playing the piano, knitting, and falling in love with her employers. She becomes, unwittingly and practically single-handedly, pretty much responsible for the decline of the British Empire, of which Aroon’s corner of Anglo-Ireland is a small part. The problem with Mrs Brock is that she not only has feelings of her own, and expresses them, but cultivates them in others, especially in her charges. She is as dangerous as a novel when it comes to the language of feeling. She imports the alien world of bourgeois domestic affection into upper-class society. Her secret weapon is interiority – the last thing any governor of a small island needs.
Before she comes to Temple Alice, Mrs Brock is employed by Wobbly Massingham, ‘a master of foxhounds and lord of the manor of Stoke Charity’ in England:
Here Captain Massingham pursued, in a now legendary sort of splendour, a life of hunting, shooting, fishing, cricketing weeks, Epsom, Ascot, Goodwood, Newmarket and Doncaster – a life which rather depleted the inheritance to be expected by Mrs Brock’s three pupils. But at least they were down for Eton, and you can’t take Eton away. Mrs Brock’s task was to prepare them for their preparatory school.
But things go wrong with the education of her eldest charge, Richard.
Richard was a beautiful child and, despite a proper interest in and aptitude for all the importances of outdoor life, there were times when he would lean in silence against Mrs Brock as she played the piano, or even join her in singing ‘Speed Bonnie Boat’, ‘Yip-i-addy’ or ‘Now the Day Is Over’. He preferred Mrs Tiggywinkle to the mildest comic, and liked to dwell on the idea of her transference from the washerwoman to the wild. He liked dressing up, too, but Mrs Brock felt that such games were not quite the thing for little boys. Sometimes she allowed herself to read him her favourite pieces from The Children’s Golden Treasury of Verse, when they would charge with the Light Brigade, or even lean from the gold bar of heaven with the Blessed Damozel.
One day he is caught in the treehouse with the Golden Treasury. (‘“Reading a book?” Nannie asked, incredulous.’) He knows not to admit to poetry, and claims he was deep in Robinson Crusoe, but this makes him guilty of lying as well as verse. Mrs Brock is, naturally, immediately dismissed, and soon arrives in Ireland to corrupt the children at Temple Alice.
Aroon’s narrative unfolds in a style in which everything is explained and nothing is said. Richard’s sexuality, and that of Aroon’s brother, Hubert, is seen and not seen, even when they dance with each other, or are discovered together in Hubert’s bedroom, without their clothes. Sex (and there is a lot of it), masturbation, pregnancy, murder, suicide – none of it is named, so that reading the book is rather like reading a detective story, in which clues have to be picked up and decoded, or a murder mystery (lots of people die in questionable circumstances), which you have to interpret backwards while you are reading forwards. In her earlier novels Keane achieved perspective by cutting between characters, and relying on a well-informed third-person narrator who liked to tell us what people were like, and whom they took after. 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. She knows exactly how to turn the conversation to the weather or when to decide to exercise a horse if emotion needs to be deflected, but she is a finely tuned instrument when it comes to her own feelings. She recalls her piercing failures with her mother despite ‘my longing to make a good impression twanging and vibrating within’. In one excruciating scene she anatomises the feeling of being out of place at a party, having arrived too early, wearing the wrong clothes, with a body the wrong size (too tall and too fat), and without any friends. She can dance, but nobody asks her:
I smiled, and hummed, and stood carelessly as the hall emptied into the ballroom and I waited, only for Uncle Ulick. Presently I took myself to the ladies’ cloakroom, the classic refuge of the unwanted. I hurried downstairs again, hoping that I looked as if I were keeping a partner waiting. I stood about, smiling, compressed, submerged in politeness; aching in my isolation; longing to be alone; to be away; to be tomorrow’s person … But there was no respite from the party that flowed round me.
Acouple of years ago Hilary Mantel was asked to pick an ‘overlooked classic’, and she chose Good Behaviour, praising the book’s concision, its wit and method of ‘sly misdirection’. She is right, of course, but her assertion that ‘the heroine is also the narrator, yet has no idea what is going on’ seems wide of the mark. The novel is both funny and terrifying precisely because of the suspicion that Aroon knows exactly what is going on and that the only way to survive is to behave as though she doesn’t. She’s an embodiment of the link between ingénue and ingenuity. Hers is an invention of innocence – a perpetual humming at life’s grim party – because knowledge and experience don’t get you anywhere. Or they get you drowned with an unwanted baby inside you, which is the punishment meted out to Mrs Brock.
Sexual passion flows through Keane’s novels. In women it is almost always a good. Grania, the silly 18-year-old protagonist in Two Days in Aragon (1941), lacks imagination for a future in which her lover will abandon her. But her simple enjoyment of sexual pleasure is not condemned (‘It’s not me. It’s not myself. Grania was transcended, purged of all fret, or small unhappy thought’). In The Rising Tide (1937), when Cynthia’s husband is killed at the Front she pours her grief and desire into hunting and then into a series of increasingly desperate affairs. Her adult children find her behaviour tiresome, but Keane herself doesn’t. In these novels illicit liaisons form part of the plot (though they are rarely central to it), but in Good Behaviour sex and sexual desire is elevated above plot. Along with food, it is the talk in the background and the action in the foreground.
Children ask where babies come from and – unfortunately for Aroon – they are told. In the only explicit reference to sex in the novel, Mrs Brock lashes out with a shaky version of the truth. She begins by referencing Moses, the children’s white mouse and the patriarch of the nursery cage. She ends by referencing males in general: ‘He sticks that thing of his … into the hole she pees out of … It’s a thing men do, it’s all they want to do, and you won’t like it.’ The phrases hit Aroon with the force of a primal scene. It’s an encounter with sexuality that (surely intentionally) fits the model of Freud’s case of the Wolf Man, whose dream of strange fox-sheep-wolf-like beings Freud construed as a nightmare version of the doggy-style sex the Wolf Man witnessed between his parents. There’s the element of misunderstanding (the hole she pees out of) and, of course, the animals. Mice, rabbits, foxes, horses, donkeys, badgers – sex reduces human beings to beasts.
In Aroon’s case – unlike the Wolf Man – the link with bestiality isn’t misplaced. Papa, charming and apparently benign, lives up to the family crest, a fox rampant. He pursues a series of ‘outings and matings’ with a deliberately confusing number of ‘Dorises and Dianas, Gladyses and Enids’ in London, and with every woman at home in Ireland except his daughter: his wife, the governess, the servants and the Crowhurst twins. In a sequence of slapstick misunderstandings on Aroon’s part, Papa’s missing limb, lost on a First World War battlefield, stands in for his potent member. Like one of his own stud horses, he goes where he is led. (In case we miss the analogy, he even brokers sex on one occasion by offering a thoroughbred horse to the twins.) And he is utterly democratic about whom he gets pregnant and leaves in the lurch. The women do away with themselves, or they go to England ‘for six or eight months’ to do away with the baby, by abortion or adoption. None of this is openly stated. Keane’s novel deliberately blurs the distinction between the child averting her eyes over a misunderstanding, and the adults’ habit of drawing a dignified veil over transgression. The distance between politesse and trickery is even harder to establish. Where does decorum end and deception begin? No one in the novel seems to know.
Good Behaviour evokes a vanished world, but it does so unclouded by nostalgia, except for the clothes of the 1920s: cloche hats, berets, crepe-de-chine, silk stockings. The vision is sharp rather than soft focus, revelling in ornate detail:
The men were the flowers in these mysterious forests, sleek and orchidaceous in their hunt coats, the facings and collars pale, thin gold watch-chains crossing meagre stomachs, white ties as exact as two wings on a small bird’s back, long legs black as cypripedium stems, hands sometimes gloved, eyes focused distantly, as if a fox stealing away from its covert was still the thought in mind.
Keane’s scenes are full of brightly lit and oddly oversized features picked out against highly stylised backgrounds. Sometimes the spotlight falls on the abject residues that good behaviour would prefer discreetly to ignore: diarrhoea, for example, and vomit (several times, including its lingering taste and smell). A remarkable number of scenes take place in the lavatory or on the way to it. We get milk stinking of mice, clothes reeking of paraffin and horse’s sweat, the musty odour of armpits and the ‘heavy smell’ of a body beginning to rot from bedsores. Sometimes the trouble hides in plain sight, at the centre of the scene we are invited to contemplate. At the house of the Crowhurst twins, impoverished Anglo-Irish sisters adept at arranging their environment to suggest more than the sum of its parts, Aroon takes everything in:
In the drawing room, where dachshunds lay like a nest of serpents in a round, well-cushioned basket, tea was laid for four. The position of the tea tray commanded a splendid view of the blazing border, where huge, meaty dahlias (fit flesh for cannibals I always think) were divided, and given added value, by fish-shaped drifts of Michaelmas daisies, and grey-blue pools of agapanthus lilies.
It’s like a scene from a Wes Anderson film. You are immersed in one set of details until your eye is drawn by a sudden shift in focus to what lies beyond or slightly outside the frame. The serpents, the flesh-eating dahlias, and above all the artificiality of the tableau foreshadow the sisters’ downfall. They will be chewed up and spat out by the system, having failed to game it properly. But this is a version of Anglo-Irish decline as far as possible from the plangent world of William Trevor, or even Elizabeth Bowen.
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. Bowen’s novel is also gloriously stylised, but she takes as her model Shakespearean comedy, with postwar rural Ireland standing in for the Forest of Arden, rather than satire. There’s a battle between the generations, a shadow cast by the First World War, financial difficulties and a persistent worry about inheritance. ‘Died out, have you?’ a chauffeur asks of the daughter of the house, Jane. The point is, she has no brothers. But they are on the way to Shannon Airport, where they will collect a young American visitor with whom Jane is destined to fall in love. A rich American husband is one way of securing the funds and the genes to keep a crumbling Anglo-Irish enterprise afloat. Keane’s comedy is far darker. Aroon’s young men are either gay or otherwise not interested. Keane’s Anglo-Irish are irretrievably on the way out, as are her upper-class English. When Richard skips out of England before his wedding and moves to Kenya with Baby Kintoull (‘Married?’ His blue eyes dropped open. ‘I don’t think you quite have the riding of it … They were in the same house at Eton’) you know the empire is doomed.
Aroon understands dispossession very well: she has always been without. 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. Keane’s descriptions of the impecunious rich owed something to her parents’ experience: they had, after all, bought into the Ascendancy just as it was breaking up. The Land Acts of the second half of the 19th century were designed to redistribute land to tenant farmers. Some of the houses, shorn of their estates, were bought by wealthy members of the Catholic professional classes, but they depended on business to keep the establishments going, not style. The Skrines were living the life of landlords, but without tenants, and there was little income except what they got from breeding horses. If the portrait of the St Charles marriage is anything to go by, they took no notice of their situation:
While, as though in duty bound, Papa was hunting, fishing and shooting in their proper seasons, at Temple Alice money poured quietly away. Our school fees were the guilty party most often accused. Then came rates and income tax and the absurd hesitations of bank managers. Coal merchants and butchers could both be difficult, so days of farm labour were spent felling and cutting up trees – the wood burned up quickly and delightfully in the high fast-draughting Georgian grates. As a corrective to the butcher’s bills lambs were slaughtered on the place. Half the meat was eaten while the other half went bad, hanging in the musty ice house without any ice.
But Aroon is of a new generation, and a new sensibility. She doesn’t hide bills away in a drawer – she pays them – and she even pays the servants. She gambles, wheels and deals, in order to establish a manner of survival. And she downsizes radically, to a house built into a cliff-face with a distinct resemblance to the house overlooking the sea at Ardmore where Keane herself moved in 1952 and where, twenty years later, she wrote Good Behaviour. In 1938 she had met and married Bobbie Keane, a gentleman farmer and keen huntsman, becoming mistress of her own Georgian house and garden near Cappoquin in County Waterford. But eight years later Bobbie died suddenly, after surgery for a perforated ulcer, leaving her with two small children and a house she couldn’t afford. She wheeled and she dealed. 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.
What Keane prizes above all in her characters is the ability to adapt – to accept change and so to survive, if not always to thrive. All her late novels feature characters who make do in the ruins of their ascendancy. A set of maimed and aged siblings (one-eyed, one-handed, and deaf) manage to outlive their own past as it crumbles around them in Time after Time (1983). They are realists, who know how to bargain with the monks, traders, middle-class Irish housewives and Travellers who live outside their demesne. They get by as much through guile as fortitude or stoicism. In Keane’s final novel, Loving and Giving (1988), ancient Aunt Tossie moves into a caravan in the grounds when the Big House is sold, where she does quite well, with her whisky hidden in the cupboard, supported by a pragmatic alliance with the son of the lodge-house. As early as 1931, in Mad Puppetstown, Keane wrote the prototype of this craggy survivor in Aunt Dicksie. Following the murder of a British soldier during the Anglo-Irish War, Aunt Dicksie refuses to leave for England with her niece and the children. Later, she refuses to give the house up to the Land Commission. She stays on alone with Patsy, the kitchen boy, surviving on game and eventually piling all the furniture into one room so they can light a single fire. She wears clothes that once belonged to her own ancient aunt, and she gardens. It’s both a practical assent to economic reality and a way of saying no to convention (look at the pile-up of negatives in Keane’s description): ‘That extreme and unaffected uninterest in what her neighbours might think of her actions, which is one of the few unassailable prerogatives left to the aristocracy, Aunt Dicksie possessed in a marked degree. If she chose to eat boiled rabbit and drink tea at the same meal, what was that to anyone?’ Aroon’s taste is more refined than Aunt Dicksie’s, but she shares with her a classless appetite. She’ll eat anything, including the rabbit that killed her mother (she is surpassed by one-eyed Jasper in Time after Time, who takes meat out of the cats’ bowls to cook in a pie that he feeds to his sisters). What is being celebrated here is appetite for the whole of experience, a benign form of promiscuity.
In Molly Keane: A Life, her biography of her mother from 2017, Sally Phipps records an occasion in the 1920s when a dead baby was found inside a hat box floating down the River Slaney. The box was from Switzers department store in Dublin and it was addressed to Molly (Miss M. Skrine) at Ballyrankin. One of the maids had given birth in secret and tried to hide the evidence. Phipps notes that her mother, then in her early twenties, had been having an affair with a married master of hounds. ‘Seeing her own name on that makeshift coffin, Molly knew how near she had come to sharing that fate. The incident haunted her imagination.’ In The Rising Tide Enid tries to get rid of her baby but is discovered and married off, unhappily, instead. In Two Days in Aragon the story of the hat-box baby is refigured: the river is an abortionist’s graveyard ‘where babies’ bones were little and green scattered skeletons on the river bottom’. These babies are not the result of love, but of Ascendancy droit de seigneur, or perhaps we should say of men raping the servants:
There were noddings and whisperings and tales of childbeds in far corners of the big house, and pale heavy-breasted girls dragging themselves again about their work. Ah, Ann Daly was a whack-hand at any business like that, and the river is handy for any little things that you wouldn’t want to be keeping. Dead, dear, she’d say, and aren’t you lucky? Another cat for the river, she’d say, and she’d laugh, she’d glory in it, ’twas like a medicine to her … The young gentlemen were very great with Ann. She had a bedpost filled with pieces of gold they gave her, and one way and another she served them well. She was a great one for boiling roots and seeds at the right turn of the moon and a terrible effect they took if a girl went to her in time with her trouble.
In Two Days in Aragon there are two would-be abortionists. Ann Daly is a ghost belonging to the high Ascendancy past. In the present of 1921, when Grania believes she is pregnant, the nurse and housekeeper, Nan (herself the daughter of a rape of a servant by the master of the house), offers to go to the chemist and ‘fix her up’:
‘What shall we see Nan? Foley dead and me having an abortion?’
‘Miss Grania, what a word for a lady to use.’
‘You’d do it, Nan, but you wouldn’t say it.’
Two Days in Aragon was published in 1941, and written in the early days of Keane’s marriage, soon after Sally’s birth. Two years earlier Mamie Cadden, a midwife and backstreet abortionist, had been sentenced to a year’s hard labour for abandoning and exposing a baby on the roadside in County Meath. (In the mid-1950s Cadden was convicted of murder after one of her patients died following an abortion.) 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. With the route to England cut off, instances of infanticide rose in Ireland. 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.
Keane’s novels are celebrated as the sleek and orchidaceous late flowerings of the Anglo-Irish Big House tradition, but that is to cut them off from the wider currents of Irish life. I’m not suggesting we should read them as Irish realism, in the mode of John McGahern or Edna O’Brien, but Keane herself makes clear that the baroque world of her fiction, in which sex was transgression and harm could not be acknowledged, was as much a portrait of upper-class England and everyday Ireland as it was of the Anglo-Irish. The character who most embodies good behaviour in this novel is the servant, Rose. She allies herself with each of her employers in turn, catering to their every need. Alone she preserves a kind of dignity, even when masturbating Papa under the sheets, partly because Aroon can’t fathom her (and doesn’t try to). Rose maintains a private code and set of beliefs Aroon can only understand as ‘peasant gabbling prayer’. This is a language of feeling that doesn’t fit Mrs Brock’s teachings. The character of Rose isn’t offered as a vehicle for self-expression, growth, a life story – all the ingredients of fiction. Rather, she enlarges the novel’s reach into a wider culture of secrets and silences, of doing it but not saying it. In the end, what may be most realistic in Keane’s fiction is what is most peculiar: there is a void where we expect acknowledgment to be.