“Tears are such rotten behaviour.”
In Molly Keane’s brilliantly restrained novel Good Behaviour, 57-year-old Aroon St. Charles reminisces about her Irish childhood, and says, “if I look back beyond any shadow into the uncertainties and glories of our youth, perhaps I shall understand more about what became of us.”
Aroon was born at the beginning of the 20th century and raised in the rapidly decaying mansion Temple Alice. The mansion is all that remains of the family’s once great fortune, and the resources required to maintain the house, and the family’s lifestyles are rapidly disappearing. Aroon’s perfectly behaved mother is cold and remote. Her time is divided between gardening and creating the most atrocious paintings. While Mrs. St Charles is intolerant and impatient with her children, “she was considerate towards all weakness and eccentricity in plant life.” Aroon’s father, the Major, is a somewhat more human figure. He divides his time between his horses, his dogs and various other women. Aroon and her brother, Hubert, are left to their own devices for a great deal of time, and this leads to the children forming a strong relationship with their governess, the indispensable and ultimately tragic, Mrs. Brock.
Tragedy, accidents, suicide, infidelities, and death all invade life at Temple Alice. But through it all, Aroon’s parents demand a certain standard of behaviour. Some things are never to be discussed, and good manners–no matter what happens–are perfectly essential. Aroon grows up with a great unfulfilled need to be loved and cherished, and the silence surrounding the need for socially perfect behaviour ensures Aroon’s deep, abiding unhappiness. At crucial moments in Aroon’s life, she fails miserably to conduct herself with the decorum her mother expects, but in spite of Aroon’s vast secret emotional inner life, she cannot escape the bounds of Good Behaviour.
Author Molly Keane recreates Aroon’s world with perfect, elegant precision. Aroon’s parents refuse to discuss anything to do with bills, and while they avoid confrontations with creditors, they also fail to understand why they must pay–after all, they reason, the car has to have petrol to run, and they must have meat to eat. There’s a fragile, faded decadence to this world vision, and it’s clear that the world in which the privileged classes sail along is silently slipping away–it’s the end of an era. From the tradesmen’s refusal of credit, to the newfound uppity attitudes of servants who realize their masters’ dependence, this book is a quiet masterpiece.