Molly Keane was a successful author and playwright in the first half of the 20th century. Although she was known mostly for romantic frolics, Good Behaviour is certainly not in that category. In fact, at the time that she wrote it, it was rejected as being too dark. It was not published until years later, when Keane’s friend Peggy Ashcroft encouraged her to try again.
Good Behaviour is a comedy of manners and a satirical look at the life of a certain type of the Irish upper class. It startlingly begins with a murder, but I’ll leave it to readers to find out who the victim and murderer are.
After the murder, the book returns in time to recount the childhood and upbringing of Aroon St. Charles. But first it oddly shoots off to explain how Mrs. Brock, Aroon’s governess, came to them. It is telling to learn that the proper and kindly Mrs. Brock was “let go” by a friend of St. Charles, notwithstanding a good reference, because she committed the crimes of encouraging one of the boys to read poetry and comforting him after he was whipped by his father. The boy, Richard Massingham, becomes important to Aroon in later years.
Aroon is a large, unattractive girl who is desperate for affection and some acknowledgment of her own importance. She is not stupid, but she sees only what she wants to see and is incredibly naive. Although she loves Mrs. Brock, it is indicative of her character that she nevertheless makes fun of her later in life as a way to fit in with Richard and her brother Hubert. She loves her father, who treats her with casual affection, but expressiveness is considered bad form in their set.
Her relationship with her mother is more complex. Although Aroon steadfastly maintains the fiction that her parents are devoted to each other, it is clear that they are not. Mrs. St. Charles is cold and removed from her family. She has no interests in common with her husband, who spends most of his time pursuing outdoor sports and philandering. Aroon knows that, but does not seem to notice what is going on in her own house.
The events in this novel are largely trivial except for some deaths. The novel is not plot-driven but centers around the behavior of Aroon and her horsey upper-class friends, who maintain their snobbishness despite a consistent lack of funds. We see the irony when Aroon throws away her opportunity to escape her unhappy household through a combination of willful blindness and snobbery. Aroon finds her place eventually and it is a deserved one.
Although we can find some sympathy for Aroon, she is definitely an anti-heroine. If you appreciate a sly, dark, understated humor and a masterly characterization, you should look for a copy of this novel.