Eleanor brought home a paperback copy of Molly Keane’s Good Behaviour that she’d read in an Irish Literature course when she returned from her semester in London last December, and I started reading it and then left it in the car as my “just in case” book. Without any kids to ferry about, though, it stayed there unread until I took it out in preparation for a maintenance visit to get the car ready to go to Iowa at the end of the spring semester. I started reading it while waiting for the car, and then found I couldn’t stop. It turned out that it was a good follow-on book after The People in the Trees, with its repellent narrator, as the narrator of Good Behaviour has her repellent moments, although you don’t see that at first. She’s just a little girl.
As the little girl, Aroon, grows up, it’s increasingly difficult to sympathize with her. It’s a bit like how when my family started watching Arrested Development, I didn’t enjoy watching it with them. It took me until the middle of the first season to realize that I wasn’t supposed to sympathize with any of the characters. When I returned to reading Good Behaviour—which begins with the death of the mother–it was glaringly obvious that what Aroon and her mother consider “good behaviour” is what Americans associate with the phrase “stiff upper lip.” And in the process of keeping their upper lips quite absurdly stiff, this pair fool themselves about what anyone’s behaviour means, and what goodness consists of.
In the introduction to the 2001 Virago Press edition, Marian Keyes says that Aroon kills her mother, but that is over-simplifying what happens. The mother claims not to be able to bear all kinds of coarse behavior and lower-class foods, so to take her at her word about whether being served a particular food would actually kill her is disingenuous.
In a better moment of generalization, Keyes says that “the book documents the dying days of the Anglo-Irish aristocracy” in the early 20th century. Aroon sees nothing amiss as she tells the story of her favorite nannie, Mrs. Brock, but a modern reader will most likely be appalled as she finds out why Mrs. Brock is working instead of staying home with children of her own, what happens to make her lose her place as a governess to three little boys (one of them lies about what he was doing, which turns out to have been reading poetry, and she comforts him after he is beaten), and what she does after leaving Aroon’s family. Even while recounting happy times, the narrator insinuates what the reader learns to recognize as an ominous tone: “In those days one did not quite admit the possibility of cowardice even in young children. The tough were the ones who mattered; their courage was fitting and creditable. 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. It appeared to Papa that Mrs. Brock had rescued our honour and his credit.”
Aroon’s brother Hubert falls in love with a boy named Richard, and in order to put a good face on their behavior, the three of them pretend that Richard is courting Aroon. The problem is that Aroon doesn’t realize that this is a pretense, and perhaps the reader doesn’t either until it becomes increasingly obvious, culminating in a comic scene in Aroon’s bed when Richard complains that “every time you move you tilt the bed over” and talks loudly to make sure that Aroon’s father hears them. She embroiders this scene until it becomes a great romance, in her imagination, telling herself “I don’t need to have everything spelled out. I know how to build the truth.“
Aroon’s father makes love to every woman who comes within his view, and her mother defends herself from any knowledge of this by responding to attempts to tell her about it with a phrase like “if they gave him the smallest amusement, Aroon, I’m only too delighted.” When it becomes obvious that the family has no more money, Aroon’s mother decides to “economize” by suggesting that others in the household don’t need heat in the wintertime, and that they should eat less and eat cheaper food, while secretly continuing her plans to buy fancy pieces of furniture she has had her eye on for much of her life.
Aroon’s disappointment at a neighborhood Hunt Ball is the culminating disappointment of the novel, coming as it does after a season during which she and her mother “stifled screaming despairs only by the exercise of Good Behaviour.” Rather than just a “big girl,” Aroon is revealed to an extent even she cannot deny as fatuously self-deluded and undesirable.
In the end, Aroon’s father leaves her everything. But since he owes money to everyone, what has he left her? Perhaps it was meant as a final blow against his wife, but Aroon takes it for love. It’s the only kind she’ll ever know, a child’s reward for what this twisted family considers “good behaviour.”