A Deliciously Spiteful Aristocratic Family For Fans of ‘Downton Abbey’

When I first discovered Molly Keane a few years ago, it felt like meeting a hilarious, deliciously spiteful, and observant new friend for the first time. Her humor is so sly, her characterizations merciless. In her naughtiness, she reminded me of a kind of adult Roald Dahl, but she is also a poet at heart. Elegant and allusive, few writers I know can evoke the agonies of snobbery, or of a broken heart, or the atmosphere, smell, and character of a room as she can, or the beauty of the Irish countryside at dawn.

GOOD BEHAVIOUR begins behind the gates of Temple Alice, where an aristocratic Anglo-Irish St Charles family is slowly sinking into a state of decay. To Aroon St Charles, the large boned and plain daughter of the house, the fierce forces of sex, money, jealousy, and love appear, at first, to have been locked out by the ritual patterns of good behavior.

At first, Aroon appears to be a pathetic creature: a 57-year-old spinster living with a cold mother who has bullied her all her life. But the tables are turning: Mummy is upstairs with a weak heart, and for the first time in her life, Aroon is in control. Well, sort of… for she has a servant called Rose in the house with her who adores Mummy and dislikes Aroon.

As the story progress, Aroon’s shell of good behavior is expertly stripped away to reveal a character every bit as monstrous as Roald Dahl’s Miss Trunchbull. She is a snob, a control freak with lots of rules about the laying out of the dead, and table clothes, and sherry (posh sherry for blue bloods, “the other sherry” for the hoi polloi).

The opening chapter is a tour de force. Aroon is in the kitchen cooking lunch for her mother. But it’s a kind of culinary revenge, for she’s been mincing cooked rabbit (a dish her mother loathes) in a food processor in order to disguise it as chicken. The results are quite dramatic, though I won’t spoil it for you.

Molly Keane, born in Ireland and raised in Bath, had a career in two halves: in the 1930s she was a successful playwright on the London stage, quite an achievement considering she had no formal education. Later on, she wrote novels under the pseudonym M. J. Farrell. But after the death of a husband she adored and some vicious reviews, she stopped writing when she was 37.

GOOD BEHAVIOUR was eventually published in 1981, when Molly was in her 80s. It missed winning the Booker Prize by a whisker and led to a new army of devoted fans. Secrets, lies, sex, crumbling codes of conduct, power struggles—it’s all there, with a few good belly laughs thrown in. If you haven’t read it, don’t miss it.