Early in Molly Keane’s recently reissued 1981 novel Good Behaviour (NYRB Classics, $16.95, 320 pp.), the narrator, an Anglo-Irish woman named Aroon St. Charles, remembers the primary lesson of her childhood: “Even then I knew how to ignore things. I knew how to behave.” Raised in a stylish, chilly, not-what-it-used-to-be Anglo-Irish “big house” called Temple Alice, Aroon is taught how to ride horses (fearlessly), how to drink (often), and how to deal with bills (shove them in the drawer). But most importantly, she learns that behaving well is largely a matter of not behaving badly—of knowing and avoiding the things that simply aren’t done. If you’re male, you don’t read too much. If you’re female, you don’t eat too much or take up too much space or generally remind the world that you have a body. (Aroon’s mother has perfected this corporeal vanishing act, “elegant as if on stilts above all the trouble beneath her feet. Even the old fur coat with its cracked skins had a cloudy airiness as she wore it.”) Regardless of gender, you don’t fuss or make a scene.
Above all, you don’t talk about, or acknowledge, or even see, sex. Your father is a philanderer, sleeping with maids and governesses and neighbors? Avert your eyes, as Aroon does, and deny, deny, deny—most of all to yourself. Your beloved is sleeping not with you but with your brother? Play—or, best of all, be—dumb, as Aroon is. Sex is messy, and messes aren’t the thing. (That’s why we have maids, darling.) In the moneyed but fading world to which Aroon belongs, ignorance is an art, and like all arts it requires imagination: in this case, the ability to not see the mess that is actually there.
The Booker-nominated Good Behaviour was Keane’s twelfth novel but the first published under her own name. (Keane was also from a well-behaved—read: miserably buttoned-up—family. Being a novelist was another thing that simply wasn’t done.) It opens with an act of civilized vengeance. Aroon, fifty-seven years old, serves her bedridden mother rabbit mousse. “I like things to be right,” Aroon says, and the presentation is perfect: “The tray did look charming: bright, with a crisp clean cloth and a shine on everything.” The catch is, Mummie can’t stand rabbit: with all those droppings and all those babies, rabbits are quite messy. The smell is enough to make the cloudy, airy Mummie figuratively perish, which she promptly and literally does. Death by rabbit mousse—it’s a deliciously nasty beginning, and it leads Aroon to wonder how she got here: “All my life so far I have done everything for the best reasons and the most unselfish motives. I have lived for the people dearest to me, and I am at a loss to know why their lives have been at times so perplexingly unhappy.”
Of course, Aroon has not done everything for the best reasons: a rabbit dinner might seem nice but it also can kill. She can be a monster of selfishness, waiting on her mother not because she cares for her but because she wants to subdue her: “I enjoy the room whenever I go in. It’s all my doing and Mummie, lying back in her nest of pretty pillows, is my doing too.” If she would only look, Aroon would see why she and her family are so un-perplexingly unhappy. The contortions that good behavior requires are their own form of violence.