Sunday, 31 January 2016

Dress Down Sunday: Good Behaviour by Molly Keane


published 1981



LOOKING AT WHAT GOES ON UNDER THE CLOTHES



Good Behaviour



It was glorious then. There are no beauties now like the beauties of the twenties; theirs was an absolute beauty, and none the worse for being clean and tidy. I worshipped some of those full-page photographs in the Tatler. Today I can still feel the grip of a cloche hat over my earphones of hair, and a little later the freedom and sauce of a beret on a shingle. We wore our hats, usually of pale rabbit-coloured felt, when exercising our horses or playing tennis, or for luncheon parties. On our way to Good Behaviour 3the bathroom we wore crepe-de-chine and lace boudoir caps – what has become of crepe-de-chine? Or real silk stockings with their transparent clocks, if it comes to that? Or those life-giving white ladies before dinner before the ball? Not that I am actually against martinis, but I want to go back, I want to soak myself in Cointreau, gin and lemon juice in equal parts.
 



commentary: Last year I did a couple of entries on Molly Keane’s much earlier novel, The Rising Tide, and one of them contains a character making similar complaints. And of course this has been caught up by time: there is a 45-year gap between the novels, so the two extracts neatly demonstrate the fact that every generation thinks its young women were more beautiful and better dressed than the current crop.

Good Behaviour is a much better novel than Keane’s earlier ones. Whatever she was doing or thinking in the intervening time, having stopped writing for so long, the result is a masterpiece. It’s highly entertaining, in a dark way, and is immensely clever, with one of the great unreliable narrators of all time. Poor Aroon: she is horrifying and sad in equal measure – the large young woman growing up in decaying grandeur, feeling unloved, longing for marriage and to look pretty. (If actor-comedian Miranda Hart ever wants a solid acting role, this would be absolutely ideal for her.)

The plot drives forward, the reader all too able to see what Aroon can’t: about her mother, her father, her brother, his friend, the people in the town. Keane walks a knife-edge between comedy and tragedy – there is a story that is both sad, absurd and only too believable about a boy who is discovered
alone in the boys’ tree house… with what could only be a book – a book, and at 3 o’clock on a perfect afternoon.
As if that is not enough, he lies and says it is Robinson Crusoe, when actually it is poetry. There is an endless aftermath to this event, and the subsequent sacking of the governess.

The book sometimes seems as though it is a jumble of anecdotes, history, old stories and details from a way of life long gone – and none the worse for that. But re-reading it you can see it has an extraordinary structure, and everything in it is pushing the story on.

But the details of that Irish life ARE fabulous and so are the clothes. Poor Aroon jumping on her bike and heading off to see the dressmaker, who gently tries to suggest a more suitable dress for her…

The household is running out of laundry starch at one point, because the maids are eating it as part of a slimming diet.

The governess had a gift for finding things:
Earrings even figured when the second footman, Walter, rather a dear boy, came to tell her privately that he had lost one of a pair given him by a friend
…. as Keane has a gift for small, perfect lines that tell you about the characters.

There is mention of something called a silver potato ring: and I am indebted to the Glessner House Museum in Chicago for this description:
Among the many pieces of silver in the museum collection is an unusual item that people living in the 21st century would have a hard time identifying. The elaborately decorated piece is known as an Irish potato ring. These pieces served a simple function – to hold baked potatoes. The ring, which is open on the bottom, would be placed on a large round plate and then filled with the potatoes which could then be removed by the diner with appropriate tongs.
Here’s a picture of one – there are many pictures available online, and they are much more elegant than that name makes them sound:

Good Behaviour 2

The crepe-de-chine and lingerie pictures are from the NYPL.

Something of a discussion of cloches in this entry, with a splendid picture of blogfriend Lucy Fisher.











16 comments:

  1. Aroon does sound like a great narrator for this story, Moira. I always like stories that take social changes and social evolution (if that's the word) to the human level. So we can see how things have changed (or not) through the eyes of one person, or through effects on one family. Really interesting! And you know, I think that's a good point about the cloche hat! :-)

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    1. Yes, and that history of the Protestant Ascendancy in Ireland is always a particularly fascinating one - I always enjoy books set in that milieu...

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  2. The Vintage Reader31 January 2016 at 13:10

    One summer I worked in a costume shop at a theater. The head costumer would order huge bins of costumes from a rental place in New York, and then we'd alter them. Once he handed me a pair of crepe de chine lounging pajamas from the 20s or 30s to hem for a short actress (I think the show was "On the Twentieth Century"). I just couldn't damage that beautiful fabric. I sat there for an hour or so making an invisible hem, and then the shop manager came over and grabbed them out of my hands and ran them through an industrial sewing machine. She also lectured me about wasting time. I believe I spent the next hour crying in the bathroom. Those pants were so gorgeous--REALLY wide around the bottom, in a color somewhere between pink and purple, and the drape was amazing--and she ruined them in less than five minutes. I mean, I realize now that my delicate hem wasn't adequate for stage wear, but really, neither were those pants. We could have made a pair out of cheap polyester that would have looked just as good on stage. I hated that job so much. Although I did end up altering a dress that Angela Lansbury wore, so that was cool (the clothes we got were a mix of actual theatrical costumes and vintage clothes--the dresses for "Grease" were really great).

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    1. Oh that is absolutely fascinating, Vintage Reader, thanks for sharing your stories. I love to hear of people with true respect for clothes. And just the words 'lounging pajamas' make me sigh (in a good way) and smile...

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  3. Moira: I thought of Downton Abbey in reading the opening of the post. Sharon and I are watching this season's episodes each Sunday night.

    Last year she found a red hat that could have been worn on the show.

    The local library, for which I have been a board member for over 35 years, is hosting a tea in March after the final episode. Sharon will wear her hat. I am being asked to dress up in my court waistcoat, wingtip collared shirt and tabs and be the butler!

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    1. Oh that sounds wonderful! Please please may we see a photo when it happens? In fact photos of everyone...

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  4. Moira, this sounds fairly like a sentimental book. I liked reading about the silver potato ring too. How quaint!

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    1. It's amazing what you can find out from books and the Internet. I had never heard of a potato ring, and it was very enjoyable to look it up and find out what they looked like. Modern times...

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  5. I love cloche hats - indeed, any hats! I used to be renowned for always wearing them, but I'm never that dressed up anymore, so it's just baker boy caps I wear now - perfect when you've no time to do your hair (or can't be bothered!) I just put it in a small side bun and put the cap on. There's a beautiful emerald coloured cloche hat in a shop round the corner, but I don't dress up enough to justify buying it - although I do covet it when I walk by...

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    1. I like the sound of your baker boy hats - but also really really think you should invest in the green cloche!

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  6. Replies
    1. Irish connection not enough for you?

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    2. Well I reckon my dad read it about 30 years ago, but he's not around to ask. The reader Keane's have done their bit.

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    3. It's in your genetic makeup now...

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  7. That is a lovely excerpt, but I don't think I will read the book.

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    1. I've pretty much covered Molly Keane in a couple of entries, Tracy, and you are let off...

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