LOOKING AT WHAT GOES ON UNDER THE CLOTHES
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 the 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.
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:
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.