I think this is only the second book I've read by Molly Keane, the first being her celebrated Good Behaviour, which I loved. This one came into my hands by pure chance, being the only readable book on a shelf of freebies. And what a happy chance it was!
Published in 1935, this is the story of a decidedly dysfunctional family of Anglo-Irish landowners who live in a grand mansion, Silverue. The father is Julian, quiet, academic, ineffectual, and besotted with his wife, the terrifying Lady Bird. Lady Bird, serially adulterous, obsessed with her appearance, rules the household with a mixture of bullying and cruelty, and believes, quite mistakenly, that her children adore her. But teenage Sheena, in love with a neighbour Rupert who she hopes to marry, despises her mother and can't wait to get away. Her older brother John, who turns up at the start of the novel recovering from a serious mental breakdown, is the apple of his mother's eye, and plays along with her fantasy that they are twin souls for the sake of some peace and quiet. Little Mark, a beautiful, strong willed child, manages to go his own way, despite the best efforts of his sad little governess Miss Parker, who is treated more or less like a slave by Lady Bird.
On a visit to the house comes beautiful divorced Eliza, an old friend of the family. She has always been in love with Julian, but though he is very fond of her and they have a good understanding, she knows she can't compete with his adoration of Lady Bird.
Eliza said, 'Dear, but it’s lovely for me,' and she went away leaving Julian to everything that was more important than she was. To dressing flies for his mad son. To waiting for his faithless, cruel wife. To his Life in which he had no smallest part. Well, so long as one knew where one was, nothing hurt one. Only unexpected wounds and defeats.
The story, which takes place over a few weeks in the summer, is mainly focused on Eliza, who, not being a family member, is able to stand back and observe the complex and frequently painful interactions that go on in the house. There's little she can do to help, but she does take an important part in helping John to stabilise his mental state and ends by feeling pleased to have done so, even though at a small sacrifice herself. But we also follow Sheena's intense romance with Rupert, which is violently scuppered by some information she is given by Rupert's troublemaking sister Silene. Luckily Eliza is able to put this right, though at some probable cost to Lady Bird's relationship with her daughter and with her husband. There's nothing she can do for the 'little bearded governess', Miss Parker, who suffers agonies over her disfiguring facial hair and who falls deeply in love with Nick, the boat-owning handyman...
I loved every minute of this novel. Molly Keane writes brilliantly, and the book is full of wonderfully sharp and extremely funny moments. The characters, with all their quirks and eccentricities, are brilliantly observed and entertainingly described. Here's one of them:
Rupert's elder sister Silene looked like an enormous, a vast, an overwhelming angel. She was tall and enormously fat and gloriously fair with viper-curling yellow hair and a wonderful skin (although this was not quite what it had been what with her troubled life and constantly drinking gin). She did not like her husband very much and spent most of her time staying with friends who all loved her although she was a crashing bore when she was drunk.
Wonderful stuff. Highly recommended.