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In 1980 the actress Dame Peggy Ashcroft was a guest of Molly Keane. Formerly a successful playwright and novelist, Keane, by then in her seventies, had not published a book in nearly 30 years. When her guest asked for something to read, Keane produced a manuscript that had been ‘turned down flat’. Peggy Ashcroft loved it, and the book was eventually shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1981. Good Behaviour tells the story of the St Charles family of Temple Alice in rural Ireland. The bills are mounting, the house is crumbling and the servants are impertinent, but the family maintains an unshakeable, aristocratic façade. As the years take their toll and family tragedy strikes the façade becomes all that they have. ‘Our good behaviour went on and on, endless as the days … There was to be no sentimentality. It was the worst kind of bad manners to mourn and grovel in grief.'
With echoes of the acerbic social comedy of Nancy Mitford, but with her own distinctive prose, Molly Keane precisely captures these characters and their social milieu. There is the charming father, whose ‘successes with young girls were quite frightening’, and the cold and careless mother, who tells her daughter that the doctor charged £10 when she was born: ‘It was quite a ridiculous price.’ The story is narrated by Aroon, the ungainly daughter of the house, who longs for love and a place in society, but has neither beauty nor money to recommend her. Her only hope for a love affair is with her brother’s best friend, whose real feelings are one of the many mysteries that Aroon cannot understand, although the reader may. This Folio Society edition is introduced by novelist Jane Gardam, who points out how Molly Keane’s own Anglo-Irish upbringing made her well acquainted with ‘the dangers of reticence, of hiding passions, of … the stiff upper lip.’ Illustrations by Debra McFarlane echo the novel’s atmosphere of genteel decline and its subtle interplay between comedy and tragedy.