Thursday, 11 November 2021

A grim and fiercely joyless old lady

Great Granny Webster These days it's impossible to read a book without the gloomy cloud of Covid looming above me. Unfortunately Caroline Blackwood's Great Granny Webster filled me with a despondency and ennui that might not have been so bad if I'd read it before 2020.

The eponymous matriarch is a "grim and fiercely joyless old lady". Her 14-year-old great-granddaughter is sent to live with her for two months in the hope that the girl will benefit from the sea air in Hove, where Mrs Webster lives. As the teenager is leaving she discovers that her father, who died when she was nine, regularly enjoyed visiting the old woman.

The girl is baffled as to why a man in his early thirties "who had apparently liked talking and drinking and wild London parties, had chosen to spend the precious days of his army leave trailing down to Hove in the black-out to sip water and listen to the unenlivening conversation of Great Granny Webster". She asks questions of her Aunt Lavinia and her father's friend Tommy Redcliffe in order to bring to life the man she can barely remember. In the process she also discovers more about her female relatives.

I can't remember who recommended the book to me, only that it was billed as gothic and darkly humorous. It certainly has gothic elements, particularly in the descriptions of Great Granny Webster's house and lifestyle, but also in the setting of Dunmartin Manor, the crumbling family home of the narrator's grandparents in Northern Ireland. The black humour was less discernible.

One scene in Aunt Lavinia's life was appalling and mirrored the more recent painful experiences of #MeToo victims. The attacker's fumbling was described in such a way as to be farcical and made him look ridiculous, but although Aunt Lavinia made light of it, no doubt out of necessity, it wasn't funny.

Then there are the dreadful descriptions of life at Dunmartin Manor, where Grandmother Dunmartin, clearly suffering from postpartum psychosis "started behaving as if she were bewitched", convinced that her children "were changelings. She kept screaming that her real children had been stolen by evil fairies and replaced by demon substitutes". Grandfather Dunmartin "was very unanxious to create any scandal that would give his house a bad reputation in the surrounding countryside" and didn't seek help. Blackwood wrote the book in the early 1970s about an upper-class British family of the mid-20th century. We've hopefully come a long way since then, although there's at least one such British family that would rather ignore the mental health of its members than bring shame on themselves.

Thankfully there was one scene in the story that made me smile, right at the end of the book. I wondered if the Coen Brothers had read Caroline Blackwood's description of the funeral of Great Granny Webster when they wrote The Big Lebowski.

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