I’ve always been fascinated by the combination of glamor and emotional mess that seems to surround the Guinness clan of Ireland and England. Reckless marriages, feral parenting arrangements, and stunning looks seem to be pretty reliable family markers. All were features of the life of Lady Caroline Blackwood, who was married to painter Lucian Freud, composer Israel Citkovitz, and poet Robert Lowell. And none of this would matter if Blackwood weren’t a steely observer of her own family’s rather spectacular foibles.
Great Granny Webster, a slender 103 pages, was published in 1977 and short-listed for the Booker Prize. Honor Moore’s introduction to this New York Review Books edition says it lost out to Paul Scott’s Staying On because Philip Larkin thought it was too autobiographical. Moore also says that “Blackwood is Merchant Ivory from hell” and maybe it’s that furious darkness that makes this book so… bracing. So…piquant. So …irresistible.
The narrator is a young, observant girl, sent to recover from anemia at the home of her great-grandmother in 1947. (Father dead in Burma, mother otherwise occupied.) Even though she spends only two months in this gloomy luxurious seaside villa, her great-grandmother’s character is so remarkable and so poisonous that we can see its mark on all of the subsequent generations. Great Granny Webster does not yield; not to emotion, not to gravity, or kindness, or fear. She has all the humanity, as Blackwood observes, of a piece of teak.
Then there’s Aunt Lavinia, only sister of the narrator’s dead father. This one’s a charmer; gorgeous, luxury-loving, always the life of the party. The first sign of trouble comes when she telephones her niece, laughing. She is being detained in a hospital after having failed to commit suicide. “‘I had it all perfectly planned, darling. It couldn’t have been more Roman…I was in my bath with my bottle of whisky for courage, and my gleaming razor. It all went like a dream. It didn’t even hurt.” But “‘There’s something unexpectedly ghastly about finding oneself in a bath full of gore and melting soap.'” A subsequent chilling visit to Aunt Lavinia gradually reveals the mental imbalance. “She took one of her poodle’s charcoal biscuits out of the packet and ate it herself. ‘Either these are quite delicious or quite disgusting. Like so many things in life, it’s hard to tell which,’ she said.”
There’s no mystery at all about the intervening generation, Aunt Lavinia’s mother and Great Granny Webster’s daughter. This woman lives in a mouldering Anglo-Irish ruin and fancies herself a fairy — the kind with wings. Blackwood’s meticulous description of the ludicrous discomfort and indignity of this menage is the richest thing in the book. The damp wallpaper peeling off the walls in lush coils, the dried-out pheasants served at lunch and dinner every day of the week, the pieces of string cunningly attached to oozing ceilings to guide leaks into the ready jam jars littering the floors… It could only be true.
Blackwood gets revenge, of a sort, in the final scene involving the burial of the great grandmother. Which just goes to show that those of us with pencils or keyboards must always be placated, don’t you think?