Molly Keane’s Treasure Hunt begins with a funeral. First we see a grand, comfortable country house in Ireland called Ballyroden, dreaming in the sun, completely empty, notable for the number of champagne corks littering the gravel in front. (It’s a frank piece of stage-setting, unsurprising since Treasure Hunt was originally a play, produced in 1949 and running for a year on the London stage.) Characters appear and vanish: a sprightly elderly fellow in a beautifully-cut swallow-tail coat, to claim a sheaf of flowers left behind. Three servants, home early from the church to prepare the house for the mourners. Interest quickens as the servants wrangle gently among themselves.
If one were actually watching the play, this is the point at which one might begin to wonder a little bit, since part of the stage business involves the manservant William’s preparation of “a nest” for Aunt Anna Rose. And the nest is located in an eighteenth-century sedan chair, equipped with a telephone.
The funeral, it turns out, was that of Sir Roderick Ryall. The mourners include his aunt (that would be Aunt Anna Rose), his brother Hercules (he of the sheaf of flowers), his sister Consuelo, and his heir, the young Sir Phillip. But it turns out that what actually died was the old way of life in Ballyroden, for Sir Roderick has spent every penny of his own money and his siblings’ money, too. Those champagne corks so liberally popped as Sir Roderick’s body left the house came from the last bottles in the cellar. It is young Sir Phillip’s task to rein in the dizzy, wanton, childish expenditure of the elder generation. Here’s how Keane puts it when Phillip countermands the post-funeral champagne and orders tea instead: “Thoughts of tea seemed distinctly shabby and middle-class and disrespectful to the dead in contrast with the gold of sun and wine.”
I’ve left out Phillip’s cousin Veronica Howard, a little brown wren of a young woman, as practical and unglamorous as Phillip. She is deeply exasperating to her mother, the stagy, glamorous Consuelo, and when Veronica and Phillip invite English paying guests to the house, Consuelo is shocked at their vulgarity. A great deal of the comedy of the book comes from the cultural clash between the rich but “not quite.. not quite quite” Mrs. Cleghorne-Thomas and the haughty Consuelo. And though spiced with malice, the humor is not fundamentally cruel. Keane herself was Anglo-Irish, born and bred to the daffy, enchanting world of immense damp houses and iffy financial arrangements. She clearly feels sympathy for the young people who don’t know that world and the froth of Treasure Hunt is streaked with faintly warped elegy. One of the English paying guests, walking through an outlying barn, spots, “perched afar on crags of broken china, a birdcage, an affair as elaborate as the Crystal Palace, and inside it, he thought, a dead bird, until he looked closer and saw it was a black cock’s feather boa — caged for no earthly imaginable reason.” If you are drawn to the image of a feather boa imprisoned in an elaborate bird cage, this book’s for you.