16 June 2012

Great Granny Webster (Caroline Blackwood)

It's hard to talk about Caroline Blackwood's novella Great Granny Webster without talking about the woman herself: heiress and muse, alcoholic and raconteur (in a time when people still called other people raconteurs). And it's hard to read this slim little oddity of a book without seeing it as autobiographical: it's the pieced-together story of several generations of upper-class British women, from the unbending matriarch of the title (which I mean pretty literally; girlfriend has crazy good posture), through her institutionalized daughter, dancing with the faery folk alone in her dilapidated ballroom; her aging flapper granddaughter, lover and leaver of more rich men than she cares to count; down to the horrified narrator/ Blackwood analogue, trying to learn as much as she can about her family history in a desperate attempt to escape it.

As brief as it is, Great Granny Webster's a heavy read, a dispassionate catalog of madness, rigidity, and decay. Except somehow not as bleak as it sounds? Well, no, wait, it is. Yet there are moments of sly humor, like the Very Correct English servants forced to wear galoshes in the leaky Ulster castle where the narrator's father was brought up. And it's a great summation of decades of British social roles, Victorian to post-Empire, with culture-recurrent themes of class stricture and the past. A lot to cover in 103 pages.

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