Great Granny Webster by Caroline Blackwood

This short novel is a fearsome portrait of a startling old woman. Great Granny Webster lives in Hove, Sussex, on the south coast of England. She inhabits a dark house, spending her time sitting upright in a chair, doing nothing. This has been her way of life for decades. What makes her live in this way?

22 Great-Granny-Webster

Great Granny Webster

This short novel is narrated by the great grand daughter who was 14 years old when she spent three months with the old woman in Hove, recuperating after an illness by taking in the sea air. The poor girl has to live with her great-grandmother in a rigid routine, waited on by one maid who is also very old. The description of the routine in the house is chilling, and very strong.

Often I would be in the same room as Great Granny Webster for hours and she would say not a single word to me. She would just sit there bolt upright in one of the most horribly uncomfortable highbacked wooden Victorian gothic chairs I have ever seen. One felt that originally it had only ever been intended to stand like a decoration in some imposing baronial hall. (13)

By contrast the narrator’s Aunt Lavinia is a fun-loving socialite of the post-war period. She is also described in detail, and we see that she is no happier than Great Granny Webster.

Her attitude to life appeared so resolutely frivolous that perversely she could seem to have the seriousness of someone with a driving inner purpose. She believed in having “fun” as if it was a state of grace. (29)

One chapter explores Dunmartin Hall in Ulster. To this house Great Granny Webster’s daughter went when she married. She goes mad and her devoted husband is quite unable to keep up the fabric or the conventions of this vast aristocratic house because he is so keen to support her. The footmen and butler wear rubber boots to serve the meals – always pheasants – as a protest against the damp conditions. This is the home of the narrator’s father. He died in the war but he frequently went to visit his grandmother in Hove before his death. Again, we have a contrast, this time of the chaotic household and the rigid one.

Finally, years later, the narrator is called to the funeral of the old lady. In a scene of bizarre and ludicrous awfulness, the old lady’s ashes are tipped into her grave with only the narrator and the ancient maid as mourners.

The old woman

Behind this fearsome portrait of a sad old woman lies the question – why on earth did she behave as she did? As a child and young woman she was exposed to and constrained by those Victorian values and expectations of what it meant to be a woman from the upper classes. The rigid formality, the expectations of others, the refusal to express emotions, the belief in her own righteousness, all these come from that upbringing. No matter that there have been major changes in society, two world wars and the ‘60s; no matter that her daughter is incarcerated for life in a lunatic asylum; that her granddaughter commits suicide; and her son-in-law appeals to her for help; despite all this she holds on to her rigidity, independence and fortune.

In some ways this is a tough book to read. But the descriptions are marvellous and some of the details quite hilarious. For example, perhaps to show affection, but in any case highly inappropriate, the old lady indicates to her great-granddaughter, a schoolgirl, that she will leave her a four-poster bed. One of the ornamental pineapples is a little loose and the old lady is very concerned that when it is moved into storage the removal men may be careless.

“I want you to realise that there are no reliable furniture removal firms any more. Now-a-days they send just anybody. All you get is a couple of rough young men with no breeding at all, no sense of the way one is meant to handle beautiful possessions. I therefore want someone responsible to be there to supervise the movers when they come to take my things from my house.” (25-6)

Caroline Blackwood

One of the charms of this book is the construction of the sentences, often long, often beginning with a subordinate clause, and all constructed with considerable rhythm. In the first example above she gives us no less than five adjectives to communicate the sense of that chair: one of the most horribly uncomfortable highbacked wooden Victorian gothic chairs I have ever seen. The quality of her writing adds to the pleasure of reading this book.

Caroline Blackwood was born in 1931 and died in 1996. She lived vividly, married Lucien Freud (painter), Israel Citkowitz (composer) and Robert Lowell (poet). She came from the extremely wealthy Guinness family and lived in London, New York and Ireland. She wrote other books, including biographies of Princess Margaret and Lucien Freud. Her life was blighted by alcoholism. Great Granny Webster is probably her best-known and most admired work.

Great Granny Webster by Caroline Blackwood, first published in 1977. I used the edition published by New York Review Books Classic. 108pp

Posted by Caroline Lodge of  Bookword

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