Friday, August 21, 2015

Great Granny Webster by Caroline Blackwood


Awhile back, I was reading about Lady Caroline Blackwood--heiress to the Guiness brewery fortune, writer, Bohemian, and bon vivant. She was the wife of painter Lucian Freud (they eloped to Paris when she was 21), and her last husband was the poet Robert Lowell. Great Granny Webster (1977), thought to be autobiographical and considered Blackwood's masterpiece, was shortlisted for the Booker Prize. It's also included in the New York Review Books classics series, so I bought the book thinking it must be good. Unfortunately, Great Granny Webster was not all that I had hoped the novel would be. 

The story takes place a few years after World War II and begins with our narrator, a fourteen year old girl, being sent to her great grandmother's house to recuperate from an operation because Great Granny Webster lives by the seaside near Brighton. Great Granny Webster is a strict taskmaster in her dark villa where she sits by a fireside that's never lit and runs the house like the war is still going on. She has no friends, only her servant, Richards, an old woman who wears an eye patch and can barely get up and down the stairs. 

What our young narrator wants more than anything is to go to the beach, but Great Granny Webster won't allow that. Instead, the woman hires a chauffeur who periodically drives the two in his Rolls Royce, going up and down with the seafront, with the windows open just enough to get a whiff of the sea air. Great Granny Webster would not dare mix with the vacationers whom she refers to with great disdain as "trippers."

We get a chance to meet other eccentric family members. There is mention in the story of Great Granny Webster's daughter who was put away for her behavior years earlier at a christening where she tried to run away with the baby (the brother of the narrator), threatening to kill him. Great secrecy surrounds what happened to the woman and where she eventually ended up. Then there is the beautiful, elegant Aunt Lavinia, who loves parties, drinking and marrying millionaires. She is possibly the most cheerful and witty suicidal character I've ever read about. 

These interesting characters should make for a great story, but Great Granny Webster has no real plot to speak of. At times it felt like reading vignettes about people's lives. I kept anticipating that something would happen to bring everything together in the end, but I was disappointed.

Great Granny Webster is full of dark humor. Even though I'd never want to stay at Great Granny Webster's villa, I couldn't help liking her. I just wanted more from the novel. 

Are you familiar with Caroline Blackwood's books?

Lady Caroline Blackwood (1931-1996)

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