This short novel is a fearsome portrait of a fearsome old woman. Great Granny Webster lives in Hove, Sussex, in 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?
Great Granny Webster is the 34thin the series on older women in fiction. You can find a list of all those previous posts and readers’ recommendations on the page About The Older Women in Fiction Series.
Summary of 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 in order to recuperate 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 understand that she is no happier than Great Granny Webster. She is described in this way:
Aunt Lavinia was then thirty-two and she was always described as “jolie laide.” A play-girl in the style of the twenties, she was famous for her beautiful legs and for the fact that she had been married briefly to three millionaires while taking at the same time a large selection of lovers, who were not only friends of her husbands’ but almost as well-endowed financially. 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)
The second chapter provides a dramatic contrast to Aunt Lavinia’s grandmother, but we soon see that they are both iron-willed in pursuit of their chosen path.
A third 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, and the narrator tries to find out what he liked about his visits. 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 her ancient maid as mourners.
The old woman
Behind this fearsome portrait of a sad old woman and those who were influenced by her lies the question – why on earth did she behave as she did? As a child and young woman she was 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 meeting of 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 and independence.
We are left in no doubt that it was a toxic upbringing, and that it had profoundly terrible effects on subsequent generations. We are to understand that much of this novel was based on Caroline Blackwood’s own experiences.
I may have given the impression that this is a tough book to read. But the descriptions are marvellous and some of the details quite hilarious. Perhaps to show affection, but in any case highly inappropriate, the old lady indicates to her great-granddaughter 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)
She is speaking to a schoolgirl.
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.
This writer was unknown to me before this novel was recommended for the older women in fiction series. 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 Blackwoodfirst published in 1977. I used the edition published by New York Review Books Classic. 108pp
Thanks to Jennifer Cairns for suggesting this book for the series.
Picture credit: Girl in Bed (1952) by Lucien Freud, for which Caroline Blackwood was the model. Used under ‘fair use’ for information and education.
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