Great Granny Webster by Caroline Blackwood
Caroline Blackwood's 108 page novella reads like a delightful bedtime story filled with the gothic overtones of pre- and post-WWI Northern Ireland, where the winds are hysterical and the females are much like ye olde "madwomen in the attic."
Our story's narrator, a young woman with a curious family, slowly unfolds the secrets behind the gloomy walls of Dunmartin Hall, the family palace, where her father and aunt spent their formative years.
Rather than being a book loaded with the typical nuances of incest, murder, betrayal, etc., Great Granny Webster is rather a psychological analysis of how a cranky old matriarch (GG Webster) can do much emotional damage to her own children.
The book begins with the narrator's recollections of a trip spent visiting her GG Webster in Scotland. GG Webster is nothing less than a mean-spirited brittle old woman whose life consists of being chauffeured slowly about her property in a black Rolls Royce, sitting in a straight-backed antique chair while staring at her great-grand-daughter's knitting, scolding her only servant, the decrepit and one-eyed Richards, and lamenting the state of intellectual disintegration "nowadays." This coming from a woman who praises those who read worthwhile literature but has never read a book in her life.
It doesn't take long before the reader realizes that GG Webster is one old fart. She doesn't approve of the sea, sugar, or prep school blazers. In other words, she is perpetually stuck in the "correctness" of her own Victorian youth. If the reader can stand the musty and bitter notes of Blackwood's book, he or she will eventually stumble upon the most interesting aspects of the novel: the characters of Aunt Lavinia, GG Webster's grand-daughter as well as GG Webster's daughter, the narrator's paternal grand-mother.
Confusing, n'est pas?
Aunt Lavinia is a regular Stella Mayfair (re: The Witching Hour by Anne Rice), the kind of woman who parties all night, smokes all day, and can't take a minute outside of the hubbub of London nightlife. For reasons not fully explained, while also beautiful and fun, Aunt Lavinia is also a closet depressive who constantly attempts suicide after suicide. Her character is amusing in a child-like, beautiful muse, sort of way (much like Blackwood herself), but cannot be thought of as satisfactorily developed. She remains a mysterious specter, floating about her own little world of champagne and men, glittering in showy gowns, but hardly constitutes a character one feels ready to grasp. Which is something of a shame considering she is so animated next to the bleak contrast of GG Webster's frigid persona.
GG Webster's daughter, the narrator's grandmother, is also an intriguing figure in much the same way as Aunt Lavinia. Like Mr. Rochester's first wife in Jane Eyre, this female character embodies the sharp qualities of a madwoman. She parades around her husband's old, crumbling Dunmartin Hall, an Englishwoman in a foreign country where trees abound and society is sparse. Wrapped in sheer, diaphanous dresses, she stalks the house barefoot, frightening the footmen and making a mockery of her poor, heartbroken husband. Eventually, she too, goes completely insane and undertakes an unfortunate life path involving her cruel mother's order to kill off any public disgraces she might bestow upon the family name. This young woman, very much like a strange fairy twirling about in the freedom of a mind's dream, seems to be the character the book is most about. Although GG Webster's life has impacted many of the character's lives, the true magic core of this spellbinding story, lies in the raw sparks hammered from a tragic figure's sad fate beneath the shadow of her mother's cold nature.
Which brings us to the idea that Blackwood wrote GG Webster
as a sort of homage to, or memoir of, her own life in Anglo-Irish culture.
Considered too autobiographical to be called fiction by many critics,
this book also shows the disturbing elements of the author's perception
of women. Her male characters are nothing more than victims of a cruel
woman's spite or madness. In this world, women are the ones that matter.
In terms of action, interest, and story, women are the ones that make
the wheels turn and the cogs spin, or stand still, freezing those around
them in cobwebs of despair and hopelessness. One wonders if Blackwood
(who was married to the painter Lucian Freud and poet, Robert Lowell)
was quite conscious of her Freud-like analysis of women in this book.
Or was she simply so disenchanted with her own experience with Victorian-era
ladies, that she had no choice but to portray them in such a horrific
Whatever the case for Blackwood's ideas regarding the tumultuousness of women's intentions and state of mind, Great Granny Webster proves itself to be more a tale of personality and the trials of family strife, rather than as a work devoted to a succinct story where plot signifies more than characterization. Which is not to say this is a great work, but one of promise from an intelligent and clearly demonized person.
Great Granny Webster by Caroline Blackwood
New York Review of Books