No 430 Great Granny Webster by Caroline Blackwood #readingirelandmonth21

Caroline Blackwood is probably not best known for her writing. Heiress to the Guinness fortune, Blackwood was celebrated as a great beauty and dazzling ‘muse’ courtesy of her high-profile marriages first to the artist Lucian Freud, then to the composer Israel Citkowitz and finally to the poet Robert Lowell.

Born into an Anglo-Irish aristocratic family from Ulster, she was presented as a debutante in 1949, before eloping with Lucian Freud a mere three years later. Throughout the 1960’s she worked as a columnist for various London magazines and was known for her mordant wit before her first book For All That I Found There was published in 1973. 

Great Granny Webster was published in 1977 and drew on Blackwood’s own miserable childhood, depicting a strict and loveless old woman’s destructive impact on her family. It was short-listed for the 1977 Booker Prize losing out to Staying On by Paul Scott.

Great Granny Webster is a deceptively short book which is in some ways a series of character studies, portraying four generations of women whose lives are inextricably linked to the family ‘Big House‘ in Ulster.

The sharp and watchful narrator tells of her grandmother’s descent into madness (based on Blackwood’s own grandmother) while living in the family estate – Dunmartin Hall- in Ulster; unstable, flighty and fun-loving Aunt Lavinia; and the narrator’s father, who died during WWII when she was just a child. Bookending the narrative is the terrifying matriarchal figure of Great Granny Webster, with whom the narrator stays for three months at the age of fourteen, a steely elderly woman who lives in a huge dark house in Hove and eschews anything that might bring happiness or joy. Propriety is all and everyone in her family is a disappointment.

Each encounter with these characters serves as the narrator’s attempt to understand the vein of trauma and madness that lies within her family tree. With black comedy and dry wit, the novella explores the often stultifying nature of inherited wealth, the lack of agency for women and how that lack can manifest itself in illness or mania.

The book opens a few years after World War II and begins with our narrator, a fourteen year old girl, being sent to Great Granny Webster’s house in Brighton to recuperate from an operation, on account of the beneficial aspects of the sea air. Unfortunately the narrator has little contact with said air as Great Granny Webster disapproves of beaches. Instead, they spend their days inside her dark house, eating cold meals beside an unlit fire, or driving around the grounds of the house in a Roll’s Royce with the window down just a crack. Great Granny Webster is austere to the point of monstrous. Nothing brings her pleasure because she doesn’t approve of pleasure, her Edwardian mores taken to the extreme. Forbearance and grim survival are her only concerns.

All she wanted from each new day that broke was the knowledge that she was still defiantly there – that against all odds she had still managed to survive in the lonely, loveless vacuum she had created for herself.

In an attempt to understand Great Granny Webster, the narrator explores the life of her grandmother, Great Granny’s daughter, who, when married, was sent to live in the decaying isolation of Dunmartin Hall, where she falls into mental illness. The depiction of Dunmartin Hall is wonderfully good, with Blackwood’s eye for detail being used to great comic effect. Here, in one of the biggest houses in all of Northern Ireland, everyone has to wear wellingtons because of the constant leaks; the dinner menu is printed in French, but the local girls who cook the food can only make one dish and two old aunts live in a remote damp wing because ‘no one could think of anywhere else for them to go.’

Dunmartin Hall always had an aura of impermanence. The house had both the melancholy and the magic of something inherently doomed by the height of its own ancient colonial aspirations. It was like a grey and decaying palace fortress beleaguered by invasions of hostile native forces.


When the narrator wants to find out why her grandmother threatened to kill a baby at his christening, she turns to her flighty and beautiful Aunt Lavinia for answers. Lavinia is a wonderful creation, perhaps the most striking character in the book, with her penchant for drinking, partying, rich boyfriends and suicide attempts. She is the diametric opposite of Great Granny Webster and is only interested in something as long as it is ‘fun’.

She believed in having fun as if it was a state of grace. Taking nothing seriously except amusement, she caused very little rancour, and although she was considered untrustworthy and wild and was reputed once to have gate-crashed a fashionable London party totally naked except for a sanitary towel, she managed to slip in and out of her many relationships, which she invariably described as ‘divine’ like an elegant and expensive eel.

Blackwood based Lavinia on her own aunt Veronica and she perfectly captures that empty ‘society girl’ milieu to which she could have herself fallen foul. Lavinia finds fun in everything, but like Great Granny Webster, extremes are dangerous and Blackwood subtly hints at the complicated darkness at the heart of this charming figure.

The novella ends fifteen years after it started, with a final encounter with Great Granny Webster, who has continued to live the same ungenerous, unhappy life as always, the consequences of which have passed down through the generations.

This is not for anyone who likes a plot driven novel yet Great Granny Webster is concise and tightly paced, exploring generations of female experience in prose which is resonant, witty and darkly ambiguous. When Philip Larkin cast the deciding vote against awarding Blackwood the 1977 Booker Prize he claimed that “her book was autobiography, not fiction”, which strikes me as unfair. The book may contain autobiographical elements (and how many works of fiction do that?) but is a unique, vibrant and heightened exploration of the lives of the aristocracy in Northern Ireland.

Blackwood is a woman whose work deserves to be read more and who should be feted as an artist in her own right, as much as she is a muse.

READ ON: BOOK
NUMBER READ: 316
NUMBER REMAINING: 430

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Lady Caroline Maureen Hamilton-Temple-Blackwood (16 July 1931 – 14 February 1996) was the eldest child of The 4th Marquess of Dufferin and Ava and the brewery heiress Maureen Guinness. Born in London, she grew up in the family estate of Clandeboye in Northern Ireland and attended Rockport Boarding School in County Down. After attending finishing school in Oxford she was presented as a debutante in 1949 at a ball held at Londonderry House.

In 1952, Ann Fleming, the wife of James Bond author Ian Fleming, introduced Lady Caroline to Lucian Freud and they eloped to Paris. They married on 9 December 1953 and Blackwood became a striking figure in London’s bohemian circles and sat for several of Freud’s finest portraits, including Girl in Bed.

The couple’s relationship broke down soon after and in 1957, Blackwood moved to New York City and studied acting at the Stella Adler Studio and appearing in several movies.

On 15 August 1959, she married the pianist Israel Citkowitz (1909–1974), 22 years her senior and born in he same year as her late father and they had three daughters. However by 1966, when their youngest, Ivana, was born, their marriage was over, and it was thought that Ivana’s father was  Robert Silvers, founder and co-editor of The New York Review of Books, with whom Caroline had had an affair.

In 1970, Blackwood returned to London and, in April, began a relationship with the poet Robert Lowell, then a visiting professor at All Souls College, Oxford. Their son, Sheridan, was born on 28 September 1971; after being divorced from their respective spouses, Blackwood and Lowell were married, on 21 October 1972. They lived in London and Caroline began to write in earnest.

Her first book, For All That I Found There was published in 1973, and is a memoir of her daughter’s treatment in a burns unit. Her debut novel The Stepdaughter (1976) appeared three years later to much acclaim, and won the David Higham Prize for best first novel and was followed by Great Granny Webster (1977), The Last of the Duchess (1980), The Fate of Mary Rose (1981) and Corrigan (1984). She also wrote a collection of five stories, Good Night Sweet Ladies (1983).

Following the deaths of Robert Lowell and her daughter Natalya, Blackwood moved to County Kildare in Ireland, living in an apartment at the great Georgian mansion of Castletown House, which was owned by her cousin Desmond Guinness. Ten years later, in 1987, she returned to the United States, settling in  Sag Harbor, Long Island, where, although beset by alcoholism, she continued to write.

Caroline Blackwood died of cancer in New York at the age of 64.

FURTHER READING:

Dawn Miranda Sherrat-Bado wrote a great piece on Caroline Blackwood in last week’s Irish Times to mark her 25th anniversary.

This obituary appeared in the Independent in 2011

Titled Bohemian an article about her life, appeared in the New York Times in 1995

Caroline’s daughter Ivana Lowell has written a book about her parents – Why Not Say What Happened? – and Nancy Shoenberger as written the biography Dangerous Muse.

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I am a 40 something book buying addict trying to reduce the backlog one book at a time!

26 Comments Leave a comment

  1. Harumph! Typical Larkin. Curmudgeonly. Can you imagine what it was like to reel around some great house somewhere from one echoing room to another – how to people manage without going insane? Maybe they don’t. Maybe that’s what all the fuss in the news this week has been about. Furthermore I can’t imagine being married to Lucian Freud, non plus Robert Lowell. I’m definitely adding this one to my list. Thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. What a wonderful, post Cathy! I’ve been vaguely aware of Great Granny Webster for decades, but knew little about it or of Blackwood’s life. And what a life! Keen now to read not only her fiction but also more about her! 😀

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  3. This is all so interesting thank you and Great Granny Webster sounds horrific, she disapproved of everyone, yikes! I must read everything you mention. . .

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  4. I enjoyed your review which reminded me of my read of GGW a few years ago. I haven’t read anything else by Blackwood, though I’m tempted to.

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  5. This is a fascinating post; I bought this book a week ago and mentioned it on mewe.com, where someone read my post and told me about your review here. I look forward to reading the book and maybe a biography of Blackwood in future.

    Like

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