Original date of publication: 1977
My edition: 2002 (NYRB Classics)
Why I decided to read: It’s on the list of NYRB Classics
How I acquired my copy: Joseph Fox bookstore, Philadelphia, February 2012
What an odd novel.
Caroline Blackwood was an heiress to the Guinness family fortune, a 1950s socialite, and, at one time married to the poet Robert Lowell. Great Granny Webster is a semi-autobiographical novel. In it, the narrator tells the story of several generations of her family: her Scottish Great Granny Webster, who lives in a mildewed cottage in Hove; her grandmother’s descent into madness; unstable, freewheeling Aunt Lavinia; and the narrator’s father, who died during WWII.
Our unnamed narrator is not so much a well-rounded character as she is an observer of her family history. At the heart of it all is the family seat, Dunmartin Hall, a dilapidated pile of stone in Scotland. The novel is full of dysfunctional characters, and the only one of them that seems to have it all together is the family matriarch. As I was reading this, I kept picturing Great Granny Webster in Victorian mourning (although the book is set in the years after WWII). But one can imagine that nothing in Great Granny Webster’s house has changed in fifty years; she’s even had the same maid for four decades.
Contrasting with Great Granny Webster is the narrator’s unstable Aunt Lavinia, a woman with multiple divorces and a penchant for partying and alcohol (maybe an autobiographical portrait?). Saddest of all the family members that appear in this novel is the narrator’s grandmother, a woman forced into a marriage she doesn’t want, who eventually ends up mad. Because this is a character-driven novel, there’s not much of a plot. I really enjoyed this novel, despite the oddity of the characters (right down to the butler and footmen who serve at table wearing Wellingtons). Even Dunmartin Hall is a character unto itself, reflecting the crumbling nature of this dysfunctional family.