Queen Lear (1988)

by Molly Keane

Molly Keane's books are dark comedies, not for those looking for an uplifting read. She wrote about the Anglo-Irish gentry that was in decline in the early 20th century in her native Ireland. In Queen Lear, Nicandra, the only child of Sir Dermot and Lady Forester, is eight on the fateful day at the novel's opening when her mother runs off with the land stewart at Deer Forest, the family estate. Nicandra is brought up by her widowed Aunt Tossie, who was already living at Deer Forest. The story unfolds in sporadic episodes, with eager-to-please Nicandra seeking a purpose in loving and caring (the book was originally called Loving and Giving) and being rejected at every turn — by parents, husband, and finally even Aunt Tossie, who in her old age prefers to be dependent on a family servant.

Having growing up in the leisure class, Keane satirizes it convincingly. Sir Dermot named Nicandra after his favorite horse, and only horses seem to rouse his interest. Before her disappearance, Mamam doesn't dirty her pretty little hands to actually take care of Nicandra. Aunt Tossie has her beloved parrot stuffed and returned to his cage, where he accumulates lice.

In Keane's portrayal of these useless lives, she strikes a balance between humor and melancholy. But she knew where the future lay. At the end, the lower class confronts the gentry — Silly-Willy, the slow-witted servant boy whom Nicandra had tormented as a girl, defies Nicandra over Aunt Tossie's care — and the no-longer-elegant family home is literally the instrument of Nicandra's downfall.


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