Great Granny Webster by Caroline Blackwood


The signs were there to suggest that this would be a good book. It was nominated for the Booker Prize and it has recently been reissued as a NYRB Classic. And “Great Granny Webster” is said to be based, at least in part, on Caroline Blackwood’s own life and family.

Caroline Blackwood was born into the Guinness family in 1931 and she moved among the Anglo-Irish aristocracy, the Soho Bohemians of post-war England and the liberal intelligentsia of 1960s New York.

She was a respected writer, a noted beauty and a society star. But her marriages to three remarkable men – the painter Lucien Freud, the composer Israel Citkowitz and the poet Robert Lowell – were all troubled and she was plagued by alcoholism.

I’m afraid though that the book didn’t quite live up to the expectations that this background created.

At the start of the book our narrator is a 14 year old girl who has been sent to stay with her great grandmother to recuperate after an illness.

Great Granny Webster is an extraordinary creation. She lives in a large house on the outskirts of Brighton with only Richards, an elderly servant with an eye patch. There are no callers and the telephone never rings.

She is a woman takes no pleasure in life, dressing in black and spending her days sitting in a stiff backed chair in front of a fire that is never lit and going out only once a week to be driven up and down the seafront in a taxi.

(She brings the grandmother from the Giles’ cartoons that my father collected into my head, but I don’t think there is a link.)

But for all of this Great Granny Webster is intriguing and the book loses something when she leaves the stage.

As the years pass our still unnamed narrator learns more about her family.

Her Grandmother has been in an asylum for years. Great Granny Webster had her committed after she tried to kill her grandson at his christening, claiming that he had bad blood. Before that had she reigned over her husband’s Irish estate, in a style that was idiosyncratic to say the least.

And she meets her Aunt Lavinia, a much-married socialite who tells her the story of her life. Aunt Lavinia is vivacious, hard-drinking and fun loving, but she has made a number of suicide attempts. Eventually she succeeds.

All of this is reported in a wonderfully matter-of-fact style and with just enough detail to bring it to life. The humour is black but the core of this novel is tragic.

The problem though is that nothing is resolved. Did Great Granny Webster make her family what they became, or did she retreat, unable to deal with their problems?
And what happened to the rest of the family? I don’t know!

And nothing comes together, the story just ends, fifteen years after it started with only the narrator and Richard’s in attendance at Great Granny Webster’s funeral.

This was interesting to read, but as a book it felt unresolved and unfinished. With just over a hundred pages I felt that I was reading sketches for a bigger book. And that book could have been great …..