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Great Granny Webster

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Great Granny Webster is Caroline Blackwood's masterpiece. Heiress to the Guinness fortune, Blackwood was celebrated as a great beauty and dazzling raconteur long before she made her name as a strikingly original writer. This macabre, mordantly funny, partly autobiographical novel reveals the gothic craziness behind the scenes in the great houses of the aristocracy, as witnessed through the unsparing eyes of an orphaned teenage girl. Great Granny Webster herself is a fabulous monster, the chilliest of matriarchs, presiding with steely self-regard over a landscape of ruined lives.

108 pages, Paperback

First published January 1, 1977

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About the author

Caroline Blackwood

18 books71 followers
was a writer, and the eldest child of The 4th Marquess of Dufferin and Ava and the brewery heiress Maureen Guinness.

A well-known figure in the literary world through her journalism and her novels, Lady Caroline Blackwood was equally well known for her high-profile marriages, first to the artist Lucian Freud, then to the composer Israel Citkowitz and finally to the poet Robert Lowell, who described her as "a mermaid who dines upon the bones of her winded lovers". Her novels are known for their wit and intelligence, and one in particular is scathingly autobiographical in describing her unhappy childhood.

She was born into an Anglo-Irish aristocratic family from Ulster at 4 Hans Crescent in Knightsbridge, her parents' London home. She was, she admitted, "scantily educated" at, among other schools, Rockport School (County Down) and Downham (Essex). After a finishing school in Oxford she was presented as a debutante in 1949 at a ball held at Londonderry House.

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5 stars
297 (22%)
4 stars
568 (42%)
3 stars
368 (27%)
2 stars
92 (6%)
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20 (1%)
Displaying 1 - 30 of 183 reviews
Profile Image for Ms. Smartarse.
579 reviews241 followers
October 21, 2017
It all started with a two month stint of recovery at her great grandmother's, when she was 14. Two years after World War II, Great Granny Webster's home appeared to be still firmly rooted in an austere atmosphere: not just the house itself, or the single elderly maid Richards, but rather Great Granny Webster's own distaste of life itself .

“I have nothing to live for any more,” she would murmur. I was always astonished by the way her tone sounded so smug and boastful.

It soon became apparent though, that the Great Grandmother may not even be the most unusual member of the family. Aunt Lavinia's unorthodox and overtly ostentatious life style, can cause seemingly endless hours of fascination for all those who knew her.

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.

And then there was the 'mysterious' grandmother (not to be confused with the great granny, from the book's title), whom no one seemed to understand. The only remotely definite thing about her were the metaphorical alarm bells in people's heads.

You must remember that your grandmother Dunmartin was a very different person from Great Granny Webster. From his earliest childhood your father had always lived in secret terror, never knowing what his mother was going to do or say.

Great Granny Webster is basically a lengthy gossip-fest about the narrator's family. A guilty pleasure reading material to delight any most women.

The atmosphere of the book reminded me a lot of William Faulkner's A rose for Emily, where the town folk would find constant fascination with Miss Emily Grierson, even years after she'd secluded herself from society.

The foreword however bored me to tears. It reminded me rather painfully of all the tedious literary analyses that I had to wade through during high school. It nearly made me give up on the book, a mere 3 pages in.

Score: 4.2/5 stars

I could hardly put it down, especially since it's a relatively short story. Couldn't really say why I'm not giving it 5 whole stars, just that I wasn't as excited about it as I normally am about a juicy gossip fodder. Still, I recommend it to any fan of books with a heavy Gothic atmosphere.
Profile Image for Alwynne.
554 reviews531 followers
November 4, 2021
Caroline Blackwood was a descendent of the wealthy Guinness dynasty and drew on her own experiences for this moving exposé of the grimmer aspects of the lives of Anglo-Irish gentry: so much so that when this was shortlisted for the Booker, Philip Larkin apparently pronounced it too close to life to be judged as fiction. Set after WW2, Blackwood’s novella’s narrated by an unnamed teenage girl who slowly uncovers secrets from her family’s past, in particular the life histories of three women: her father’s granny Webster, his mother and sister Lavinia. All three doomed in their own inimitable fashion. Blackwood’s memorable story conjured up a host of literary associations, at times I felt as if Edward Gorey’s lugubrious figures had somehow been transplanted into a Nancy Mitford novel, and then drenched in Barbara Comyns’s trademark domestic gothic. I found the end result unexpectedly striking. It’s a macabre, melancholy tale of madness, suicide and needless decay but it’s saved from utter bleakness by Blackwood’s admirable restraint and deft handling of her material. Her piece starts slowly, couched in disarmingly simple, direct tones but as it unfolds it’s increasingly laced with moments of wonderfully caustic wit and bizarre, yet marvellously wry, anecdotes.
Rating: 4.5
Profile Image for Daniel Archer.
54 reviews25 followers
February 15, 2021
Absolute masterpiece. Laugh-out-loud humor and pitch black gothic craziness rolled into 103 pages of bizarre family drama. Don’t let the narrator’s edgy calmness fool you. This book will sneak up on you and when it does it bites.
Profile Image for Iris ☾ (dreamer.reads).
432 reviews852 followers
August 20, 2021

La escritora inglesa, Caroline Blackwood, fue finalista del premio Booker gracias a «La anciana señora Webster» que fue publicada en 1977. Esta, tiene tintes semiautobiográficos y se basa en los propios familiares de la autora. Sin duda estaba deseando leer alguno de sus escritos y quedo satisfecha y con ganas de seguir descubriendo su narración.

En esta historia conoceremos la vida de cuatro generaciones, cuatro mujeres gobernadas por la bisabuela de la familia, la señora Webster. Es ella quien realmente adquiere el mayor protagonismo y que resulta el personaje más atrayente y misterioso. La protagonista y narradora, de la que nunca conocemos el nombre, es una joven tímida y algo solitaria que busca en sus familiares un anclaje tras la muerte de su padre.

Sin lugar a dudas nos hallamos ante una novela gótica bastante perturbadora. El comienzo, así cómo la ambientación lúgubre que envuelve Hove, logra transportarnos a un escenario inquietante. La presentación y descripción de la anciana que nos presenta Blackwood, es sublime: una mujer fría y estricta que sigue unas normas severas y apenas tiene contacto ni cercanía con otras personas.

En rasgos generales tengo la sensación que es una historia muy interesante que se queda corta, no hay una finalidad concreta más que darnos a conocer a estas mujeres. No encontraremos entre sus páginas suspense, ni un hilo conductor, realmente no pasa nada trascendental y puedo calificarla como una obra en la que lo único importante son sus personajes y su narrativa.

Para finalizar, solo debo recalcar la importancia del estilo narrativo de la autora, que seduce y enamora desde el principio. La única pega que le encuentro es lo que menciono con anterioridad. Descubrimos que lo que realmente une a todas estas mujeres es el sentimiento dramático y la soledad a pesar de tener caracteres tan distintos. Una novela que deja con ganas de más.
Profile Image for Tony.
896 reviews1,480 followers
February 17, 2017
--- Like this?
---- Yes. No, pull the sheet up more.
--- Trying to capture my innocence?
---- Already done. No, I’m . . . You’re looking at me.
--- I’m looking at you looking at me.
---- Tell me about you then. Not the Guinness fortune. Not the tiara parties. There’s a thread somewhere. Make it up, if you have to. You're good at that.
--- Oh, there’s a thread all right. Hmm, let’s see. . . .
My mother sent me to stay with my great-grandmother. I was fourteen, recuperating from anaemia. The sea air would do me good. My Great Granny was rich Scottish stock. Trained to sit back-straight on a hard wooden chair. And she still did, all day, in a draughty, darkened house. We never tasted that sea air. Her own heart was all she cared about. She had produced three generations of descendants and lived to know that none of them could have the slightest importance to her, any more than all the leaves that have flown yearly from its branches can have much importance to an aged oak.
---- And your grandmother?
--- Bat-shit crazy. . . .
On the day of my brother’s christening she went to his nursery, held him aloft, ready to smash his head on the dresser when the nannies wrestled him out of her hands. She was committed soon after.
How’s the light?
---- Informative. Your grandmother somehow managed to have two children.
--- Yes. Aunt Lavinia and my father. Lavinia was everything Great Granny was not. Or seemingly so.
She believed in having “fun” as if it was a state of grace. Taking nothing seriously except amusement, she caused very little rancor, 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.
She called me from the hospital after her first suicide attempt failed. Me. The second attempt didn’t fail.
---- Your father?
--- The men in the family seem to die too young. He was certainly embarrassed about his mother.
But here’s something my Great Granny told me: during the War he would come and visit her every time he was on leave. I’ve been trying to understand why he did that. I can’t imagine anything less enjoyable. It gnaws at me.
Oh, get me a drink, would you?
--- Can you get me a drink, Lucian?
--- What are you staring at?

Profile Image for Roberto.
Author 2 books96 followers
October 10, 2015
Such a small novel but deceptively big, reminded me of Franny And Zooey in the way it says so much about a whole family in just a few scenes. It also has that same sadness and archness to it. Straddles the totally disparate moods of the jazz age and the Victorian era, and also has an intense, claustrophic sense of place - the shambles of Dunmartin Hall and Great Granny Webster's house are VIVID anxiety-inducing creations, as is Great Granny herself, holy shit. A snappy, black little novel of crazed aristocracy and the trauma of that pre/post-war generation, a world Caroline Blackwood must've known pretty well to have captured so unflinchingly.
Profile Image for Michael.
260 reviews24 followers
February 8, 2022
Ms. Blackwood introduces the reader to some of her more eccentric relatives. A fascinating account told with grace and wit. Check out Ms. Blackwood's bio which is fascinating in and of itself. Cheers!
Profile Image for Leah.
508 reviews66 followers
July 26, 2012
I found a dog-eared, highlighted copy of this in the biographies section of the bookshop I work at. Having ascertained that it wasn't a biography (because if we put all semi-autobiographical novels in the bio section, literature would be a very empty shelf...), I decided it was worth a read, and small enough to fit into my handbag and pull out on the train, too.

The sense of surroundings is what has really stuck with me - Great Granny Webster's horrifying cold house, Aunt Lavinia's pure white, luxurious London flat, the tragic collapsing family house at Dunmartin. Every story told is inexplicably linked with the place in which it is told, or the place about which it is told. Indeed, the final part, where the narrator's grandmother is descending into madness in the leaky, absurdly-run castle-house in Ireland, is a phantasmagorical Gothic story told through the horrified eyes of a modern young man - you can feel your toes get cold from his descriptions of the puddles on the floor.

Each little vignette is fascinating, self-contained in its own world. Aunt Lavinia tells a story about Great Granny Webster, but you are really learning as much about the narrator and about Aunt Lavinia, and London in the 20s, as you are about the titular character.

A book to read quickly, and consider slowly for a long time afterwards.
Profile Image for Jimmy.
511 reviews694 followers
June 30, 2021
Short and deceptively simple, seemingly plotless, just a series of impressions filtered through a family's random memories ... seems like not much, right? But it is!

We find out about Great Granny Webster, then we find out more about Great Granny Webster as well as the protagonist's grandmother through the protagonist's Aunt Lavinia. Then we realize Aunt Lavinia is just as much a character as Great Granny is, but in the opposite direction. Then we find out more about all the above women and about the protagonist's father through her father's friend. Each of these remembrances has the familiar feeling of sitting down with a family member for a casual conversation, and that's exactly how it disarms you. Underneath all the stories, something is building, a portrait of these women that gets progressively more nuanced. What starts off as comical characters are comical AND relatable and sad and understandable.

The precision and economy of words on display here is crazy good, and the way we find out about each character from the lens of other characters, and each time we find out a little more about the family history, the way the information is slowly revealed is just masterful.

We never hear the protagonist herself speak (at least that is my impression, I'd have to comb through the text again to make sure). The women of the family are... well I'm trying not to say "crazy" here, because that's a tired trope and frankly the book transcends the trope. But yes, at first it seems that way on the surface. The point is that the women, crazy or not, are the interesting ones of the family. They are driven to these extreme states by each other and by certain (patriarchal? societal?) pressures on them.

It's a short book but it doesn't feel short. It feels like I've known these characters for a long time. They are larger than life and very much real and very lovable, though also hard to love.

For a plotless book, the ending is remarkably powerful and bitterly, blackly funny. Such a gem of a book, everyone should read it.
Profile Image for Patricia.
5 reviews7 followers
August 10, 2021
Esta novela tiene muchos de los elementos que más me gustan: una ambientación gótica, la mansión de una familia arruinada, la abuela que cree ser un hada y esos conflictos familiares, soterrados, rutinarios quizá, que escriben la historia familiar. Tiene personajes fascinantes y un estilo de escritura que me encanta.
Quizá me fallaron las expectativas, al haber leído un poco sobre la biografía de la autora y saber que esta historia era en parte autobiográfica (lo que al parecer le supuso no ganar el Booker) esperaba un poco más, quizá algo más siniestro, más profundo, más decadente (en el sentido de los ricos escarbando para arrancar unas patatas a la tierra y las personalidades trastornadas desbocadas).
Siento que la novela era quizá (o debería haber sido) un primer esbozo de la historia en la que se iba a convertir, un borrador, algo que tendría que haberse expandido y al que se le deberían haber ido añadiendo piezas que siento que faltaban.
Tampoco me convenció, aunque no puedo decir que lo odiase, la forma escogida para presentar la historia: me refiero a cómo conocemos los detalles o quién es el elegido para narrarlo: de nuevo me pareció que era un primer borrador, que si le hubiese dado unas vueltas la autora habría encontrado otra forma de presentar la historia que hubiese sido mejor. Aunque insisto en que creo que no es algo que esté mal, simplemente me distanció un poco de los personajes.

Sin embargo, aunque pueda haber quedado un poco decepcionada con la novela debido a mis expectativas, la verdad es que tanto los temas como el estilo de la autora me gustaron mucho y estoy bastante segura de que sus próximas novelas (que afortunadamente Alba va a traer próximamente) podrán gustarme incluso más.

La recomiendo a todos los que le gusten las historias de personajes solitarios, intimistas, con ambientaciones góticas y situaciones excéntricas y desagradables.
Profile Image for Daisy.
178 reviews59 followers
December 11, 2021
I was looking forward to reading this book; lots of 5 star reviews here, described as gothic, macabre and funny among other enticing adjectives and short (not to be undervalued after wading through nearly 700 pages of twaddle named Night Film recently).
I read it.
Going against the weight of public opinion here, I really disliked it. The premise is promising, a newly teenage girl fears for her future as a woman after visiting her aged Great Granny Webster for the first time and discovers the histories of the preceding generations of women in her family. This appealed as I too had something of a wild grandmother and a great-grandmother who was eccentric but I felt cheated as the women were too hackneyed and their depiction cliched to give it any real heft for me.
It is said to be largely autobiographical (it failed to win the booker because judge Philip Larkin said it was too autobiographical to win a prize for fiction) and maybe Blackwood did have an aunt like the fictional Lavinia or a grandmother who was mad like Dunmartin or a Scots granny as dour as Webster but I couldn’t get beyond how much of a shorthand type they were.
Lavinia the effervescent party girl who everyone falls in love with and lives in a Mayfair house where life is an endless social whirl of champagne, parties and suitors and who brushes off personal tragedy as if it was no more an inconvenience than the caterers being late.
Grandmother Dunmartin who is mad in the most literary and beautiful of ways, wandering the stately home she lives in resembling a dishevelled fairy, the infantile cutting out from books of fairies and elves and the like, the running barefoot in the forest to commune with the trees and the little people.
Great Granny Webster who takes the trope of Scottish parsimony to extremes, being unwilling to give away either money or energy (I say this but did have my own Scottish grandma who always sat on the hard un-cushioned dining chairs, put salt in her porridge and was frugal with hugs and kisses) and spends her hours sat straight-backed in a hard chair doing nothing.
Throw in a decaying stately home that has buckets and antique vases catching the multitude of leaks, the repetitive inedible meals and somewhat pantomime servants and we could be in the world of Wodehouse.
Blackwood does write well, the sentences and descriptions can fizz and sparkle but they are lost in the shadow these outsize stereotypes cast over the tale.
Profile Image for Catherine Robertson.
Author 13 books68 followers
April 23, 2013
What a brilliant dark little gem! I found a reference to the author in another book, and was intrigued. Lady Caroline Blackwood was daughter of a Guinness girl and a Marquis, married Lucian Freud and then Robert Lowell, and died of chronic alcoholism in 1996. Great Granny Webster was shortlisted for the Booker Prize. It is very short, and less of a novella than a character study of three women, all related to the narrator: the eponymous great grandmother, dourly and stubbornly refusing to relinquish her hold on a joyless life; Aunt Lavinia, who only appears to embrace life fully; and the narrator's grandmother, Great Granny Webster's only and long estranged daughter, who is stark raving bonkers. The men are in the background, a little unformed and a lot helpless. The tone is blackly humorous. Highly recommended.
Profile Image for Daniel Polansky.
Author 27 books1,128 followers
June 12, 2019
A woman traces a strand of familial madness to a brutal, cold-hearted matriarch. Quite marvelous. Funny, sad, a thoughtful exploration of how mental illness is passed down through generations as children, reacting against the sins of their parents, forge their own paths of self-destruction. Very good.
Profile Image for Madeeha Maqbool.
189 reviews89 followers
January 3, 2020
Superficially, this might seem like a near Victorian or Edwardian novel about women's lives but I found the descriptions of the narrator's inter generational story very interesting and thought-provoking. My interest was piqued by the author herself because of a recent NewYorker article about her husband's literary tiff with his wife, Elizabeth Hardwicke. Blackwood belonged to the same social circle as Nancy Mitford and I was curious how she described the same social mores. Gives you a lot to think about honestly.
Profile Image for mg_ocio.
482 reviews13 followers
June 16, 2021
58/2021 Una novela cortísima de la colección Rara Avis que tantas alegrías nos da.

La historia de la bisabuela Webster, su hija, su nieta Lavinia...contadas a través de los ojos de la bisnieta que pasa un verano viendo a su bisabuela sentada en una silla con pinta de incómoda.

Parece que no, pero me ha gustado mucho. Pero contar cualquier cosa es contar media novela porque son menos de 100 páginas.
Profile Image for J.M. Hushour.
Author 6 books195 followers
October 8, 2017
Blackwood's novel is barely a novel, because it's the rotting, dark-as-all-gitout account of her barely disguised family (the Guinness family, even more props to her and hers for manufacturing my favorite beer). I love these frank molestations of family history because they adhere stickily, greasily to realities far more pitch and rank than anything fiction could dreck up.
Great Granny Webster sits in her rotting dark castle near Brighton in an uncomfortable chair watching the narrator watching her decay into nothingness. That's pretty much it, with diversions about GGW's daughter, who went insane in a far worse rotting aristocratic hell, and the narrator's insane, slutty aunt.
You really can't say much more. It's a beautiful, diseased thing.
Profile Image for Daisy.
140 reviews7 followers
November 22, 2008
Have you read Dodie Smith? She's most famous for writing 101 Dalmatians and I Capture the Castle, which is my personal favorite. Blackwood writes about some of the same British-flavored fare as Smith: genteel poverty and middle and upper classes unwilling to sully their hands with actual work. Smith has it presented as a light-hearted romance, while Blackwood is vicious, the dark heart that Smith is either hiding or refusing to acknowledge lies at the heart of such stories.

Great Granny Webster is short and pugnacious. It's quick to read, but that doesn't mean that you miss one iota of the vitriolic lives of the characters.
Profile Image for fatma.
886 reviews524 followers
June 2, 2021
the first chapter was great, but then the story just fizzled out.
Profile Image for Nicholas During.
186 reviews22 followers
June 8, 2012
A very strange and unusual book, an exploration of an aristocratic and ancient English family, whose inheritance now seems to be only madness. This is undoubtably a very autobiographical book, much info coming from Honor Moore's introduction, and mostly it seems a psychoanalytical attempt for the author to explore her own psyche and how it was made up by her family, both in her experience and potentially literally inherited. For the shortness of the book it also has a very deep look at modern English history, swaying from the Victorian ideals of Great Granny Webster herself to the Edwardian excesses of Aunt Lavinia and the father and beyond to a skeptical and fleeing young girl. The horrible house of Dunmartin Manor also serves to remind one of a Bronte novel, in all its Gothic terror, except instead of ghosts its just coldness and dampness and leaks and bad food.

Blackwood had a very interesting life, and though this book doesn't recount that per se, it does give a basis of a terrible inheritance that most likely dogs her throughout marriages to Lucian Freud and Robert Lowell, who died in a taxi with her portrait by Freud in his hands. Reading this one can help but feel bad for her, and admire her courage in tackling the weight of familial history with eyes wide open but sympathy for those ancestors who must have struggled like her.
Profile Image for Caleb Wilson.
Author 8 books21 followers
March 25, 2012
The narrator's greatest trick is her illusion of being completely passive. Certainly she takes little action on these pages, beyond describing three of her relatives: her great grandmother, her aunt, and her grandmother. In the first two cases she spends time in their presence without saying a word or doing anything, and in the third case, she is supposedly relating a story from a family friend--I say supposedly because there is not a word in this book that is not conveyed in her own voice, which is bitter and very snarky. And so, although at first she seems passive, she's actually in complete control of the tiny, hopeless, airless world of this novel. If the other characters appear horrible--and most of them do, though in wonderful ways--you shouldn't forget that she's speaking through their mouths for them. A book could be written that features exactly the same story and characters, and with a different narrator it would be a tragedy instead of the spectacular dark comedy we have here.
Profile Image for lisa_emily.
324 reviews80 followers
November 17, 2011
I read Caroline Blackwood’s bio a few years ago; she was a fascinating woman who carried on with Lucien Freud, Robert Lowell, and composer Israel Citkowitz- just to name the ones she married. Her beauty was celebrated and remarked upon- as well as painted and she moved in the bohemian circles of the day. But what most interested me was that she came to writing novels at age 40. Her books were on my to-read list. And this is the first one I’ve come to. It is very darkly funny- rather like sitting next to a wry narrator who comments on her eccentric and unpleasant relatives while recounting a moment in her past. It also made me think about how unpleasant people are much more interesting characters than nice people. There’s so much detail that one can draw out of cranky, mean, nutty, over the top person – nice people are just rather….nice. This is a good book to read during your Thanksgiving family gathering – that is, if you are cynical like me.
Profile Image for Michael Brown.
Author 6 books16 followers
October 24, 2021
Visiting Great Granny Webster as a teenager the narrator is taken by how intractable the old woman is. She seems to care nothing about anybody but herself and tortures herself into sitting all day long in a stiff-backed chair. Managed by a housemaid, Richards, nothing in her life should be out of place. This is a brief tale that covers a lot of ground and we get insight into the many characters that come into contact with old Mrs. Webster and her unfortunate descendants and acquaintances. Recommended.
Profile Image for Freddie.
222 reviews32 followers
May 5, 2022
It has gothic vibes and is darkly funny. However, the main characters - Great Granny Webster, Grandma Dunmartin, and Aunt Lavinia remain larger-than-life characters and I do not connect with them on a personal level.
Profile Image for Louise.
826 reviews
July 3, 2019
For such a short book, there is a lot of family saga inside, much of it harrowing but the last line left me chuckling.
Profile Image for Ms Lecturas.
158 reviews11 followers
December 29, 2022
Una lectura densa, pero que atrapa al lector en la vida decadente de una matriarca y su descendencia.
Me ha gustado mucho la narrativa de la autora y el mundo que ha creado lleno de personajes tan dickensianos.
Profile Image for Beth Bonini.
1,277 reviews275 followers
January 5, 2021
When one was with her she could almost persuade one that there was something cowardly and despicable in any emotional dodging, in any refusal to experience every single blow that life could deal one, head-on. She could make one feel that there was an almost superhuman courage in the way she was not frightened to admit that the only thing she now hoped for from life was a continued consciousness, unpleasant as she well knew that it had to be.

This is certainly one of the bleakest books I've ever read. Only 108 pages, and with little plot, it consists of character portraits of several generations of an Anglo-Irish aristocratic family. I have always had a special fondness for stories about eccentric British aristocrats - á la Nancy Mitford mode - but this is on another level, a level in which eccentricity is better described as mental illness. This is meant to be a semi-autobiographical book of Caroline Blackwood's life, and if that is the case, it is hardly a surprise her life was dogged by tragedy and heavy drinking.

The titular character, Great Granny Webster, is introduced when the young female narrator is sent to stay with the family's matriarch in order to recover from illness. Granny lives in a mansion in Hove - hideously uncomfortable, all 'dingy and brown' - along with an ancient and crippled servant called Richards. Her idea of 'taking the sea air' is to drive within view of the sea in her airless, completely sealed-up Rolls-Royce. Despite being vastly rich, Granny lives a life of incredible parsimony and narrowness. She takes saccharine instead of sugar, and spends her days sitting - whilst doing absolutely nothing - in a painful 'game of thrones' type of chair. She endures great loneliness with disdainful pride.

Granny's house is the first one the reader is introduced to in the novel; this inhospitable abode is then contrasted with the luxuriously sterile Mayfair house of the narrator's Aunt Lavinia (Granny's granddaughter). The narrator describes Lavinia's house as combining 'ostentatiousness and vulgarity with every kind of comfort'. It's like an overheated hothouse of thick white carpets, 'a huge gleaming chromium-plated bar' and too many small dogs.

Lavinia and the narrator's dead father have grown up in an ancient, crumbling and excessively damp house in Ulster called Dunmartin Hall - along with an 'away with the fairies' mother and a despairing but excessively correct father. The description of Dunmartin Hall, relayed to the narrator by her father's old Oxford friend, is a masterpiece of horror. Footmen in wading boots, a leaking roof, inedible pheasant for every dinner, old maiden aunts, nothing to do but go on shoots, and endless misery and madness - it beggars belief. This is the absolute antithesis of the ancient family home which offers beauty, comfort and stability to its lucky owners and their descendants.

There is a stiff upper lip sort of pride displayed by all of the characters, but at great expense to the happiness of each subsequent generation. The writing is brilliantly descriptive, and certain images are definitely etched in my mind now, but what a truly grotesque inheritance.
Profile Image for Amy Gentry.
Author 8 books495 followers
April 14, 2016
This memoir-ish novella by the fascinating Caroline Blackwood is something of a Freudian gothic shaggy-dog tale. The narrator starts out describing her memories of living briefly with her ancient Great Granny Webster as a child, just a few years after her father died in World War II. Monstrously selfish and miserable, yet impressive in that living-monument-to-Victorian-ideals sort of way, Great Granny Webster makes a lasting impression on the narrator -- an impression that the narrator describes, in one of the book's strangest and most arresting passages, as having unfairly eclipsed fading memories of her own father.

Yearning to recover those memories, the narrator, now a young woman, interviews family members and friends for some key to her father's personality. Predictably, tales of her father are contradictory; rather less predictably, they are overshadowed anew by the tragic and pungent personalities of the rest of the family: her fairy-talking, voice-hearing, homicidal grandmother, weak-willed grandfather, suicidal party-girl aunt, and, hovering over them all, the granite will of Great Granny Webster herself. Set in a bat-ridden manor in such a horrific state of decay that the butlers serve dinner in galoshes as a silent protest, the eerie scenes of pathological behavior and crippling codependency feel straight out of the Gormenghast trilogy. Unbelievably, details were cribbed from Blackwood's own childhood.

I wouldn't say this book is funny in the same way Blackwood's wonderful CORRIGAN is funny; despite its short length, it is clumsy and meandering; it mystifies. To a large extent, it's about the hopelessness of finding oneself in the family fog. But Blackwood is never without a sense of humor, and the mystery ends on a killer punchline.
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2,016 reviews58 followers
January 26, 2016
So, I think I picked this up because it was on one of those, "if you like Downton Abbey" lists that are pretty much everywhere these days. And, even though I am, quite honestly, not all that fond of this season, I am pretty much always in favor of the sort of books that pop up on said lists. I think the logic was mostly "Hey, Great Granny Webster is kind of like the Dowager." But really this is much darker and experimental lit-like than anything PBS/ITV has brought us. Frankly, Great Granny Webster makes Maggie Smith's character look warm and cuddly.

The book itself is good, although I don't think it would be entirely accurate to say that I *liked* it. I found it interesting and reading up on Blackwood and her life and whatnot (the book is somewhat autobiographical) was actually probably more interesting. It definitely made me want to put that biography that's out there about her on the proverbial to read list.
15 reviews1 follower
February 19, 2011
Love love love - there is something beautiful about a short book. Jonathan Franzen, take note - I read this in just a few hours. It's hard to separate the writing from the fact of these characters - the book is based on the real family of Caroline Blackwood. And sometimes you don't know whether the book is so funny because of the author's skill or the real twisted psyches of the main players. There's no wink in Blackwood's writing - it really reads more like reportage. But it might be more real for me than some - I had a really mean grandmother who was obsessed with her own righteousness, and hard work and suffering. The subject matter is similar to David Sedaris's family-specific writing, but without any of the hope.
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