Few characters I’ve encountered are as utterly ghastly as Caroline Blackwood’s Great Granny Webster. The cold-blooded matriarch of an aristocratic family wracked by tragedy and decay, her callousness brings about the destruction of those she’s supposed to love. Not that Webster cares. She is dedicated only to the trappings and duties of her station.
Great Granny Webster is a spare, coruscating character sketch par excellence, made all the more remarkable by the fact we only meet the titular character one time - when the narrator, her orphaned great granddaughter, stays with her in the first chapter. Otherwise, Webster lurks in the background; petty, ruthless, cruel, miserable. A malevolent puppeteer.
If I’ve made it sound unpleasant to read, rest assured it’s not. Blackwood’s writing is both lively and darkly humorous. Her insight into the world of post-war British aristocracy, a milieu from which she herself came, is almost without peer (#sorrynotsorry). I spent a good part of the book waiting for a redemptive twist. What appeared in its stead made me gasp, then laugh. Little wonder it was shortlisted for the 1977 Booker Prize.
Great Granny Webster by Caroline Blackwood
NYRB Classics, 2002 (Orig. 1977)
Maeve Brennan's novella THE VISITOR, also examines the impact of a ageing female recluse on her descendants. Although Brennan's matriarch doens't have quite the same toxic impact as Blackwood's the story is beautifully written. Unfortunately it was the only one she wrote.