Reviewed by Rob Spence
Blanche Girouard, born in 1898, was a prominent figure in the Anglo-Irish aristocracy of the early twentieth century. Her father was the Marquess of Waterford, and she spent her early years on the extensive family estates, where she was brought up without attending any school. The life of privilege was, of course, challenged by the changes following the Easter Rising and Partition, but she was still sufficiently established as member of the ruling class in Ireland to follow family tradition and take her role as Master of the Waterford Hunt from 1923 to 1926. Her son, the architectural historian Mark Girouard, contributes a brief sketch of his mother’s short life to this reissue of her only novel, in a new edition published by the enterprising Shetland-based small press Michael Walmer.
Inevitably, perhaps, for someone with a background such as hers, the novel owes much to the ideas and themes promoted in the Celtic Revival. Blanche Girouard knew Yeats and Lady Gregory, who both encouraged her in her writing. The obvious comparison to make, as Mark Girouard acknowledges in his introduction, is to the work of James Stephens, particularly The Crock of Gold. That whimsical tale is of a quest to find the most beautiful woman in the world, who is naturally the daughter of a rustic Irish farmer. Girouard’s tale uses a similar approach. The central characters are the eponymous Keth, or Kethlenda, who we are told disingenuously in the first sentence is an immortal; and Cleran, a wandering “Saint of Heaven” who travels the countryside doing good works. The doing of good works is not Keth’s motivation, however: she has returned to Ireland, “the gate of the Immortals” apparently, to cure her ennui and to play tricks on the rural poor of the countryside.
After Cleran is enchanted by Keth, the novel develops into a kind of picaresque, with the two protagonists encountering a series of situations in which each of them encounters some of the stereotypical denizens of this kind of mythical Irish landscape. Whilst not quite in the “Oirish begorrah – bejaysus” school of clichéd characters, the depiction runs mighty close at times. To be fair, though, Girouard is writing in 1928, and the way in which the stock inhabitants of what was usually referred to then as “the Emerald Isle” could be much less subtle than what is on display here. In addition to the whimsy, there is humour and poignancy in the mix. In this world, the animals talk, and the thoughts of the horse Meleanthus on his master’s activities provide some welcome relief from the solipsistic musings of Keth and the anguished self-flagellation of Cleran. The text is replete with songs and snatches of poetry, all original as far as I can see, and the episodic structure maintains the reader’s interest. The dialogue between the saintly Cleran and the folks he meets on his travels is lively and often clever, with the flavour of a morality tale in parts, as he takes on the role of an agony uncle to sort out their problems.
This is a curiosity, very much a product of its time, but it deserves its new lease of life in this well-produced paperback edition. It certainly captures the Celtic Twilight mood of the early part of the last century, and is perhaps the last major example of that school of writing.
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Blanche Girouard, The Story of Keth (Michael Walmer, 2020). 978-0648690931, 216pp., paperback.