Thursday, February 2, 2017

Molly Keane A Life - Sally Phipps

It's hard to explain precisely how much Molly Keane's books have come to mean to me, but (and despite having told these stories before) I'm going to try. As an undergraduate in the 1990's I started looking for women's writing and art, not contemporary material, but something which could show me a history of female creativity. The first book I bought with this in mind was a Virago edition of Molly Keane writing as M J Farrell, it was the start of a mild obsession with Virago which shows no sign of abating, and a genuine love for Keane's writing.

Just before graduation my grandfather had an unexpected nights stop over with me in Aberdeen. It was the last time I really got to speak to him before dementia started to set in, and almost the last time I saw him. I was reading a Molly Keane when he arrived, it turned out that he knew her, had danced with her at hunt balls, and told me that she'd stuck 'The English' in her books and how they hadn't realised it. He was English himself which made me wonder, it also had the effect of making those books much more personal. My grandfather was a committed hunting, shooting, fishing man, the sporting world Molly describes was his world too.

That's the background to why I was anticipating Sally Phipps' biography of her mother so much, and for anyone looking for a portrait of Anglo Irish society between the wars it's a gem, although I found that Molly herself remains elusive in this book (I see I'm not the only person to think this).

The first half of the book is the most successful, born in 1904, Molly's upbringing was distinctly Victorian, her parents seem to have been very wrapped up in each other with little in the way of outward affection for their children, Molly's mother (a well regarded poet in her own right) also seems to have inclined towards reclusiveness and melancholy - very much at odds with her sociable daughter who apparently craved love and approval.

It was a unionist household, and during the troubles the house was burnt down - which sounds like a surprisingly civilised process, or at least one lacking in personal malice. At any rate the family chose to buy the house next door with the compensation money, and that seems to have been the end of it. Meanwhile a Molly old enough to be out on the social scene is obsessed with hunting and social success. Her writing funded her social life, and her social life provided the background for her writing - done under a pseudonym because it wouldn't have helped her popularity.

It's a world of big houses, good manners, rigid social order, and where being entertaining is seen as a duty (and possibly a way of making up for having no money). The social order is slightly baffling - Molly's older sister falls in love with a hunting friend, but he's a notch lower in the social scale so her parents refuse their consent to the match. Sue accepts this and clears off to Oxford to get a degree and become a socialist - which her parents don't seem to mind at all, although Molly thought the man would have been better. It's also a mostly vanished world (are there odd survivals?) which makes it fascinating to read about.

The second half of the book is where the memoir approach proves a little bit disappointing. The chronology is a bit disjointed, I would have liked more about Molly's books, and the seemingly endless list of friends and acquaintances who all adored her are hard to distinguish (even worse when they all start to die).

The mentions of her involvement in the theatre are also a bit vague, it was clearly a big part of Keane's life and work, and I would have like more detail and analysis - the theatre world doesn't come to life in the way that the country house background does, nor is it clear how Molly reconciled the different parts of her life.

The key to why it isn't always a completely satisfactory book are in the hints that Phipps makes about occasional difficulties in her relationship with her mother, and in serious rows with friends and family where Molly has lashed out. The only time she really expands on this is when she explains how Molly conspired to stop her husband going to London during the war after his mother has been killed by a bomb. It's an unforgivable, if understandable, thing to do which has serious ramifications. That's the Molly who can be sensed in her novels, and I could wish she was rather more in evidence in this book.

Even with those caveats it's a book that's well worth reading, for anyone interested in the Anglo Irish it really is fascinating . It's also reminded me how very good a writer Keane was, and made me deeply curious about her plays - I can only hope that someone thinks to revive one of them, I'd love to see her work performed


  1. Like you, I've been waiting many years for this account of my favourite novelist. I found it utterly fascinating, not least for its scrupulous fairness and the admirably dispassionate affection - if that's not a contradiction in terms, which it patently is! - betrayed by Sally Phipps in the portrait of her mother. Like you, again, I also had a grandparent who knew Molly when they were both very young and giddy. They belonged to a now vanished world and I am anxious that it is not forgotten; this wonderful biography goes a long way to allaying my fears, though I agree that a more detailed evocation of the extraordinary glamour and intensity of the theatre in 1930s and 40s would have been fascinating. Last but not least, I've been following your blog for several years now and never before commented but I greatly appreciate your sane, kind, creative and interested window on the world; you write so well and with such intelligence and freshness. Thank you very, very much.

  2. Thank you for commenting, I know blogger doesn't always make it easy.

    I agree, it's a fascinating book, and agree too about the affection that Sally Phipps shows for her mother, despite the impression that it was a sometimes strained relationship - which is natural. I did feel at times that she was overly protective of her mother and that there might have been more room for the darker side of Molly's personality which I thought was hinted at, explained, but not really explored. That might be more to do with my perception though, and perhaps there wasn't much more to say.

    It's a world I wish I knew more about, my grandfather moved to Ireland after the war (he'd married an Irish woman, Penelope Watt, I think her father would have been the Major Watt who was buying his girlfriends presents after a good day at the races when Molly goes to the Shelbourne). He loved his hunting, and horses were his passion, as well as how he made a living at times, so if your grandparent was similarly inclined they may well have met (intriguing thought).

    I think my next move should do be to read some of the Elizabeth Bowen books that I have, specifically Bowens Court, that and keep on hoping that more people will share some of their memories of that Ireland before they're lost.