Sunday 30 April 2017

A quiet revolt by a reticent feminist

Biography: Molly Keane: A Life, Sally Phipps, Virago, hardback, 352 pages, €24.99

Flourishing spirit: Molly Keane became best known for a book that was almost never published
Flourishing spirit: Molly Keane became best known for a book that was almost never published
Molly Keane by Sally Phipps

Eilis O'Hanlon on a warm portrait of Molly Keane by the Anglo-Irish author's daughter.

The great Anglo-Irish author Molly Keane was known by the family's cook in childhood as "that right red rip", and she maintained the same streak of obstinate grit throughout her life. Her mother was a famous Ulster poet of sentimental verse, her father an Englishman, and she grew up in a world where endurance was prized above all else and "you must not ask" was an unbreakable creed.

The family was plagued by melancholy, but Molly battled it from the beginning with humour, and by immersing herself in the relentless social whirl of her class; and, of course, with writing. She was just 22 when her first novel was released in 1926 under the pseudonym MJ Farrell. Typically, she insisted that she only wrote to supplement her dress allowance, because "chaps dreaded a clever girl".

Instead, she threw herself into hunting and parties and trips to Dublin, where those up from the country headed straight for the Shelbourne, leaving their dogs with the head porter, before going shopping.

"She felt free and safe and modern when she was at the Shelbourne," writes her daughter, Sally Phipps, in this sparkling new memoir. "Charm, rakishness and conversation ruled there."

Most of all, there was fun, "a much used word carrying not frivolous but almost moral connotations of courage and character".

It was not that Molly Keane didn't have her fair share of problems. She always struggled with money; advances for those books never lasted as long as she hoped, and she was generous to friends and family when flush. She hated seeing people as desperate as she frequently was herself.

"It was about living grandly on a modest income," writes Phipps, and though she knew she could make money through writing, that pressure often made Keane panic. She often felt blocked. Every couple of years a new novel would appear, but there was better money to be made on the stage, so she also began to write plays, starting with Spring Meeting, to immediate success.

Her plays appeared in the West End and on Broadway, but the sudden, avoidable death of her husband after a routine operation in London plunged her into grief, though for years afterwards she was ashamed to let it show publicly.

"I knew I had to behave, that I mustn't bore people," she said later. "I bottled it all up."

A sequel to Spring Meeting, staged in 1961 when she was at a low ebb, was savaged by critics. She brooded on the failure, sure that she must be a bad writer. She wanted to give it up and throw herself into the domestic life, but money remained a worry. Some relief was had by letting out her house, and she became a bit of a nomad, travelling between friends' houses in her Morris Minor.

Eventually she appeared to stop writing altogether, though secretly she was at work on a new novel called Good Behaviour. When she offered it to her usual publisher, though, he didn't like its unsentimental bleakness and suggested including more "nice" characters. "Molly, for once putting art before money, refused."

She put the book aside, quietly relieved that she didn't have to write any more. It wasn't until the summer of 1979, when she let actress Peggy Ashcroft read the manuscript, that things started to happen again. She soon had an agent and editor, and now, in her late 70s, nearly 30 years after her last novel, the book by which she would become best known was published to acclaim.

It was shortlisted for the Booker Prize, and adapted for television. The women's movement took to her eagerly, and she happily played along to sell more books, while maintaining that she was no feminist. Though, as Phipps writes: "In her independent, struggling, flourishing spirit, she was perhaps the personification of its essence."

Molly finally had relief from financial worry. She could have champagne cocktails at home, lobster lunches at Aherne's in Youghal, and deliveries of expensive chocolates. She wrote lots more cheques for loved ones, and was thrilled to be invited to join Aosdána, set up by the then Taoiseach. "Molly, previously not keen on Mr Haughey ('too IRA') became very appreciative of him."

Sally Phipps was in her fifties when Keane first suggested that she take on this project with the words: "I trust you completely. The only thing I'm afraid of is that you won't be nasty enough."

She knew her daughter well. Molly could be cruel and say unforgivable things, but Phipps casts a generous, tolerant eye on her shortcomings.

Keane, who said of herself that she was "born dishonest and a social snob", would have written a very different memoir, but it wouldn't necessarily have been a better one. This is a warm portrait of a woman both defined by, and in quiet revolt against, her world and time. Most of all, it's an engrossing, insightful portrait of a misunderstood Anglo-Irish class most at home, in Elizabeth Bowen's famous words, halfway across the Irish Sea on the boat. These people had a deep connection to the land. When rebels who burned down the family home in the 1920s threatened to shoot her father if he didn't stop trying to prevent them, he famously replied: "I would rather be shot in Ireland than live in England."

But they also "endorsed England politically" out of a sense of duty, as if it was "an elder brother whom one did not love particularly, but one must not let down in times of trouble".

Because they were genuinely well liked, "very few of them reflected on the uneasy nature of this Irishness. It was only by sticking on their blinkers that they could keep going". Molly Keane was no different. She tried living in England, but was soon back home, feeling that "Ireland is still the last bastion of civilisation". She died in 1996, after a life spanning almost the entirety of the century. Her daughter's book is a delightful act of remembrance to a remarkable and original woman.

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