When Molly Keane’s best-known novel, Good Behaviour (1981), was pipped to the Booker Prize post by Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children she did not much mind. She was ‘ecstatic’ over its success, calling it ‘too extraordinary’. But this extravagant tone was neither archness nor Mitfordian flippancy (although, appropriate to her upbringing, she exhibited a strong, unsnobbish belief in the value of taste). She meant it. Molly Keane (1904–96) never considered herself a writer: ‘It’s all a great surprise to me – if you were to give me some old book of mine I’d read it with great surprise as though I had no connection with it at all.’
That phrase ‘some old book’ is telling. It speaks to me of the Anglo-Irish, their lack of self-regard, their stubbornness. She didn’t do ‘perhaps’, ‘quite’, ‘maybe’ or ‘rather’ and, although she is celebrated for the comedy of Good Behaviour, her plots and characterization are bracing and unsentimental, even risky. As she wrote near the end of her life, ‘the Irish are sardonic often, lyrical often, but comic – never’.
Part of the Anglo-Irish diaspora, I grew up not questioning what it meant to be berated as a ‘rip’ or an ‘eejit’ when I had been villainous or wilful, or both. I’ve been down many a ‘boreen’ on either side of the Irish Sea and know that ‘a cup of scald’ is the best remedy when one feels ‘shook’, preferably taken by an ever-burning turf (never peat) fire. English boarding-school, however, instilled in me theniceties of what can and cannot, should and should not be said. So when, as a teenager, I first read Good Behaviour, purely because my grandmother had been a playmate of its author as a girl, I could entirely relate to, even hear, its dextrous linguistic parade, from the politesse of the narrator Aroon’s family – secretive, inhibited and duplicitous overlords – to the verve of the native
The full version of this article is only available to subscribers to Slightly Foxed: The Real Reader’s Quarterly. To continue reading, please sign in or take out a subscription to the quarterly magazine for yourself or as a gift for a fellow booklover. Both gift givers and gift recipients receive access to the full online archive of articles along with many other benefits, such as preferential prices for all books and goods in our online shop and offers from a number of like-minded organizations. Find out more on our subscriptions page.Subscribe now or Sign in