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 the niceties 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, serving Irish, conversely just as manipulative of their masters. And it is a marvellous story. Revisiting it nearly thirty years later was a revelation and compelled me to seek out all her other, lesser-known novels in what became an odyssey into a vanished world that, like the best fictional demesnes, exists fully formed and invites exploration.
Molly Keane’s literary career followed an unusual trajectory. She was born, in County Kildare, into a prelapsarian, Anglo-Irish idyll in which beautiful houses and riding to hounds through the bogs of southern Ireland featured large. She recalled ‘a society in which I wanted to get on jolly well. I know that sounds awful but it wasn’t a snob thing at all. To belong to and be accepted in such a society mattered greatly in one’s life.’ At 17, she wrote her first novel, The Knight of Cheerful Countenance (1921), published by Mills & Boon, to supplement her insufficient dress allowance.
This literary activity was to continue, covertly, through several further novels under the pseudonym M. J. Farrell, a suitably anonymous moniker she had pilfered from a pub sign ‘to hide my literary side from my sporting friends’. Being thought clever was shameful and Molly Keane was no closet bluestocking. This magpie instinct was, in fact, the backbone of her artistry for she seems to have emerged almost fully formed as a deeply descriptive writer, patterning her own experience in Ireland’s ‘big houses’ with a sharp eye for the cruel, the kind, the absurd and the lovely. Yet while she wrote beautifully of houses, horses, food, furnishings and, centrally, children and parents, most of her novels have in the hinterland, and occasionally the foreground, the unravelling of the Ireland she was born into and the troubled emergence of the Free State. As her great friend Elizabeth Bowen wrote in her memoir Bowen’s Court (1942), ‘In the matter of the Troubles and Ireland and houses and behaviour on both sides, no fiction could improve upon or exaggerate reality.’
Good Behaviour presents just such an exaggerated reality. Describing the loss of the St Charles family home and lineage and unreliably narrated by dim, galumphing Aroon St Charles, it opens with her admission of murder. This is shocking enough but its effect is heightened by the means of dispatch. Appallingly, domineering Mummie, who has starved lumpen Aroon of love, is force-fed a delicate rabbit mousse, an abhorred meat good enough only for children (not dogs, who deserve chicken). It is a delicious, unflinching conceit to enlist food as nemesis and this from the author of the innocuously entitled Nursery Cooking (1985). Molly Keane allows Aroon (whose Irish name, with perfect irony, means ‘my beloved’) to chronicle the preceding history and, in so doing, chart the self-destructive double-standards which masquerade as good behaviour.
It is a finely tuned performance, allowing Aroon, by turns pitiable and laughable, to expose Mummie’s hypocrisy which cannot admit her son Hubert’s homosexuality or her husband’s philandering with the servants and which prefers to ignore debt and progeny in favour of gardening. Yet Mummie, along with many of Molly Keane’s protagonists, is no caricature. She is unremittingly foul to Aroon and compellingly plausible. It all makes for an unsettling read, not knowing who has the strongest grasp on reality – the socially functioning, the serving Irish or perhaps the eccentric and the deluded? Moments hang poised between tragedy and farce. Aroon persuades herself that allowing her beloved Richard to rest his head, fleetingly, on her pendulous bosom is a seduction and to be prized. To Richard, Hubert’s lover, it is to be endured until it becomes ‘a bit hot’ and he flees. From here it only needs a short step to see how, by a cruel kind of natural selection, the breed became extinct.
Good Behaviour was not a flash in the pan, nor Molly Keane a one-trick pony. Both metaphors are tempting – her prose on matters equine and culinary is superb – but deeply inappropriate. That Good Behaviour was beaten in the final furlong of the Booker seemed fitting – the new order outstripping the old, a symbolic rejection of the Irish Raj – and this irony would have commended itself to its author. In fact, Molly Keane’s novels are emphatically not just memoirs of a fox-hunting girl. She derided Thackeray for his occasional lapse into ‘the castle-to-pigsty, begorrah, top-of-the-morning’ style in his Irish Sketch Book (1842) and this stricture underlies her own inimitable key. Her eleven novels eschew categorization. Collectively far more than the sum of their parts, they are an elegy for a remarkable, disappeared world.
Virtually uneducated, and by her own account ignored at home, as a young woman Molly effectively found herself a second family with the Perrys of County Tipperary. Their son, John Perry, was subsequently to co-author with her four plays that ran in the West End, with varying success, for over a decade. At the Perrys’, Molly met Bobby Keane, four years her junior and with whom she lived, unconventionally, for five years before they married. Her husband’s premature death in 1946 left her a penurious mother of two. It is widely believed that she fell silent for the following thirty years. In fact, Loving without Tears was published in 1951 and offers a full flavour of Molly Keane.
In Loving without Tears, the widowed Angel, châtelaine of Owlbeg and the apogee of maternal selfishness, manipulates her children and household in equal measure, wishing only to repossess her returning son Julian. The novel was written only a few years after Bobby Keane’s death, and it is hard for Angel’s predicament not to resonate: she is ‘father and mother, too. A hopeless combination.’ This harshness belies the clear-sighted tenderness with which Angel is drawn. She can give as much as she takes, reminiscing to her retainer and erstwhile lover, Oliver: ‘You were so sad and sweet when we found you, that last lovely spring before the war, all alone in the Austrian Tyrol – and a gentian in your hat.’ It was these small accuracies that tied her charm to life.
Like Good Behaviour, the novel proceeds in a series of intense domestic scenes and results in a series of pairings which leave Angel alone, ‘as sad as a French cemetery’. Her housekeeper, Birdie, is brilliantly described:
The woman and the gipsy in her looked for magic, believed in hauntings and the fall of the cards and changes coming at the turn of the moon. At forty-four Birdie still had looks, and very strict she was in their preservation. In youth there had been a softness of skin and hair, despairing blue eyes and a certain silly charm – the attraction of an exquisite milk pudding with summer fruit – in her abundance of sweet and healthy flesh. Such a figure should have had its pleasures and its ease, and gone to bits in its own way, but Birdie – in faithful imitation of Angel – pursued each stringent diet and course of exercise which in Angel’s case gave the effect of a brittle leopard to limbs past youth, and in Birdie’s hardened muscles to clutches of ostrich eggs, and to breasts like sleeping rabbits gave awful iron springs which practically went ping at a glance.
Birdie deserves her escape with Walter, a visiting manservant, and just as she is lost to Angel, so are both Angel’s children. Unpredictably, Oliver departs with Julian’s fiancée, Sally. The novel’s dramatic conclusion, when each couple sails away, maroons and unmothers Angel. Julian’s leave-taking stopped me short: ‘You were quite perfect till I was twelve’. She has the wit to counter: ‘I liked you best at two.’
Molly Keane is a deeply sensitive writer and this novel is imbued with a humanity that reins in the theatrical plot and offers consolation, reflecting that peculiar synthesis of the familiar and conventional with the extraordinary that characterized the world of the Anglo-Irish.
Molly Keane lamented that ‘amusement was one of the main things that was lacking in my childhood. There wasn’t much fun . . .’ To remedy this, even her most grotesque creations are leavened with kindness and realism, Aroon and Angel alike, both appalling yet drawn with beguiling insight. Like Jane Austen, the only literary influence she acknowledged, Molly Keane claimed to write only of what she knew. By restricting her aperture she brought much into sharp and revealing focus, making a perfect microcosm of something difficult and expansive. Prefiguring J. G. Farrell’s Troubles (1970), she cast a dispassionate eye over the demise of the Protestant Ascendancy yet dissected it with empathy, often unpredictably. Analysing any terminal situation with wit is no mean feat. Molly Keane managed it. That she succeeded so remarkably is probably, as she admitted, because she was ‘a great old breaker-awayer’, and this spirit informed the intelligent, entrancing voice of the self-professed ‘girl from the bogs’.
Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 28 © Caroline Jackson 2010