‘As much like a novel as pos­si­ble’

Caro­line Jack­son en­joys a por­trait of the writer who deftly evoked the van­ish­ing world of the Ir­ish As­cen­dancy coun­try house

Country Life Every Week - - Books - Molly Keane: A Life

BIOGRAPHIES faith­ful to a cur­rently un­fash­ion­able lit­er­ary tra­jec­tory—the in­el­e­gantly la­belled ‘womb to tomb’ nar­ra­tive—of­ten de­liver dis­pro­por­tion­ate in­sight. Sally Phipps’s il­lu­mi­nat­ing ac­count of her mother’s life in the vivid, now van­ished world of Ire­land’s Protes­tant as­cen­dancy is no ex­cep­tion. Turn straight to the in­dex, as you should with any bi­og­ra­phy worth read­ing, and it’s clear. Un­der ‘Keane, Molly’, are three sec­tions: ‘char­ac­ter’, ‘life’ and ‘writ­ing’. The great­est, by a length, is ‘life’, re­flect­ing her defin­ing strug­gle to live to the limit while writ­ing and to write about what she cared for above all else: liv­ing.

She was born in 1904 into what she termed ‘a rather se­ri­ous hunt­ing and fish­ing, church-go­ing fam­ily’. her english fa­ther, wal­ter Skrine, was a for­mer colo­nial gover­nor, fear­less horse­man and de­voted hus­band. his wife, agnes, was a poet of some renown (her Songs of the Glens of Antrim, pub­lished in 1901, out­sold w. B. Yeats), but a re­mote, cen­so­ri­ous mother, ‘who could not show love as Molly wanted it to be ex­pressed’. The stage was set for re­bel­lion and last­ing griev­ance.

when Molly was five, the fam­ily moved from Co Kil­dare to a house named Bal­lyrankin, Co wex­ford. her child­hood there is in­stantly recog­nis­able from those so lyri­cally, of­ten chill­ingly, evoked in her 14 nov­els—the first writ­ten when Molly was just 17 to sup­ple­ment, so she claimed, her dress al­lowance.

By turns per­fect and per­ilous, it was a world of no to­mor­rows, caught be­tween the free­doms en­joyed by Ire­land’s priv­i­leged, pre-in­de­pen­dence landed gen­try for whom hunt­ing was ‘sa­cred’ and the con­straints—so­cial, po­lit­i­cal, eco­nomic and emo­tional—ush­er­ing them to ex­tinc­tion. ‘It did not do to be fat, slow, a bad horse­man, a clumsy dancer, a vul­gar dresser or a know-all.’ amuse­ment mat­tered. In­se­cu­ri­ties abounded.

Molly was away at school when Bal­lyrankin house, like nu­mer­ous as­cen­dancy houses, was burnt down just days be­fore the truce that led to the 1921 an­glo-ir­ish Treaty. her par­ents stood in the gar­den and watched, de­clin­ing to sit in the arm­chairs help­fully sta­tioned by the ar­son­ists. Demon­strat­ing nerve, naïvety or both, they bought the ad­ja­cent prop­erty. Molly’s re­sponse re­flected her last­ing de­ter­mi­na­tion ‘to fight me­lan­choly with do­mes­tic de­lights, hu­man in­ti­macy and glam­our’ and betrayed in­tu­itive un­der­stand­ing of the ter­mi­nal para­dox of her caste.

aban­don­ing a child­hood in which she had al­ways felt unloved, she at­tached her­self to other house­holds, fi­nally set­tling for sev­eral years at woodrooffe, the Tip­per­ary home of wil­lie and Dolly Perry.

woodrooffe was the ‘Big house’ that shaped Molly’s life. Fun, so­phis­ti­cated and ac­cept­ing, it blessed her with early love af­fairs—‘in those days it wasn’t done… but of course it was done’— and a life­long friend­ship with the Per­rys’ son, John, with whom she wrote four west end plays. all were pro­duced be­tween 1938 and 1961 by h. M. Ten­nent, lon­don’s pre­em­i­nent pro­duc­tion com­pany, run by John’s lover, hugh ‘Binkie’ Beau­mont (John’s sis­ter was also bi­sex­ual and it’s note­wor­thy that Molly’s ‘les­bian novel’, De­voted Ladies, was suc­cess­fully pub­lished in 1934, only six years af­ter Rad­clyffe hall’s The Well of Lone­li­ness at­tracted an ob­scen­ity pros­e­cu­tion).

Molly’s early suc­cesses might have fore­told her spec­tac­u­lar re­nais­sance at the age of 77 when her 12th novel, Good Be­hav­iour— sub­tle, blackly comic and un­for­get­table for the most de­li­ciously toxic mother-daugh­ter re­la­tion­ship ever writ­ten—nar­rowly missed win­ning the 1981 Booker Prize. The facts spoke oth­er­wise. Fol­low­ing the sud­den death of her beloved hus­band, Bob­bie, in 1946, Molly strug­gled to write, hob­bled by grief and guilt. Friend­ships proved her cure, some­times her curse.

her daugh­ter’s in­ci­sive por­trait of her ‘en­chant­ing and trou­bled per­son­al­ity’ de­liv­ers real un­der­stand­ing—in both senses.

The stage was set for re­bel­lion and last­ing griev­ance

Molly Keane pic­nick­ing with her hus­band, Bob­bie

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