Killing the An­gel in the House

Daugh­ter’s story of An­glo-Ir­ish writer Molly Keane re­minds us of the of­ten dif­fi­cult re­la­tion­ships be­tween moth­ers and daugh­ters

The Herald - Arts - - BOOKS -

IN SO many of Molly Keane’s nov­els, from the early to the late, moth­er­daugh­ter re­la­tion­ships dom­i­nate. These moth­ers veer from overt con­trol­ling types to pas­siveag­gres­sive hor­rors: Lady Char­lotte McGrath in The Ris­ing Tide (1938), Lady Olivia Bird in Full House (1935), Ma­man in Lov­ing and Giv­ing (1988), pub­lished eight years be­fore her death. Her 1981 Booker-nom­i­nated novel, Good Be­hav­iour, opens with its hero­ine, Aroon, com­mit­ting an act of ma­t­ri­cide.

Per­haps that’s why Vi­rago com­mis­sioned this ‘life’ of the An­gloIr­ish writer from her el­dest daugh­ter, Sally Phipps. And in­deed, Phipps of­ten gives us the kind of per­sonal tit­bits and be­hind-the-scenes-glimpses that you’d ex­pect of what it was like to grow up with a writer mother whose friends and ac­quain­tances in­cluded Adele As­taire, Peggy Ashcroft and Noel Coward.

She also adds touches of grotes­querie, of the kind Keane herself was par­tic­u­larly fond, when she de­scribes Mur­phy, the fe­male cook at Woodruffe, a typ­i­cal An­glo-Ir­ish house thus: ‘I re­mem­ber her as a Hog­a­rthian fig­ure with hair on her face and many vo­lu­mi­nous dirty skirts.

“I once watched her pick a pot off the floor and drink the broth from it, suck­ing it through a crust of fat which cracked and broke up like ice.’

One might won­der, of course, if the cook was sim­ply hun­gry; Keane lived dur­ing a tu­mul­tuous pe­riod in Ir­ish his­tory, born as she was in 1904.

Phipps de­scribes the raz­ing of the fam­ily home in an act of fire rais­ing, a fate suf­fered by so many of the ‘big houses’ as Ire­land strug­gled for in­de­pen­dence.

Food was scarce and un­ap­petis­ing; Phipps tells of a young Molly gath­er­ing with her siblings to watch their fa­ther eat an ap­ple.

It took a long time for their fa­ther to un­der­stand why his chil­dren were sur­round­ing him; not for love of him, he was sorry to learn. But he did share an ap­ple with them – from the big box he had reg­u­larly de­liv­ered.

Depri­va­tion and splen­dour made for an un­easy mix in Keane’s world, and she al­ways claimed she be­gan writ­ing nov­els sim­ply to aug­ment her dress al­lowance.

Men didn’t like clever women, and women needed men in those days. Mar­riage was the only es­cape from the fam­ily home; Keane and her mother, who was a writer herself, were not close. Dis­tant and dis­ap­prov­ing, Keane’s mother ap­pears as one of those highly unattrac­tive ‘ladies’ in so many of these ‘sparkling’ come­dies of man­ners of the 1930s.

Phipps al­ludes to her grand­mother’s of­ten paralysing de­pres­sion, and to Keane’s own ‘dark’ side, but this is where an in­de­pen­dent bi­og­ra­pher would have pro­duced a grit­tier and more re­al­is­tic por­trait of a writer ca­pa­ble of be­gin­ning a novel with a girl push­ing her mother into the jaws of death.

This is where we need di­aries, let­ters, jour­nals; the re­call of friends and ac­quain­tances; an in-depth anal­y­sis of the nov­els to take us deep down into that dark­ness. Keane lost her only hus­band, Bob­bie, to a haem­or­rhage in 1946 when she was the mother of a new-born and a tod­dler.

Phipps hints again at un­hap­pi­ness in the mar­riage, of Bob­bie’s af­fair with an­other wo­man, but this isn’t re­ally ex­plored. Keane didn’t go to her hus­band’s fu­neral and she didn’t visit his grave.

Her grief may be too com­plex, too dis­turb­ing for a daugh­ter to an­a­lyse; like­wise, her roast­ing by the crit­ics over her 1961 play, Daz­zling Prospect, which pro­voked her de­ci­sion to give up writ­ing for good.

Phipps talks about her mother’s lack of self-con­fi­dence in her writ­ing, her re­fusal to see it as any­thing other than a way of earn­ing money, but this needs deeper anal­y­sis, too.

Keane’s role as a wo­man writer, a wo­man who de­picts a young girl who kills her mother in her fic­tion, brings to mind two of Vir­ginia Woolf’s fa­mous ex­hor­ta­tions: to ‘kill the An­gel in the House’, and to have a ‘room of one’s own’ and £500 a year. What Keane needed, what she lacked, is there in the dark­ness that so of­ten laid her low.

It was Good Be­hav­iour, a novel she’d writ­ten and then put away after it was re­jected, that re­stored her rep­u­ta­tion and prob­a­bly saved her from be­ing for­got­ten, or dis­missed as just an­other ‘mi­nor wo­man writer’.

It’s also the most sav­age of her nov­els, told by an un­re­li­able nar­ra­tor who doesn’t re­alise her own ‘un­re­li­able­ness’ so that, iron­i­cally, she doesn’t hide it. But Molly Keane knew a thing or two about hid­ing. And in the fi­nal anal­y­sis, Phipps strug­gles to draw her mother from her hid­ing-place.

Adele As­taire, seen here with her brother Fred, was among Molly Keane’s starry friends

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