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
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