Sally Phipps tells the story of her mother, Molly Keane

When Molly Keane came to selecting the best person to write her biography, she didn’t have to look very far, writes Marjorie Brennan

WHEN it came to writing her biography, author Molly Keane knew who would be the best person for the job: her daughter, Sally Phipps. Most people would probably shy away from detailing the lives of those closest to them for public consumption, and Phipps was no exception.

“She asked me to do it and I was very dubious,” says Phipps. “Her reason was practical in one way: She wanted to put the work my way and she also believed I understood the very peculiar Anglo-Irish world in which we all grew up, which was a fading world by then. She also liked the way I write, so I hope that was a deeper reason.”

It has been 21 years since Keane’s death and her wish was finally brought to fruition earlier this year, with the publication of Phipps’ biography, Molly Keane: A Life.

“I have found that it has been a very good thing writing about her — it has made me understand her in a way I wish I had in life. It took me so long, far too long; you can see a person as a whole when you are writing about them,” says Phipps, who lives in Cloyne, Co Cork.

Keane became known in later life for her sharply-observed books chronicling the declining fortunes of the Anglo-Irish. It was a world she was well-qualified to write about, having been born into an Anglo-Irish family, the Skrines, in Co Kildare, in 1904. She had an early promising career as a writer, and published novels under the pseudonym MJ Farrell. She also wrote several plays, including the West End hit Spring Meeting, which was directed by the legendary actor John Gielgud, who was later to become Phipps’ godfather.

“He and Peggy Ashcroft were great friends of hers,” says Phipps. “He was a marvellous artist and I saw him in some of his Shakespeare plays. I only really saw him when I went to London. He would send me something for my birthday, money usually.”

Ashcroft was partly responsible for Keane’s renaissance as a writer after a decades-long lull. She became discouraged after the death of her husband Bobby Keane in 1946, just eight years after their marriage, and later, the failure of one of her plays. Keane showed a manuscript for what would become her best-known book Good Behaviour, to Ashcroft and she encouraged her to submit it for publication. It went on to be shortlisted for the Booker in 1981, the year Salman Rushdie won for Midnight’s Children. What was it like for Keane to enjoy such success in later life?

“It was extraordinary, the last thing she was expecting,” says Phipps. “It happened that Good Behaviour hit at the right time, because of its dark comedy. She was a much more social person than I am and I think she greatly enjoyed it. She made lots of friends through it, especially other writers.”

Keane followed up Good Behaviour with two more successful novels, Loving and Giving and Time after Time. She became something of a celebrity here and in Britain, where she was a popular guest on the chat show circuit.

“She went on with Terry Wogan and Russell Harty who became a great friend of hers and made a documentary about her. Appearing on television terrified her, but she did her best and she was rather good on it,” says Phipps.

Keane and her husband had two daughters, Sally and Virginia, and the family spent their early years in Cappoquin, Co Waterford. The family moved around after the death of Bobby Keane, eventually settling in Ardmore, where Molly Keane remained until her death.

“She absolutely loved Ardmore, the people and the place, and was very much at home there,” says Phipps. “She loved the sea and she wrote a lot about the Irish landscape, it meant a great deal to her.”

Phipps’ biography has been praised for its honest depiction of Keane with one review describing it as “animated by kindness, but never at the expense of truth”.

How hard was it for Phipps to write about Keane as not just a writer, but also as a less-than-perfect parent? “It was my great endeavour to write about her with truth and with love. Everything is complex. She was so sharp and emotional and, like all artists, difficult, but she was also incredibly kind, generous and humorous. One sees the balance of what she went through in her life; it wasn’t at all easy. She was a very gallant person, very funny and wonderful company.

“A lot of our childhood was happy. Because her childhood was so strict and Victorian, she was determined to do things that were fun for us. She was very understanding of what it was like to be a child.”

Keane’s legacy is still very much alive, with her former home in Ardmore now serving as a writer’s retreat. Interest in her life and work remains strong. What is it about her work that connects with readers?

“She was a wonderful, original writer. Her work transcended its small world and like all good books, became universal,” says Phipps. “There is also a darkness in her writing, which in a way keeps it contemporary; she has this marvellous sense of humour and beauty and a wonderful sense of character.”

Writing her mother’s biography has also helped Phipps follow her own journey as a writer.

“I have long known writing was my only talent. I always thought I’d get around to it, but I was always involved in other things. I regret that in a way now, but one has to accept one’s destiny.”

She is gratified by the favourable response to the book. “My friend Ken Thompson is a sculptor and he said something that made me very happy — I gave him the script to look at because he is a very discerning reader. He rang me up and he said: ‘Sally, I’m not interested in Anglo-Ireland and I’m not interested in Molly Keane, but I stayed in bed all morning reading your book.’ I felt there couldn’t be a greater compliment than that.”

  • As part of the Cork World Book Fest commemoration of the 21st anniversary of Molly Keane’s death, Sally Phipps will be in conversation with Thomas McCarthy at Cork City Library at 7.15pm on Tuesday, April 18. Cork World Book Fest runs from April 18-23

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