Book review: Molly Keane: A Life

Sally Phipps’ biography of her mother, the novelist Molly Keane is a work of art, says Thomas McCarthy who recalls Keane’s second coming as a writer in the 1980s. He savours every word of a wonderful memoir

Sally Phipps

Virago, £20 (HB)

IT is now more than 35 years since Molly Keane, the Ardmore-based novelist, burst onto the literary scene for a second time with her late masterpiece, Good Behaviour. 

I will never forget that September evening in 1981 when I heard the BBC broadcast her name as one of the short-listed authors for the Booker Prize. 

I was with her elderly Cappoquin friend, Brigadier FitzGerald, as we listened to her name announced over the airwaves from London.

For the previous 10 years we’d constituted a two-man Keane book-club, reading all her golden novels of the 1920s and 1930s. It is difficult to explain to disinterested readers just how magical and unexpected the late success of Molly Keane really was. 

Coming from Cappoquin, I knew her even in obscurity as a supreme writer, a craftswoman for whom the making of a literary sentence was as purposeful and full of love as an arrangement of flowers.

While John McGahern had his Garda barracks, Heaney had his bogs and Kate O’Brien had her Presentation parlours, Molly Keane simply had her drawing-room tensions, her horses and stable-yards. 

Her invented characters lived in a world of horses, of hunting and buying and selling. There were always horses, for riding and petting.

Her description of the Dublin Horse Show in Rising Tide, published in 1937, contains this terrific pen-picture: ‘That Horse Show was like every other Dublin Horse Show…. Women in grey flannel coats and skirts, awful hats and brown suede shoes sat on shooting-sticks around the rings and gossiped and criticised and sometimes admired. 

There were busy men in clean breeches and boots without a moment to spare for anybody, and less-busy men in suits and bowler hats who had lots of time for a drink with anybody who would pay for it. 

There were Indian princes in Jodhpurs that zipped down their legs in all directions, and everyone in Ireland with a horse to sell coveted their acquaintance.’

And 50 years later, writing in her seventies, in Good Behaviour, 1981, she could still capture the moment like this: ‘The Horse Show proceeded on its traditional five-day course, but how differently from earlier martyrdoms of fixed and smiling loneliness. 

On the last day Richard bought a yearling in the Bloodstock Sales. I sat between him and Hubert on the circular benches, while the yearlings, coming up for auction in the ring below us, were pulling back, kicking, or mincing politely round. 

I didn’t even realise Richard was bidding, his gestures were so quiet and small and knowledgeable. I thank God still that I didn’t happen to be talking, just thumbing through the lots in my catalogue.’

It is certainly true that Molly Keane’s entire career teaches us a key lesson about the life of writing — write only about what you know or what you wish to repossess. Everything else will seem vague to the reader. Keane possessed her imaginative and imagined world with fierce entirety. She had no wish to describe elsewhere, and she rarely strayed from the tense atmosphere in an Anglo-Irish drawing-room or a stable-yard.

She was the last of that great line of novelists that began with Maria Edgeworth and deepened imaginatively with Somerville and Ross.

It is not possible for us to fully know that world now because the social yearnings and political empire that gave it its full architecture have become dust, leaving behind beautiful Irish houses and magnificent parklands that seem to wait for some lost son or daughter to come home in the April sunlight. 

These Anglo-Irish spaces are haunted because they once really did heave with an abundant life. Their world may not have been ours, but it was very real.

And, very rarely, we are blessed with a book that captures the after-glow of this world in its glory and decline. Sally Phipps, the novelist’s daughter, and herself a born writer, has given us an astonishing glimpse

into her mother’s lost world in this beautiful biography from Virago. It was Virago, remember, that gave us those lush re-prints of Keane’s early novels, paperbacks tinged with a kind of Norah McGuinness green that have become classics in their own right.

What Phipps has achieved in this book is uncanny and thrilling. No daughter has ever written about a mother with such pitiful honesty. 

Molly Keane was a complicated woman, at once charming and impatient or sentimental and ruthless. She didn’t forgive easily, if she ever forgave.

A horse-riding Skrine of Ballyrankin House, she had learned early to hide every vulnerable feeling: ‘In general, it was considered pompous and boring and a bit uncivilised to speak wholeheartedly of one’s deepest feelings,’ as Phipps observes when describing a conversation with John Gielgud about her mother and John Perry.

Of her mother’s lazy collaborator in theatre, one of the horse-breeding Perrys of Tipperary, she writes: ‘He was brilliant without a sense of vocation.’

Molly married Bobby Keane, one of the two handsomest men in west Waterford — the other, the beautiful operetta-singing motorcycle-riding Willie Sargent of Cappoquin, later became the love object of their Swiss governess, Elspeth; to have such love in the air thrilled the novelist. 

Molly’s brief marriage was her Eden; and it would be remembered as such after her young husband died unexpectedly in a London hospital.

Phipps writes brilliantly about this time in her mother’s life: ‘Molly, sometimes in short snatches, endeavoured to record what had happened to her. 

‘In happiness I was enclosed as closely as a nut in a nutshell — Bobby was half the shell, now the shell has been split off me and the naked kernel is open to the world’.’

The years immediately following her husband’s death were years of heart-rending desolation. Phipps recaptures them in this book with an almost clairvoyant insightfulness.

Her understanding of her mother is profound here, and fully described. It is a picture of grief and survival, of a young widow left to care for two children who falls back upon the only resource freely available to a single mother, the resource of imagination and literary ambition.

Molly Keane would spend the next decade trying to re-establish a career in fiction and theatre. 

She would have love affairs with married men and become best friends with their wives; she would cook and arrange flowers and write, and then cook and arrange flowers and write some more.

She would work her way back into life. Failure and silence would come at the end of this busy decade, as her 1920s sensibility and the life of aristocratic drawing-rooms became redundant in the new 1950s’ zeitgeist of The Angry Young Men and Look Back in Anger. 

An inevitable decline and neglect set in, and she was a much-neglected author when I was first introduced to Mrs Keane, or the author MJ Farrell.

Then Good Behaviour happened. What a late and unexpected blessing. What a joyful decade followed, again fully and beautifully described by her daughter in this book.

If you are to read only one biography this year, make it Sally Phipps’ Molly Keane: A Life. I assure you, this is memoir as a work of art.


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