Posts Tagged ‘molly keane’

Two book reviews in one post from me today. Not something I usually do, but both these books were read for #readingIrelandmonth21 and one is just a very small novella. It also gives me the opportunity to catch up very slightly. Both novels concern visitors – someone returning after a period of time to a place in Ireland.

Time After Time is one of the novels that Molly Keane published later in life – her writing life spanned many years and there was a big gap in the middle. It came a couple of years after Good Behaviour but is a rather less dramatic novel than that. It is in fact a really quite sophisticated novel – here Keane uses great subtlety, pealing back the layers of complexity within a family of elderly siblings. A dark tragic-comedy shot through with Keane’s wicked sense of humour – it gets off to a slow start but the sense of place and the characterisation are just fantastic.

Living in genteel poverty in rural Ireland in the house their mother left them are the Swifts – three sisters: April, May and June and their brother Jasper. Each of them is maimed in some way, Jasper lost an eye as a child, April is almost completely deaf and May has a deformity to one hand, June is small and naïve – and perhaps what may have been termed a little slow. As Emma Donoghue says in her introduction Keane uses these disabilities ‘to create a sense of the grotesque.’ That was something I was conscious of right away; I was just a little uncomfortable to begin with – yet she balances these disabilities with some wonderful abilities and vibrant personalities. Jasper is a wonderful cook the kitchen is his domain and from it he rules the house. June – still called Baby June by everyone – is practical and looks after the outdoors, she cares for the animals with understanding and love. May restores ornaments and makes beautiful pieces of art out of wool, fabric, and flowers; she is president of the flower arrangers’ guild. April the only one who ever married is still in old age beautiful and elegant makes beauty treatments.

This is not a harmonious household, however. These elderly siblings have little in common save their memories of better days, their beloved mother, and a shared youth. The four of them bicker continually, never happier than when getting one over on one of the others. They each have their little foibles – April smokes the odd joint, May sometimes steals things, June is rather fond of the farm hand, Jasper enjoys consulting with a young monk from the nearby abbey and dreams of creating a truly spectacular garden. They each also have their own pet – the sisters each have their own dog of whom they are very protective while Jasper owns a cat.

Into this world comes Leda, a cousin from Vienna who they haven’t seen in decades – and who they assumed rather callously had perished in the war. Leda is blind now, but still every bit as beguiling as she was in her youth – when she was feted and adored like a fairy-tale princess by each of the siblings. For Leda, the past is still very present, everything and everyone still exists for her as it once was.

“These were the submerged days that Leda’s coming rescued from a deep oblivion. Since she could not see Durraghglass in its cold decay, or her cousins in their proper ages, timeless grace was given to them in her assumption that they looked as though all the years between were empty myths. Because they knew themselves so imagined, their youth was present to them, a mirage trembling in her flattery as air trembles close on the surface of summer roads.”

Leda has a motive for suddenly turning up unannounced – she still feels bitterly about something that happened decades earlier. She is a woman who says and does just what she wants – and that takes some getting used to. By the time she leaves change will have come to the house and to the inhabitants. Molly Keane is so good at just turning the knife a little at the end – not everything is as you think it will be.

I had previously read reviews of Maeve Brennan’s stories and possibly of this novella by other bloggers and was determined to try her soon. Read Ireland month gave the perfect excuse. This lovely little edition comes from New Island books – who I discovered when I bought a couple of Norah Hoult books last year.  

The Visitor concerns a young woman, Anastasia King who returns to her grandmother’s house in Dublin after six years in Paris. Anastasia is just twenty-two – when she was sixteen she had followed her mother to Paris after the breakup of her parents’ marriage. Still, she is trying to reconcile herself to that breakup and to abandoning her father. Her mother has recently died and the grieving young woman wants to return to the place she once thought of as home.

However, the welcome that awaits her at her grandmother’s house is less than warm.

“She kissed her grandmother hastily, avoiding her eyes. The grandmother did not move from the door of the sitting room. She stood in the doorway, having just got up from the fireside and her reading, and contemplated Anastasia and Anastasia’s luggage crowding the hall. She was still the same, with her delicate and ruminative and ladylike face, and her hands clasped formally in front of her. Anastasia thought, she is waiting for me to make some mistake.”

 Her grandmother, Mrs King is still angry about the breakup of her son’s marriage – a bitterness that increased after he died. She feels Anastasia was disloyal choosing her mother over her father. She blames them both for his death. With her grandmother lives Katharine – some sort of housekeeper – the two have slipped into a sad, joyless routine. Any expectation Anastasia had of a warm home-coming is quickly dispelled. We see the grandmother as a domineering personality – one Anastasia’s mother had to escape, the marriage to her older husband had not been a success – and naturally, their daughter’s loyalty was horribly divided.

That both the past and the present have begun to have an effect on Anastasia becomes all too apparent – and the image we are left with is a striking one.

I don’t want to say too much more – for to do so might be to spoil it. Brennan’s story is sad and a little disturbing, and really quite unforgettable.

This really was a beautifully rendered little novella – not a word is wasted. I really haven’t done justice to it in this short review. It’s really a little masterpiece. Extraordinary that it was discovered in a university archive after Maeve Brennan’s death.

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My first read this year for read Ireland month was Loving Without Tears by Molly Keane (published originally under her pseudonym of M J Farrell). I think I always read Molly Keane in read Ireland month – it’s always a pleasure – she portrays her world to absolute perfection.

This is a novel about family manipulation, set against a stunning landscape of rural, coastal Ireland. A large house overlooking the sea, here Angel ministers to her family with charm and selfishness. Angel is a brilliantly drawn character, a beautiful monster, who always believes she is doing right. I’m sure it’s no accident that Keane chose the name Angel for this character. Some of those closest to her, know exactly what she is, even if she doesn’t know herself.

“’Honey and vitriol, my sweet, that’s you. Oh, you’re just a big lovely ice-cream full of steel shavings.’”

Angel’s only in her late forties, but she’s been widowed for years, since when she has dedicated herself to her children. The war isn’t long over, and her son Julian – only twenty-one – is due back after almost three years away. Her daughter Slaney is eighteen, Angel has also been bringing up her niece Tiddley alongside her children since childhood – she is a year or so older than Julian. The household is completed by Birdie (former nurse, now cook housekeeper) a little younger than Angel, it’s clear she isn’t ready to give up on life, love and romance even if her employer assumes she has. Her nemesis in the kitchen is young Finn Barr, who Angel has decided to train up as a butler – he is a very rough diamond and Birdie resents his presence and doesn’t try to hide it. Keane’s wonderful humour is in evidence in the portrayal of these two.

“Finn Barr came into the kitchen with a gun in his hand. Coming into Birdie’s kitchen like that was as inappropriate as if he came with a leopard’s skin over his shoulder, a sling with a stone in it and a grape-stained mouth – there was the swagger in his entrance.

Finn put the gun among the china on a dresser and clattered two carefully covered plates of sandwiches on to a tray. Birdie swept them off the tray.”

 Oliver lives in his own house in the village, he is Angel’s estate manager and friend – she had come across him in Austria before the war recovering from TB and brought him home.

The novel mainly takes place on one day – a device I really like – just the last thirty pages or so set a few weeks after the main events. It is the day of Julian’s return; a day Angel has looked forward to and planned for. As excited as a child, she has planned surprises for him, consulted with Birdie over the dinner menu – everything must be the way she has envisaged it. Oliver tentatively suggests that perhaps Julian will have changed after almost three years away, war and untold experiences, but Angel won’t be told. She already has a fixed idea of how Julian’s return will be. Meanwhile, without Angel’s knowledge Slaney is falling for long time family friend Chris.

Tiddley is the same as ever, nurturing her garden, hiding in her shed, quick to tears and made happiest by her piano. Tiddley has been learning to play, she loves her piano, playing with rather more enthusiasm than talent perhaps, the thought of losing the piano likely to break her heart. Angel’s financial situation however has raised the question of selling the piano – making Tiddley horribly anxious. Tiddley is also awaiting Julian’s return with delight – the two have always had a special relationship – though no one has guessed at the true nature of Tiddley’s feelings.

“A little dark well on a mountain road she was to him, closely stone-lipped. But below the narrow depths lay the perfect water which he knew and needed. He was sitting in the sun now, the dust of heather in his throat. He was waiting to dip a cup.”

When Julian finally arrives, he has a surprise for his family – an American fiancé several years his senior. Sally believes she has healed Julian from the horrors he encountered during the war, experiences his mother just hasn’t considered. She is a beautiful, highly fashionable widow, tough talking when she needs to be, she’s a woman of the world. Sally is in for more than she bargained for in Angel’s house. With Sally and Julian comes Walter, Sally’s late husband’s English butler, who turns Birdie’s head the moment he walks through the door.

Angel is floored by Julian’s announcement, she puts on the bravest face she can, but Sally isn’t fooled for a moment, she knows the battle lines are drawn. However, her past isn’t far away, and Julian back under his mother’s roof is in danger of becoming someone else. Discovering Slaney’s burgeoning romance enrages Angel – and she immediately starts to interfere, knowing her little comments to Slaney about Chris and to Chris about Slaney will be destructive. Noticing Birdie’s interest in Walter, Angel can’t help but take steps there too – she isn’t ready for anything to change.

However, there are signs of change everywhere, Birdie knows Angel well, she sees what she is up to, and Tiddley is ripe for rebellion, and even Slaney is better at circumventing Angel’s interference than her mother realises. Over several hours family battle lines are drawn, truths acknowledged, and Angel has her work cut out for her.

A thoroughly enjoyable novel – especially if you enjoy a well written monster. The ending will satisfy most readers I am sure. For me, a really lovely start to my Read Ireland reading.

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For those used to the world of Molly Keane with Full House we are back in familiar territory. Molly Keane has become an old favourite of mine, there can’t be that many of her books left for me to read.

An Irish mansion; Silverue stands between the hills and the sea. Home to the Bird family it is presided over by Olivia Bird a beautiful, selfish woman in her late forties, proud of her youthful looks. The house dances to Olivia’s tune, her husband Julian is usually to be found in his study – his adoration of his wife is a somewhat quiet affair.

Their youngest child is Markie – a delightful, irrepressible seven year old who runs happily around the grounds followed closely by his governess Miss Parker. Miss Parker is a rather pathetic figure, though Markie loves her – plagued by embarrassing facial hair – she is thought of as being rather furry by the family she works for. There is, naturally enough a disaster with her latest mail order depilatory. When not running around after Markie, poor Miss Parker is harried to pieces by Olivia – who thinks nothing of asking her to plant a thousand crocus bulbs.

The Birds’ middle child is Sheena, a rather lovely nineteen year old, teetering on the brink of either great love or great heartbreak. She has been spending more and more time with Rupert, the son of another local landed family, whose older sisters take it upon themselves to interfere in their brother’s love life.

As the novel opens family friend Eliza arrives, thirty-five with divorce and bereavement in her past – she has loved Julian from a far for years. She arrives on an important day, the day the Birds eldest son John arrives home – the reasons for his previous absence are glossed over – but it is clear that he has suffered a breakdown and been away recovering. John is Olivia’s darling, and Eliza has some concerns as to whether Olivia is up to the delicately balanced situation.

“In the rod-room, coldly and devastatingly the same as he had always known it, John shut the door and waited for a moment almost without thought. I don’t mind. You’re not lonely because you’re alone, he protested. I’m all right if I keep quiet. All right. I’m quite all right. It’s only for a second I feel a bit wretched. Was it this room being so inevitably the same that made him feel terrible for a moment, so divided from all he had a right to ask of life? The same shelf of dog’s medicines. The same row over row of rod-rests, and the rods one knew so familiarly lying on them one above another. The fuchsias half-darkening the windows, and the Boody with yet another litter of healthy and illegitimate puppies in the box in the corner. All these things were rather drearily the same as they had always been. That was it. That was why they hurt him so much.”

Julian’s diplomatic way of removing John from his mother’s over whelming presence is to arrange an evening of fly fishing for after dinner. At dinner John’s black humour about his illness rather takes everyone aback. He welcomes the fishing though, despite knowing it to be too early in the season. John meets Nick, a local man who lives simply, his little cottage on the extreme point of the peninsula where one door looks out on the sea and the other door out on the hills.

“And John was more than ever like John, with a curious unlikeness to himself which all this clamour could not shelter. He had come back to them, and they must not think he wanted any nonsense about nervous breakdowns and the like. It made things much worse for him. And if he defended himself from worse so wildly, the present must hold some terror of soul for him past imagination. Eliza wondered where he found the refuge.”

While Olivia is organising her garden fête – which everyone has to suffer for – Eliza recognising that John is still not completely at home finds that she can help him with the love she is unable to give to Julian. Eliza is also worried for Sheena – who in her desperate love for Rupert is so terribly miserable. Can a secret that Eliza has been keeping for Olivia help Sheena?

Full House is another excellent Molly Keane novel, beautifully written with gorgeous descriptive passages, it’s a novel that recognises the sometimes precarious emotions within families.

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I always seem to read Molly Keane for read Ireland month – she has become a firm favourite of mine anyway. I don’t care too much for the hunting stuff she writes about sometimes, but not all her novels feature much of that. I began reading Two Days in Aragon a day or two before Read Ireland month officially started – it was also another read for the LT Virago group’s ‘Reading the 1940s’ event, which had relationships as its February theme.

First published in 1941, Two Days in Aragon is set in the rural Ireland that Molly Keane is known for portraying so beautifully. It is the 1920s, and the Anglo Irish aristocratic Fox family live at Aragon. A Georgian house standing among rhododendrons and azaleas which bears testament to centuries of gracious living. As ever, Keane’s depiction of the landscape she clearly loved is gorgeous, but this novel could also be seen as a memorial for a way of life that was coming to an end. With this, there is also a recognition for the political tensions and deadly allegiances that were gathering against the Anglo Irish landed gentry in Ireland.

“Rising above the river banks and stone flights of fox-watched steps, the house had the lonely quality of bird flight.”

Their father dead, the conventionally pretty, well behaved Sylvia and her spirited younger sister Grania live here with their mother, dotty Aunt Pidgie and Nan O’Neill, once Sylvia’s nurse, she is now employed to care for Aunt Pidgie.

Grania has been spending time secretly with Foley O’Neill, Nan’s son, who while his mother lives at Aragon – lives at the family farm, with Aunt Gipsy and his cousin Donatia. Foley is a wily horse breeder, known by all the shadowy IRA men in the area. He’s been known to hide a desperate man on the run – while associating with, and happily selling horses to, the officers of the British Army – who go to tea at Aragon and play tennis with Sylvia Fox. Foley and Grania are mismatched lovers, of different classes yes, but there’s more to it than that in Ireland. He is Irish, and a catholic, she is Anglo-Irish, a protestant with allegiance to the British crown. It is the same old story, Grania has fallen in love with Foley, but he is just using her.

“The idea of passing love, was not born in her. It had not dawned on her that Foley’s love could mean only a little. She thought everything in him and of him was for her, as he was the breath of life and the only meaning of love to her, so she must be to him.”

At Aragon the household is managed by Nan, though no one but the butler; Frazer, seems to realise it. He is merely waiting for the right moment to get rid of his enemy – meanwhile he watches. Gradually we see that Nan’s treatment of Aunt Pidgie is not all it should be. Aunt Pidgie has a nail in her shoe that pierces her foot – it’s never removed, she is usually hungry, and her fragile mind is terrified of Nan, who often locks her in her room. The rest of the household are happy that there is someone who looks after poor Aunt Pidgie – and simply don’t see what should be obvious.

“Little by little Nan had achieved the ruling of Aragon. There was no coarseness or violence shown in the methods by which her opponents were weeded out. Slowly, and one by one they went, and with their going, her power over the rest tightened its grip. Everyone on the place was afraid of Nan and Nan’s influence on Mrs Fox, who was the perfect doll to be manipulated by Nan.”

Nan is obsessed with Aragon, believing she is able to claim a kinship with the family through her illegitimate birth. She is a woman who will do anything to protect the thing she loves. Nan could become one of Molly Keane’s most memorable characters for me – a truly vile individual, brilliantly created.

However, this is Ireland of the 1920s – and while the landed gentry buy horses, drink tea and play tennis, there is sedition being whispered by men who wedded to a dangerous, bloody cause. These days of an easy way of life are numbered.  British officers are stationed nearby – and their lives are pretty easy too, they enjoy a good social life and can almost forget the real reason for their presence in Ireland.

On the morning of our second day in Aragon, Grania sneaks off to ride with Foley, his young cousin falls from her horse, and Aunt Gipsy can talk of nothing but her new hat. Sylvia Fox is all set for her tennis party in the afternoon, to which the man she has fallen for; Captain Purvis and some of his brother officers are invited. As Foley rides out to fetch a nurse for his cousin, he spots a sign outside a lonely roadside inn, and knows the men of the local IRA lead by Killer Denny, wish to see him. He dare not ignore the call.

That day takes a violent, dramatic turn, which will change the lives for many of the inhabitants of Aragon and the people they care for. 

Molly Keane marries complex political realities with a story of dangerous and damaging relationships, with her usual wit, sense of place and brilliant storytelling.

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cofWhen Molly Keane wrote her final novel; Loving and Giving, she was well into her eighties. It had been over sixty years since her first novel was published under her pseudonym of M J Farrell.

In her introduction to this modern vmc edition (sorry virago, but I don’t like the cover at all) Michelle Roberts says Loving and Giving is her best novel. Other readers may argue that, Good Behaviour (another later novel) could also be in the running for that accolade. As Roberts says, the novel shows Keane’s maturity, describing it as ‘less superficial, less obviously funny than most of her previous fiction.’

Loving and Giving is a superb novel, Keane’s writing is as good as ever, she recreates a recognisable time and place without sentimentality. I always feel her characters could have been – and perhaps were, taken from life.

The novel opens in 1914, Nicandra is eight years old, life is good at the family’s grand Irish home; Deer Forest. Maman is beautiful, Dada a small, silent man is only really happy around his stables, horses and dogs. Aunt Tossie – Maman’s widowed sister is big bosomed and kind, and looks, she knows, quite wonderful in her weeds. This is a place where everyone has his or her place, above stairs the family live comfortably, below stairs or in the stables, the maids, butler, grooms and steward have a different kind of life. Nicandra runs between the stables, and the house with a freedom few modern children ever experience.

“Then, as light follows darkness, she saw Maman coming down the drive. She wore her lilac coat and skirt, braided with deeper lilac; the skirt, widened at the hem and floated out over thin boots, the tidy laces criss-crossing on shadowy ankles – there was something playful in Maman’s way of walking, something jaunty that swayed her hips, and made her straw hat tilt up on her frizzled curls…From the shrubbery side of the avenue fresh wet heads of lilac bowed over her, heavy in their prime flowering. She lifted her arm to catch at a branch and, as she held it down, rainwater fell on her face – her eyes were shut; it was as if she was drinking the scent of lilac.”

Nicandra simply worships her mother, enjoying the intoxicating scent of her hand cream, taking pleasure in small everyday acts she knows will please her mother. Every morning Nicandra runs into her mother’s bedroom when the morning tea is delivered. Life seems very nearly perfect, until Maman does something too terrible to be discussed, and thereafter, disappears from Nicandra’s life.

loving and givingWhen love is suddenly ripped away, it leaves a hollowness so deep, perhaps it can never be filled. Nicandra takes the confusion and distress of her mother’s disappearance, out on Silly Billy – the son of the lodge keeper – who has some kind of unspecified learning difficulties. It is the one act of spite of her young life – a moment she forgets all about. As she grows up into a lovely young woman she wraps those around her in love and kindness.

As a young woman starting out in society, Nicandra is looking around for what love could possibly be, what it might mean for her. The heady excitement of a hunt ball, her best friend; beautiful heiress Lal helping her dress, the two young ladies are accompanied by Nicandra’s faithful old friend Robert and his friend Andrew. Here finally, is love.

“Before she undressed, Nicandra pulled back the window curtains, cold as glass in her hands, and stood between them to look out at the changed world. Even the moon was not the same. It hung lower in the sky, nearer, more golden, since now she loved and was loved.”

Nicandra’s heart is ripe for hurt and betrayal, Andrew is happiest when at the races, he sometimes seems to have more in common with their mutual friend Lal.

Meanwhile at Deer Forest, not too far from where Nicandra lives with her husband, Dada and Aunt Tossie have fallen into a comfortable, companionship. The two old friends rub along pretty well, understanding one another’s little ways. Around the time of the Second World War, Deer Forest is falling into disrepair there isn’t the money there once was, and the family home may need to be sold. In preparation, Aunt Tossie moves into a caravan in the grounds with her whisky hidden in the ‘po’ cupboard and her stuffed parrot, attended to faithfully and a little jealously by Silly Billy – now called William.

I can’t say too much more about this novel and certainly not about the ending, but suffice to say, there is the most spectacular and unexpected conclusion to this novel. My jaw dropped.

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Mad puppetstown

My first read for this year’s Read Ireland month was Mad Puppetstown by Molly Keane, it seems I often read Molly Keane for Read Ireland month. I enjoy her books a lot, but I honestly think that this might be my favourite of hers to date. I have quoted quite extensively from the novel – apologies to those who find that tedious – I had marked so many passages, that for me, show the exquisite nature of Keane’s writing.

Mad Puppetstown is a wonderful evocation of an Irish childhood in the early twentieth century, before the First World War. On page one Molly Keane describes the world as it was – as it would have been for her. The novel begins:

“Then : –
They said: “You naughty man!”
They wore hair nets and tortoise-shell combs.
It was more than fast to accept presents from men.
You bought a blood four-year-old up to weight for £60.
There was no wire.
The talked about “the ladies” and “motor-cars.”
“By George!” they said, but never used Americanisms; such were not known.
Their top boots were shorter and their spurs were worn lower down on the heel.
You loved with passion.
You did not trouble to keep your sense of humour ready in the background.
Love mattered.
Manners mattered.
Children mattered.
Places and dependents mattered too.
Money bought much more.
People drove about in dog-carts and pony traps.
Invitations were issued to tea.
Tea parties mattered too.
Women who powdered their faces were fast
Women who painted them – bad.
Hunting, low wages, feather boas, nipped in habit coats, curly bowlers, bunches of violets, black furs and purple hats were much in vogue.
A book called Three Weeks was both enjoyed and abused.
Champagne was a frequent drink. Women never drank whisky.”

Like poetry, I wanted to learn those lines and recite them. I was captivated immediately both by the world I found myself in, and Molly Keane’s glorious voice – her writing is always fabulous – somehow, I had forgotten how good she is.

Into what Molly Keane calls ‘those full-blooded’ days young Easter Chevington is born and raised. She is eight as the novel opens, living in her father’s country house of Mad Puppetstown with her father, Great-Aunt Dicksie, her two adored boy cousins Evelyn and Basil and their beautiful widowed mother Aunt Brenda. The children live a charmed life – running free, and slightly wild in the Irish countryside, surrounding the house. It is a way of life Molly Keane describes to absolute perfection. Easter and the boys brought up with the ways of horses, learning to shoot woodcock and snipe in the woods. Playing with Patsy; the boot boy, teasing the Peacocks in Aunt Dicksie’s garden – and tormenting the life out of O’Regan who works in the garden. It’s a joy of a childhood,with dogs, ponies and a riot of adventures.

“Out of the schoolroom window at Puppetstown you looked across flat water – where Giles, the swan, sat in immemorial calm and the dogs hunted water rats and moorhens – over the Long Acres, where young blood horses moved in a stately decorum of beauty, away to the chill breasts of the mountains yielding themselves only to the slow rapture of a sunset; thin and stark at any other time and remote as the grey women of the Sidhie that men had seen about their secret lakes. Mandoran, Mooncoin, and the Black Stair were these mountains’ lovely names and whatever was afar and unknown and remote unto themselves in the children, was joined and linked to the dispassionate ecstasy of these mountains.”

The family suffer the loss of Easter’s father during the war but are otherwise unaffected by a conflict Evelyn and Basil are thankfully too young for. Aunt Brenda – who always meant to re-marry but never did get around to it – enjoys the company of a British army Captain from the local garrison. Meanwhile, Ireland is in the grip of another war, a war forgotten by those back in England. Patsy the boot boy receives whispered orders through the window late at night – which he dare not ignore.

“Meetings by night: oaths to the darkened land sworn, signed and forgotten: drillings and revolver practice and always the romantic cup of dizzy words…”

Throughout the dark hills surrounding Mad Puppetstown men gather to whisper threat and plot – and so when violence touches the family at Mad Puppetstown, Aunt Brenda hurriedly takes her sons and niece away to England. Great-Aunt Dicksie will not be moved, refusing to surrender her family home – she bolts the doors, turns the ponies loose and settles down to living alone with just Patsy, in a house that starts to decay around her. Aunt Dicksie becomes more and more eccentric, so very lonely at first – the echoes of her family are in the very walls around her – she learns in time to live alone. Taking refuge in her garden, spending far too much of the little money she has on seeds and bulbs for her garden, she takes to wearing the old clothes from the wardrobes upstairs rather than buy new ones.

In England the cousins are educated and groomed for British society, it’s a world away from Mad Puppetstown. As Evelyn falls in love with an English society beauty, Basil starts to yearn for Ireland, and Mad Puppetstown. Easter turns twenty-one and her father’s house now belongs to her, so she and Basil decide to run away – heading back to Aunt Dicksie and the home of their childhood. However, neither Aunt Dicksie nor the house is as they remember.

I simply loved every bit of this novel – compulsively evocative – and for those who have been irritated by such things in other novels – rather less of the huntin’, fishin’, and shootin’ that was such a part of Molly Keane’s own life.


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conversation piece

It’s #readIreland month again – hosted by Cathy – but despite having several qualifying books tbr – I wasn’t sure if I would be joining in. Last year I read a Molly Keane and an Elizabeth Bowen The Little Girls – which ended up being one of my tops reads for last year. I’m not yet sure whether I will get anything else squeezed in for Read Ireland month – I’m still reading very much according to mood – but I like the idea of getting back to Elizabeth Bowen soon.  ireland-month-17

Then writing as M J Farrell, Conversation Piece was Molly Keane’s fourth novel. Like many of her novels – it’s very horsey – if you hate all things fox hunting then it is probably not for you. Oddly enough (and I think I have said this before) although I detest the very thought of fox hunting I don’t mind reading about it when it’s written by Molly Keane. I can’t help but think that the kind of eccentricity one finds among Keane’s characters can’t possibly exist anymore – although I really hope it does. It is these eccentric characters that I read Molly Keane novels for – it is all a world away from twenty first century Birmingham that’s for sure.

Conversation Piece – is perhaps not a very well-known Molly Keane novel, it is also not going to be my favourite – although I certainly enjoyed it. There isn’t a huge amount of plot – not something that ever bothers me – it is much more an evocation of a time, a way of life – and the people who lived it. It is the world that Molly Keane herself grew up in – the sporting calendar running to the seasons of the year with people’s lives completely tied up in it.

Set among the impoverished gentry of rural Ireland, Conversation Piece is narrated by Oliver who – throughout the unspecified time period of the novel – makes regular lengthy visits to his uncle and cousins at Pullinstown. His Uncle is Sir Richard Pulleyns, his cousins Dick and Willow, a little younger than Oliver, they are extremely close – each of them madly passionate about horses. They are also masters of trickery – loving nothing more than to completely outsmart their latest adversary. Gradually Oliver is accepted by them, and drawn into their world – their pranks, their hunts and horse races. Sir Richard is getting on – but he is no push over – quite a match for his difficult children, who generally call him (with affectionate mockery) Sir Richard or the Sir. The house is a shabby riot of confusion, containing almost as many animals as people.

“ ‘ Oh God help me!’ Sir Richard rose to his feet in a sudden helpless early morning spasm of complete and unavailing fury. ‘Put that dog down, sir; do you hear me, put it down. I’ll not have it. Do you know where your nasty ass was this morning, Willow? In the hot-air press! Yes in my own bottom shelf lying on my own bath-towel. What between dogs and donkeys, I can’t call my house my own; I can’t eat my breakfast without being disgusted by you children and your antics…”

The other – important member of the Pullinstown household is James, the butler. An old family retainer – who is very much a part of the family – the house is likely to go ‘all to blazes’ without his competent management. So when, James is laid up ill, a highly irritated Sir Richard – sends his children upstairs to minister to their butler. While James is out of action, the housemaids run amok, and all Sir Richard wants is for things to be back to normal. Willow is followed up the stairs by her baby donkey – who when not munching on James’s discarded poultices is generally found lying by the fire. In their absence one day, James has been ministered to by the slightly disreputable Pheelan, whose remedies consist of smouldering rags, and threaten to set James and the whole house alight. It is in these scenes of absurd comedy that Molly Keane so excels.

“Half-way down the long, scarcely lighted passages to James’s door, a curious and then, all in a trice, a terrifying smell assailed us – a smell of burning. Willow ran. I fell over the donkey, then, recovering myself and a measure of sense, hurried back to where I had seen a Minimax fire extinguisher (ruthlessly bracketed to an Elizabethan chest, that was why I had remembered). When I reached James’s door, the fumes of burning cloth that filled the room choked for a moment all my powers of observation. All I saw was Willow standing dangerously still, one hand on the door-knob, and with his back to her Pheelan bent over James’s bed, from which the fearful smell of burning came with sickening insistence.”

Of course, the majority of Dick and Willow’s energies and time are taken up with hunting, racing and horse buying – some of their antics incurring the grim displeasure of their father. In their company, Oliver becomes almost childlike again – as the three plot against (an appropriately named) Reverend Fox (amongst others) – who’s a bit of a trickster himself. Some of the stories of hunting and horse racing get a bit much if you’re not massively into horses (and I’m not) but there is a lovely appreciation of landscape, Molly Keane’s a very good writer – her descriptions are frequently lovely.

“The demesne walls and big fields of Pullinstown give way to farms fenced with smaller and more intricate carefulness; banks were wreathed and blind in briars or faced up tall and solid with stones; and scarcely a strand of wire did I see, even on the fences that bounded the road. We passed several coverts, gorse growing strong down the length of a wet bog, and a steep hill led us over the curving back of a wood that smelt bitter and shrill as wet woods do smell. The road ran its narrow stony shelf under the shoulder of a rock-strewn hill, darkly crowned with heather, and rich in the dead brown of bracken. Below us a fair hunting country dropped to a vale of grass and grass again, its miles across lost in the mist and shine of the day and the farther mountains were worlds away in faery.”

Sir Richard has his own adversaries among his neighbours – namely Lady Honour – who is not above siding with Oliver Willow, and Dick behind the old man’s back. The disparity between generations is a key theme of this novel, the world is changing and life for houses like Pullinstown must change too in time. Molly Keane paints a portrait of a vanished world. I like escaping into these vanished worlds, one reason I suppose I enjoy reading Molly Keane, I still have several of her novels unread – and I have been contemplating the new biography, written by her daughter. However, I need to clear some space before I buy any more books.

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good behaviour

I was delighted to have the perfect excuse for breaking open my copy of Good Behaviour by Molly Keane for Read Ireland month. I actually have several Molly Keane novel’s waiting to be read. Well you know how much I love my VMC designer editions – so Good Behaviour it had to be. (oh and if you’re wondering about the rabbits – you really need to read the opening chapter).

readingirelandmonthOf course for many years Molly Keane published under the name of M J Farrell, although her final three novels were published under her married name of Keane. Following a poor reception of one of her plays in 1961 – Molly Keane published nothing more for twenty years. According to the story which Maggie O’Farrell relates in her wonderful introduction to this edition, Peggy Ashcroft, the actress, was visiting Molly Keane when she came across a manuscript in a drawer. The book was Good Behaviour, and Peggy Ashcroft urged her to submit it for publication. Good Behaviour was longlisted for the Booker Prize of that year, missing out to Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children. Two more novels by Molly Keane were published in the 1980’s – almost sixty years after her first M J Farrell novel The Knight of Cheerful Countenance was published in 1926.

Good Behaviour is a satire with a very dark soul. It’s the sixth Molly Keane novel I have read so far – and in some ways it is pretty familiar – but there is more of the black comedy to this novel – and the characters are brilliantly conceived. I’m not sure what it is exactly that makes this Molly Keane novel so very good – but it really is very, very good. It might be in the wonderful tension between the characters, the spite, misunderstandings so much going on unsaid – the sad loneliness of being part of a family like the St, Charles.

Good Behaviour takes us to familiar Molly Keane territory – among the impoverished Anglo-Irish aristocracy of the 1920’s and 30’s. However the story starts many years later – as our narrator Aroon St. Charles is making lunch for her difficult, ageing mother, watched over by their cook/housekeeper Rose – with whom Aroon does not get on well. I won’t say too much – although it is only the opening, short chapter, but it is a brilliant opening. We feel acutely the years of resentment of a disappointed life.

Aroon St. Charles is the awkwardly large, unlovely daughter of an aristocratic Anglo-Irish family fallen on rather hard times. Having dutifully produced her daughter and son, Aroon’s mother employed nannies and Governesses to do as much of the child rearing as possible. Aroon takes us back to her childhood and introduces us to Mrs Brock – the governess who arrives when she is a little girl.

“The name of our governess was Mrs Brock and we loved her dearly from the start to the finish of her reign. For one thing, the era of luncheon in the diningroom opened for us with Mrs Brock, and with it a world of desire and satisfaction, for we were as greedy as Papa. Although governesses lunched in the diningroom, they supped on trays upstairs – that was the accepted rule, and Mummie must have been thankful for it as these luncheons meant a horrid disintegration of her times of intimacy with Papa. So much of his day was spent away from her. In the winter months he was shooting or hunting, and in the spring there was salmon fishing – all undertaken and excelled in more as a career and a duty than as the pleasure of a leisured life.”

Mrs Brock is a wonderfully colourful character; she arrives with the St Charles family, straight from the family of ‘Wobbly’ Massingham, a great friend of Aroon’s father. Mrs Brock regales Aroon with fascinating tales of the Massingham family – and particularly of Richard – who years later Aroon will meet through her brother. Mrs Brock’s story is not destined to be a happy one, and she becomes just one of the people in Aroon’s life to let her down.

While the St. Charles fortune might have crumbled away to almost nothing, their standards of aristocratic behaviour have not, these people are all a pretty nasty bunch in one way or another – but they pride themselves on their good behaviour. This is a world where tradesmen are considered to be robbers should they deign to send in their bills, a drunken nursery maid is sacked with a good reference – to do otherwise would not be the thing. A boy is walloped for reading poetry – deaths occur in shocking or traumatic circumstances and no one talks about it. Aroon should be the one character we sympathise with – but she’s not very nice either – although we do see why she isn’t very nice. Aroon is so desperate to feel beautiful, to be appreciated – her mother is so vile to her. Spiteful remarks about her size and what she eats, casually, subtly dropped into the conversation with apparent nonchalance.

“Our good behaviour went on and on, endless as the days. No one spoke of the pain we were sharing. Our discretion was almost complete. Although they feared to speak, Papa and Mummie spent more time together; but, far from comforting, they seemed to freeze each other in misery”

With only eyes for her husband – who was rather prone to a wandering eye on the quiet – Mrs St, Charles was a particularly cold parent to her daughter – her preference was for Hubert, Aroon’s younger brother. Aroon’s father a keen hunter and horseman works hard to instil his love of the sport in his children. The children are often terrified though know not to show it – horses are a big part of the world they have been born into. Aroon enjoys some affection and understanding from her father – though he is so more often distracted with those things which interest him more.

As a young woman often feeling large and unattractive, Aroon becomes smitten with Richard Massingham the eldest son of the family Mrs Brock worked for before she arrived in Aroon’s schoolroom. Richard is friends with Hubert – and for a while Aroon enjoys the easy society of both of them, blind to how Richard really feels – she weaves fantasies around Richard long after he has disappeared from her life. Aroon is rather desperate to be loved, but when the family solicitor offers her friendship – her well learned aristocratic good behaviour kicks in – he is not of the right class – and Aroon shows her disgust.

Good Behaviour is beautifully written, the relationships are wonderfully complex, particularly that of Aroon and her horrid mother. Some of the dialogue between them is wincingly sharp. Keane gives us a lovely little twist right at the end – but don’t worry Molly Keane is far too subtle to fall back on a conventional ending.

by John Swannell, Iris print, 1983

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the rising tide

It’s been a slow reading (an virtually none blogging) week, this week for me, and The Rising Tide was the book which kept me company during what often felt like the longest week of the year.

I think one does kind of know what to expect from Molly Keane (often previously published as M J Farrell), who wrote about the world she knew so well. Large Irish country houses, complicated families, horsey types and Anglo-Irish aristocracy, she re-creates this world with breath-taking honesty, warts and all, there is a wonderful exactness in the daily minutiae of a world lost forever. Molly Keane explores the depths of human psychology – here, particularly in the character of Cynthia; Keane shows us the toll that life takes.

In The Rising Tide, Molly Keane contrasts brilliantly the Edwardian era with its strict rules of propriety, fussy clothing and the kind of rigid conventions that so often imprisoned unmarried women in dull lives at home, with the freer, party years of the 1920’s. The title reflects the rise of Cynthia, but also those tidal like waves of time, the years pass, and one generation is replaced by the next, the conflicts of one mirrored in the next – time after time.

“Lady Charlotte rang for her maid. She then washed her hands in buttermilk soap, folded the neck of her combinations down towards the top of her corsets (those corsets which propped so conscientiously the bosoms like vast half-filled hot water bottles) and thus prepared stood while her evening dress was put upon her and sat while her hair was fiddled and redone. Her hair was never washed but it did not smell of anything but hair. The switches and curls of false hair were drier and frizzier in texture than her own.”

The novel opens in 1900 at Garonlea, a large gothic style house in Ireland, the home of Lady Charlotte French-McGrath and her family. Wife to Ambrose, Lady Charlotte rules her family of four daughters and one son with a rod of iron. Little does Lady Charlotte know how close her carefully controlled world is to coming to its natural end; two events however several years apart, come to seal the fate of Garonlea and to some extent the people who live there. The first is her son Desmond’s marriage to the beautiful Cynthia, a woman to whom so many – like Diana, the youngest daughter – are irresistibly drawn – but who repels Lady Charlotte. The second is the First World War, a conflict that changes so much across Europe, bringing inevitably, loss to Garonlea.

In 1900 the future for Lady Charlotte’s daughters; Muriel, Enid, Violet and Diana seemed predictable, but Enid’s error leads to a hasty marriage, and after Violet’s marriage to a suitable but older man, Muriel and Diana remaining embarrassingly unmarried are left at the beck and call of their dictatorial mother, still treated like young girls well into their thirties. Diana is the rebellious one, she tries to challenge her mother’s exacting ways with little success, and she is captivated by Cynthia, and the changing world she seems to represent.

After Cynthia is left widowed with two children; Simon and Susan, Diana who has always been especially attached to Cynthia takes the opportunity to move into Rathglass, the house across the river where Cynthia had lived with Desmond after their marriage. To live peacefully at Rathglass is all Diana really wants, she accepts Cynthia as she is, protects her and in turn Diana enjoys Cynthia’s sympathy and understanding. It is Cynthia who is very much at the heart of this novel, her rise – and eventual decline what drives the narrative. Cynthia must battle her mother-in-law first, then later her own children, and the rapidly passing years, as she indulges in her passion for hunting, inherits Garonlea for her son, and works her way through a series of lovers. The family move back to Garonlea, and Cynthia sets about improving the old place, in readiness for her son’s coming of age.

“She did not love her children but she was determined not to be ashamed of them. You had to feel ashamed and embarrassed if your children did not take to blood sports, so they must be forced into them. It was right. It was only fair to them. You could not bring a boy up properly unless he rode and fished and shot. What sort of boy was he? What sort of friends would he have?”

Cynthia is a brilliantly drawn character, selfish, insatiable and a little unscrupulous, she drinks more and more, and refuses to either acknowledge or understand her children’s dislike of hunting – which is such an enormous part of her own life. Just as Lady Charlotte had once held sway over the family at Garonlea, so does Cynthia direct her children, in this case by insisting they hunt, refusing to see their obvious almost paralysing terror. Her relationship with Simon and Susan is not an especially good one. Cynthia loves her hunting, she loves being in control, being admired but she doesn’t really love her offspring.

The Rising Tide is really a very good novel, psychologically astute, the portraits painted of Cynthia and Lady Charlotte in particular are enthralling. Surely these must be characters taken from life? – and I can’t help but wonder who inspired their creation.


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Young Entry was Molly Keane’s first novel, originally published under her pseudonym of M J Farrell. This is only the fourth Molly Keane novel that I have read, although I do have several others waiting. There is a feeling, I think, with some readers that most of Molly Keane’s novels are much the same; with their Anglo- Irish aristocratic families, landed estates, hunting, fishing, race meetings and tennis parties. Strangely enough I find I don’t mind reading about this world for which I generally have no interest or sympathy. However in Molly Keane’s expert hands this world is fabulously entertaining. Molly Keane, after all, knew this world from the inside. Still, if you hate the idea of reading about fox hunting and horse racing, Molly Keane may just not be for you.
In Young Entry we meet a typical Molly Keane character in Prudence Lingfield-Turrett nineteen years old, flirtatious, carefree, indiscreet by turn’s sulky and exuberant. At twenty one Prudence will come into her large inheritance but until then she is constantly frustrated in her pursuit of fun by her guardian cousins, Gus (Augusta) Kat and Oliver.

“Prudence flamed and sulked, growing wilder than ever in her conduct, and hating her three guardians, severally and collectively. She hated Oliver, because he ignored her, Kat because she was untidy, grubby – almost, and fussing – always. And Gus, Cousin Gus – she hated because she feared her. The influence of a strong personality which has ruled you absolutely, for almost as long as you can remember, is marked and abiding.”

Prudence’s great friend and sometime partner in crime is Peter Trudgeon (girl). As well as finding ways to outwit Cousin Gus their chief concerns centre around the local hunt, the new Master of Hounds, Major Anthony Countless, and local eligible bachelor and fellow hunt enthusiast Toby Sage. Prudence dislikes the very idea of Major Countless who she regards as a nasty little Saxon. So when Peter starts to become more and friendly with Anthony Countless a slightly saddened Prudence must find new entertainments. In the company of Toby – who is getting his own pack of harriers together which Major Countless is concerned will be to the detriment of his own hunt – Prudence dashes around the country dogs and puppies at her heels, feeling fairly hard done to, and confused over her feelings for Toby. I can’t say I understood the distinction between the hounds and the harriers or understood all the countryside/hunt politics – but maybe that doesn’t matter.

There may appear to be little real depth to Keane’s writing, but I do think it is there concealed in the deftly created relationships between the older and younger generations. Keane understood the cruelty of being a young person in thrall to someone of an older generation who can’t understand you. What she does really well is to shine a light on the world which she herself came from. Her characterisation is excellent, no doubt taking some inspiration from the people she knew – hence of course the pseudonym she adopted for so long. Prudence’s Cousin Gus is fairly alarming, harsh and often unyielding she disapproves of some of Prudence’s clothes and despairs over her indiscretions and juvenile seeming excesses. While Cousin Kat moving somewhat in Gus’s shadow is equally difficult, Oliver is simply unpleasant though enormously popular as a sportsman locally. As Prudence bemoans her fate in having to endure Gus and co for two more years, she is aided in many of her deceptions by James – the butler – a good old Irish retainer, wonderfully irreverent and un-Jeeves like. One of the darker story strands of this novel, concerns a cook – who reacts in a horrifying way to Gus’s dismissal. It is probably indicative of Prudence’s relationship with her guardians that she spends so much time with the servants and her animals.

Young Entry – first published when Molly Keane was just twenty one – is fairly obviously an early novel, but with it Molly Keane really sets out her stall for what she will write in the future. And while Young Entry won’t be my favourite Molly Keane novel, part of its fascination for me lies in it being her first most juvenile work; it is also a really good read. I found I really rather liked Prudence – forgiving her, her petulance and sulkiness as she was so unhappy. When I consider how some of Prudence’s unhappiness must surely have been young Molly’s too – it lends an added and maybe unexpected poignancy to the novel.


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