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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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youngentry
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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I do love a book which divides opinion. As I was preparing to write about my reactions to the novel, I glanced over a few reviews of it on Librarything.com and Goodreads.com – and there certainly seems to be as many people who really liked it as didn’t. So before I go any further I must immediately put myself in the former camp, I loved it. It is only the second Molly Keane novel I have read – and I am looking forward now to reading more.
Molly Keane was the real name of writer M J Farrell, she wrote under a pseudonym because she was part of the small world of Anglo-Irish hunting aristocracy that she wrote about. Sometime before writing Devoted Ladies – Molly Keane had been made aware of lesbianism and homosexuality – and this novel was her fascinated response to it.

“In her friendships with men as well as with women Jessica spent herself so lavishly and so emotionally that soon there was no more she. She had spent what she was in a sort of dreadful effort towards entire mental contact with the person she loved. And having reserved no smallest ledge of herself for herself, no foothold for the last secret feet of her mind, she would retreat in anger and despair from her friendships. Then cruelly, disdainfully and despitefully she would speak against such a one as she had loved”

Devoted Ladies – is a darkly comic satire, some of the characters are quite unlikeable, although I really did love the ridiculously silly Jane and her dreadfully camp, deliciously vicious house boy/valet Albert. The novel opens in 1930’s London – at a party given by Sylvester Browne. Jane and Jessica have been living together for six months, Jane is rich very silly and completely bullied by the horrid Jessica. During the party they have an argument and Jessica throws a bottle of tonic water at Jane. It is also at this party that Jane first meets George Playfair, an Irish gentleman hunting type. George is something of an innocent; he has no idea about the truth of the relationship between Jane and Jessica. This hedonistic 1930’s world is wonderfully reproduced by Keane – it was quite a different setting for her books and was not where her readers at this time were used to finding themselves upon opening one of her novels. Jane, weak and suggestible succumbs to alcoholic poisoning – and it is during her recovery that George visits Jane – when Jessica is out – and persuades her to visit Ireland. From here on the reader is back in familiar Molly Keane territory.
Sylvester Browne – friend of George Playfair is now back in Ireland – staying with his cousins Hester and Viola (Piggy) Browne – Piggy is a desperately sad character who I found at times a little pathetic and at other times I couldn’t help but sympathise with. Piggy is utterly devoted to her friend Joan – George Playfair’s sister. Her unrequited crush is really quite pitiful, Joan married to another Irish gentleman hunter, and mother of twin boys uses Piggy – and quietly despises her. It is into the Browne household that Jane, Jessica and Albert crash land. Jessica is injured in a car accident on the way, and is laid up in the house, while Jane is able to go out and about with her new friends. She and Sylvester see in George Playfair her chance of freedom from Jessica. However Jessica is darkly vicious, she will do anything to prevent Jane having her own way. The stage is set then, for a battle – and it is never quite clear how it may be won.
I found this utterly compelling, and loved the dark humour of it, there are some terrible 1930’s stereotypes – which I am sure, were quite deliberate – it is a novel of its time. Still I found it immensely enjoyable.

Devoted Ladies was read of course for All Virago/All August – which wil be turing my blog a lovely shade of dark green in the next few weeks. Although I have supposely already chosen the books I will be reading during August – I don’t consdier the list set in stone, I am now eyeing the two other Molly Keane books I have tbr  wondering if I shoud read another one sooner than later.

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Molly Keane (sometimes known as M J Farrell) first wrote Treasure Hunt as a play, and it is easy to see how the play would have been staged, as the novel retains much of the feel of a play. Characters enter stage left and take up their positions, say their piece and move off, just as on stage.


The story opens following the funeral of Roderick Ryall, brother to Hercules and Consuelo. The three have enjoyed a champagne life style of gambling and carousing in their Irish home of Ballyroden. Following Roddy’s death however, dreadful debts incurred by this lifestyle mean things have to change. It is the younger generation, in heir Philip and his cousin Veronica who have to wave the big stick and make the grown up decisions. Like taking in dreaded paying guests from England – while the old guard, Consuelo and Hercules do all they can to thwart them, their escapades smack hilariously of naughty childishness. Aged Aunt Anna Rose, spends most of her time in an eighteenth century sedan chair, fitted with telephone, her “nest” pretending to travel the world. Waited upon by loyal servant William she has long forgotten where she hid her precious rubies – rubies no one is sure ever existed. Into this eccentric household enter Dorothy, Eustace and Yvonne – the PG’s – Dorothy wants to leave as soon as she arrives, while Yvonne takes a great interest in young Sir Phillip, Eustace is charmed by Aunt Anna Rose and determines to uncover her story and the rubies.
This is a light charming read, wonderfully eccentric and enormously readable.

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