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.
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.