Molly Keane: A Life, by Sally Phipps, Virago, 352 pp, £20, ISBN: 978-0349007526
There is a poster featuring twelve renowned Irish writers that has been around for quite some time, prominently displayed in public places. A senior Irish writer once pointed to the poster and, with reference to Brendan Behan, remarked: “He shouldn’t be on the poster.” That writer was male. Had he been female, he might have found room for more exclusions, since no writer of the twelve is a woman. How that poster might (and, I would add, should) have looked is suggested by a photo in the book under review. Entitled “three of Ireland’s finest writers”, it confronts us with the formidable gallery of MJ Farrell (Molly Keane), Kate O’Brien and Elizabeth Bowen. The photo is a promotion for Virago Press, who publish women writers in general and these three Irish writers in particular. But the point still holds. The absolute exclusion of Keane, O’Brien and Bowen (not to mention a great contemporary living writer like Edna O’Brien) from that poster of the “great Irish writers” shows something of what those women were up against and the continuing problem of claiming their place in a predominantly male canon.
The renewed attention that Sally Phipps’s life will bring to the novels of Molly Keane is, therefore, particularly to be welcomed. The author died on April 22nd, 1996, at the age of ninety-two and has therefore been gone just over twenty years. During that time, her writing has rather slipped from view. Between 1928 and 1952, Keane composed and published eleven novels, which is no mean achievement. She also had three successful plays in the West End, co-written with John Perry and directed by John Gielgud. But it is the three novels she published after a long silence, Good Behaviour (1981), Time After Time (1983) and Loving and Giving (1988), which individually and collectively comprise an extraordinary achievement. In them, she subjects the Anglo-Irish background which is rather unquestioningly accepted in the earlier novels to ruthless, satiric and profound interrogation. Not only are these three novels beyond anything Keane wrote earlier; they are also beyond what most other novelists manage.
At the age of ninety, two years before her death, Molly Keane asked her daughter to write her life. Sally Phipps was a writer. so the request was a natural one. But the author admits she was doubtful: “I was fifty-five, she was my mother, fossilised into my psyche by her love and by the happiness and difficulty which this had brought me over the years.” What finally persuaded Phipps, and would give her the necessary distance for the task, was their shared belief in the importance of art. But Molly Keane had one great worry about her hand-picked biographer: “‘I trust you completely,” she said; “the only thing I’m afraid of is that you won’t be nasty enough.’” I’m not sure this result is as nasty as Mollie Keane would have wished. It pulls its punches on a number of occasions and is always concerned to find an exculpatory or explanatory context for her mother’s outbursts of bad behaviour. Molly Keane was gifted with an exceptionally sharp tongue which served her well as a writer but occasionally got the better of her in life. Sally Phipps convincingly establishes the paramount importance Keane gave to love and that her mother thrived in a loving engagement with other people. But this is occasionally cut across by those flashes of cruelty, and these are unflinchingly recorded and discussed by the author.
What makes writing the biography difficult, but all the more compelling as a result, is the fact that mother and daughter had a difficult relationship. There is very little directly about Sally Phipps in this book: she keeps the spotlight firmly focused on Molly Keane. And there is a good deal more about her sister Virginia than there is about herself. But occasionally a sentence about the psychological problems Sally experienced while growing up floats to the surface; there are references to her “nervousness” and her “depression”.
Molly Skrine had married Bobbie Keane, a landowner in Co Waterford whose personality was easygoing and complementary to hers. What they shared was a mutual passion for horses and hunting – the social glue of the Anglo-Irish community at the time, as Phipps clearly establishes. Bobbie Keane was no intellectual; but he had a respect for Molly’s need to write and an understanding of the space which she needed to do so that served them both well. They had married in October 1939, at the outset of World War Two, when Molly was thirty-five; the first daughter, Sally, arrived in March 1940 and was almost immediately handed over to a nanny while Molly began work on a new novel, Two Days in Aragon. Sally Phipps is as understanding as she can be about the matter:
She always responded tenderly and intuitiuvely to children once they began to talk, but her attitude towards babies was complicated. When I, the longed-for child arrived, instead of surrendering to total love, as one might have expected from someone of her nature, she became overwhelmed with anxiety about my well-being, and the relinquishing of my care to a nanny was probably completely wrong for her.
The tragedy of the book, and of Molly Keane’s life, occurred in the autumn of 1946 when her husband Bobbie died suddenly. As his daughter writes: “He was thirty-six years old and they had been married for just eight years.” The couple were in London seeking to advance the fortunes of one of Molly’s plays, Guardian Angel, which had been successfully produced at the Gate in 1944 with Hilton Edwards directing and Micheál Mac Liammóir in one of the leading roles. While in London, Bobbie suffered a duodenal haemorrhage and a month after the operation was pronounced fit to go home. Mollie arrived to collect him, was brought into a room by the matron and told: “Mrs. Keane, you must be very brave, your husband is dead.” He had died of a clot to the heart. The tragedy unleashed a storm of emotion in Molly; but death itself was not to be mentioned, now or ever. She left it to others to see him buried and for years did not know where in London his grave was. When her other daughter, Virginia, years later managed to find the burial place, Molly was shocked at the disclosure, reacted as if she had been shot and refused to have the matter discussed any further.
This was one of her few arguments with her younger daughter. Born shortly before her father’s death, Virginia was the object of unconditional love from her mother, especially in the wake of Bobbie’s sudden death. Sally had had to bear the fate of the eldest child, the object of her parents’ uncertainty and nervousness in the face of this new arrival in their lives. But she bore her younger sister no ill will (or at least appears not to). The two share a close friendship from the off and Phipps mines some effective comedy from the generational contrast between the two young women and their mother when they rebel and take off for London in the 1960s, opt for mini-skirts and Carnaby Street gear and espouse left-wing politics. Molly is horrified by each of these affronts; but she maternally follows them there and looks after them as they go to college and pursue careers.
One of the most revealing comments in the biography occurs when Sally Phipps observes Molly Keane chatting animatedly to one of her young male relatives: “Sons perhaps would have suited her better than daughters.” In writing that observation, Phipps must have been aware that she was echoing a remark Molly had made about her own mother, which is quoted elsewhere in the book: “She loved her sons but she didn’t love me. I was jolly hard to love. Totally disobedient.” The unconscious parallel is striking: Molly enacts in her relationship with her daughters what she had already experienced with her own mother. An interesting detail about Molly Keane’s mother, who was from Northern Ireland, is that she was a published poet. Under the nom de plume of Moira O’Neill, she published The Glens of Antrim in 1901 to huge success. One would have thought that their both being writers might have led to a shared sense of kinship between mother and daughter, but the reverse appears to have been the case. Later in life, and especially with the publication of Good Behaviour in 1981, Molly Keane always maintained that “I was the unloved, unattractive child and I was often sick. My mother hated me and I hated her.” Molly Skrine’s childhood was marked by feelings of extreme isolation and loneliness. These fuelled a lifelong rebellious streak and fed her development as a writer, socially observant and with a feel for the natural world (also displayed in her mother’s poems).
The one criticism I would have of Phipps’s book is that there is so little about the eleven novels written by MJ Farrell – she had adopted a pseudonym because she did not want to discourage the attentions of eligible young men through being branded as an intellectual. The titles of the novels are dutifully noted as they appear and we are given some interesting connections between characters in the books and people in her life – the fearsome aunts, for example, who are a very marked presence throughout. But there are virtually no details on the books themselves, what they are about, how they came to be written and published.
The reverse is the case, thankfully, with regard to the three masterful novels Keane published in old age. The artistic involvement that does receive extremely satisfying treatment in the book is Molly Keane’s involvement in the theatre. The medium suited her very well. A naturally gregarious person, she delighted in the company of actors and directors, and the comedies she wrote played to her gifts for sparkling, witty dialogue and social comedy. Her involvement in the theatre came about through a family friend, which may be the reason it bulks so large in the biography. Molly and Bobbie Keane were close friends of a couple called Willie and Dolly Perry, who were frequently visited from London by Willie’s youngest brother, John. John Perry brought a strong and exciting aura with him – of the theatre and of the gay demi-monde in London where his lover was Binkie Beaumont, the most powerful theatrical producer of the day. As Phipps shows, Molly Keane responded to John Perry right away. They were to collaborate on a series of stage comedies, three of them West End hits, across several decades. As she writes:
He brought his homosexual world into Molly’s [conservative Anglo-Irish] orbit and it had a profound effect on her psyche and her work. […] She was drawn to the style and secrets, the sharpness and the honed use of language. The sensitive, confiding aspects of campness suited her, as did the fact that it was full of submerged trouble.
With gay men she could have a close relationship without the possibility of romance. When he visited, John Perry brought with him actor friends from London, notably John Gielgud and Peggy Ashcroft, both of whom became close friends of Molly’s. Gielgud, Phipps notes, had a natural feeling for children, something she would have observed at close hand, since he became her godfather. He directed all of Molly Keane’s plays; and (a lovely detail which the author does not note) was to play the part of the octogenerian brother Jasper in the BBC TV adaptation of the novel Time After Time in the 1980s. Peggy Ashcroft and Keane remained close friends to the end; it was Ashcroft who vigorously championed Good Behaviour to its doubting author, who had shelved it after its first rejection by her original publisher.
Although the theatre was initially remunerative for Molly (more so than the novels), it proved extremely unrewarding during the 1950s. She spent a good deal of time on theatrical adaptations, none of which was staged; and a play co-authored with Mac Liammóir for the Gate which never had a production (we are not told why). Then, in 1960, the old team launched a new Molly Keane play, unfortunately entitled Dazzling Prospect, and it proved a disaster. Written out of dire financial necessity and as a vehicle for Margaret Rutherford, who had just scored a success in the Miss Marple films, it not only played to small houses but attracted wounding critical denunciation from (most notably) Kenneth Tynan. As Phipps astutely notes, theatrical taste had definitively moved away from the social comedies Molly had written earlier and towards the Angry Young Men with their social consciences. After a decade of unremunerative writing for the theatre, Keane had had enough and declared she was through with writing. Henceforward she would direct her considerable creative energies to her beloved cooking, which demanded no less artistry and which as her daughter remarks had the same characteristic flavour as Keane’s writing: “sweet and sour”.
Although Keane may have said in 1960 that she was giving up writing, it proved a lifelong itch she could not avoid scratching. Over the next decade or so she resumed and began the writing of what would turn out to be Good Behaviour. It was written privately, in secret: without the sense of having to please an audience, she could now write primarily for herself. Keane later described the novel as “a book that truly involved and interested me … black comedy perhaps, but with something of the truth in it …” She also admitted that “I do send my Anglo-Irish background up rather I know I do.” Keane was of an age and with an experience of life that could now break through the iron-clad repression of the good manners and social etiquette of her class. Good Behaviour is full of the opposite, the bad hehaviour of people determined to gain their own ends. Molly Keane had learned what Patrick Kavanagh once called “the difficult art of not caring”; and her writing gained much as a result, becoming more radical both in subject matter and technique. It is not that these late novels are unconcerned with or have abandoned structure and style. On the contrary, they now display and benefit from an ambition and formal achievement beyond her earlier work. Diana Athill, who has since achieved fame as an author, was at the time a senior editor at Deutsch and was the one who accepted the novel. Athill contributes a preface to Phipps’s life which largely concentrates on Good Behaviour and points to what is so original about it. The novel features not so much an unreliable narrator as an uncomprehending one, the unloved central character Aroon who “tells a long and complicated story without ever understanding what that story is about.”
The literary world loves a comeback story just as much as Hollywood. But with the success of Good Behaviour in 1981 and its nomination for the Booker Prize, Keane was coming back to a level of success and literary achievement greater than anything she had enjoyed earlier. It freed her up permanently from the money worries which had both motivated and dogged all of her earlier writing and confirmed her as an artist of the first rank, someone who could happily place her own name on the cover of her books rather than writing under a pseudonym. All of this fed into the writing of the next novel, Time After Time, which I think is her best book. The literary world did not quite agree; it praised the novel but not in the same rapturous terms as Good Behaviour. Only two people “got” the novel. One was her daughter, Virginia. Molly visited her in hospital the night before an operation and read her extracts from the novel in progress. Virginia recalls that it transported her away from her hospital ward to “the Ireland in the book and those powerful characters full of humour, sadness, harshness and beauty”. The other perceptive response was from VS Pritchett in The New York Review of Books, who wrote: “detached as her comedy is, it is also deeply sympathetic and admiring of the stoicism and the incurable quality of her people … [it is] a study of the anger that lies at the heart of the isolated and the old and their will to live”. So Pritchett describes the extraordinary quartet of characters that dominate the novel: Jasper and his three sisters April, May and baby June (deliberately playing off Baby Jane, as in the Bette Davis movie). All four are well into their eighties, bicker constantly and have a tendency to live in the past, marooned as they are on their Anglo-Irish island surrounded by the contemporary Ireland of the 1980s. When their cousin Leda returns, whom they have not seen since childhood, they all begin to behave as if they were young again. But Leda comes with her own secret agenda against those who acted with such cruelty towards her when she was a child. The Yeatsian provenance of Leda’s name is deliberate – there is consistent and brilliant play with WB Yeats all the way through Time After Time.
Despite failing health, Keane managed one more novel, Loving and Giving, published in 1988. In its unforgettable portrait of Nicandra, the oppressed child who turns to torture, there is a clear missing link to Patrick McCabe’s Francie Brady in his masterpiece The Butcher Boy. In her lengthy and informed TLS review (May 12th, 2017) of Phipps’s biography, Miranda Seymour rates Loving and Giving as Keane’s “most brilliant work”.
The trajectory of Molly Keane’s life is different from that of most other people and most other writers: the tragedy comes early, the triumph comes late. There is of course the inevitable physical decline as she edges into her nineties. But it is offset by the esteem and love she draws from so many quarters. She gave a speech on feminism late in life, which Phipps quotes in full. It begins: “I think I’m a bit of a fraud as a feminist.” But the claim appears less absurd as the speech progresses when she looks at how conditions have altered for the better over fifty years for a woman who wants to write and finishes with the following on one of her closest friends: “Unforgettable Nora McGuinness. A strong and gifted painter and tireless in her encouragement of all the arts.” (McGuinness’s wonderful 1945 portrait of a full-length, reclining Molly Keane is reproduced in the book.)
Molly Keane: A Life has been a long time coming. Her mother requested it well over twenty years ago; and its author is now seventy-seven. But whatever the reasons, the book has now been published and proves well worth the wait. It strikes me that in writing it Sally Phipps was able to engage in and develop what had been an unfinished conversation with her mother and arrive at a fuller, more intimate and rounded understanding of this extraordinary woman. The book is also a valuable portrait of the Anglo-Irish, now seen from a later historical perspective and as rather more from the perspective of an outsider ‑ someone who originally fled her background in Ireland to London in the 1960s but can now return to it with sympathy, insight and detachment. This marvellous book shows that its author chose her biographer well. It not only sheds light on Molly Keane’s long and rich life but will encourage more attention to the novels. Her early books are all well written and extremely enjoyable; but the last three are masterpieces. The next time I come upon a poster purporting to show a dozen of Ireland’s greatest writers, I expect to see Molly Keane’s image prominently displayed.
Anthony Roche is professor emeritus in the School of English, Drama and Film at University College Dublin; his most recent publication is The Irish Dramatic Revival 1899-1939 (2015).