A Treat for an Autumn Evening

Wednesday, 28 October 2009

Doesn't she look like a sweetie?
Apparently she'd drink you under the table then make you cry.
I want to be her when I grow up.

Molly Keane (1905 – 1996) was an Irish novelist and playwright. She loved booze, hunting and her dogs. She was a great chum of Elizabeth Bowen, her co-chronicler of the decline of the Anglo-Irish stately home and way of life. Her work, in case this jewel of a writer has escaped your notice, falls pretty much into two separate time periods, separated by almost forty years. The first lot is pretty good if you fancy whiling away a few hours in a mannered pre-War drawing room from a time that died. The second lot of books are the real stunners.

Molly's adolescence was marked and profoundly affected by the Easter Rising of 1916 and the subsequent Black and Tan war, spelling the end of the iron ruling by the Anglo-Irish upper classes and the final death throes of that way of life. Her mother was remote and her father was weak - her unhappy childhood is revisited over and over again in both her early and later novels, which are peopled with wonderful characters who will stay with you long after the last page. She takes no prisoners - if you can't hunt and don't love horses, you have no place in her world. Tough, unsentimental and absolutely certain that drinkies and a dog to hand cure most ills. In this world of victims and blame culture, she renders me nostalgic for a period I never knew.

Her early career, in the 1930s and 40s was written under the pseudenoym MJ Farrell, a name she spied on a pub hacking home from a hunt one afternoon. To her sort, writing was hideously declasse, so her books and plays were kept a secret from the huntin' shootin' and fishin' types she lived among. Her plays even ran in the West End. She suddenly stopped writing in 1946 - partly because her husband, Bobby, the love of her life and father of her two young daughters, died suddenly and tragically at the age of 37; and partly because the crisis in the economy caused the sources of income from the Empire to dry up to almost nothing, spelling the end of that peculiarly upper class way of life. The huge houses fell into ruin over the ensuing decades, wardrobes and stables grew empty and the lower orders no longer knew their places.

For almost forty years, she kept her head down and her nose clean, then suddenly, dripping wickedness and a rapier wit, Good Behaviour appeared in 1981. There are many of us who think she deserved the Booker prize for it that year. This was followed by Time After Time (1983) and Loving and Giving (1988). These books are, bluntly, bleeding brilliant. The characters are observed with a heady cocktail of spite and intelligence. They are dark, often hopeless, always amusing. This is what happened to those glamorous people after the war. Lack of money, crippling snobbery, equestrian obsession and huge albatrosses of house around their increasingly wrinkly necks. Uppity servants, clouds of dogs to feed, tarnishing silver and fading albums. Beautifully observed and possibly the best accompaniment to a crackling fire on an autumn day. Make yourself a plate of Gentlemans Relish* sandwiches, pot of china tea, lock the door and just wallow in her biting prose and meticulous observation of human foibles.

She was a neighbour of the family of a friend of mine and an abiding regret is that I never managed to extricate myself from London to make the trip to Waterford to meet her. When I eventually made a visit, several years after her death, I mentioned this regret to my host. A retired senior British Army officer, he was a seriously tough old guy. He said, 'yes, I know you were keen on her books and I'm glad we never had to invite her over to meet you. She was utterly bloody terrifying.'

*Bit of an acquired taste - I think anchovy is the key ingredient - very salty, just use a scrape.


  1. Very good post.

    Saki? Are you familiar with his oeuvre? Short stories mainly. Tales of urban malice from 1910s I think.

  2. Oh yes, Hector Hugo Munro. The name I will take when I come back as a laddie. He's also working through a desperate childhood, innit? Gotta love a spiteful drawing room comedy. Or so I tell the Colonel of an evening.

  3. Thanks for introducing me to Molly et al

  4. The pleasure (of browbeating military afficionados into a subtle black comedy of manners) is entirely mine.


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