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Molly Keane (1904-96)

MOLLY KEANE’S EARLY LIFE
“Once I was looking through the kitchen window at dusk and I saw an old woman looking in. Suddenly the light changed and I realised that the old woman was myself. You see, it all happens on the outside; inside one doesn’t change.” 
Molly Keane
Molly Keane was born Mary Nesta Skrine, in County Kildare 1904, into a family whose roots lay in the Anglo-Norman conquest of Ireland. The backdrop to her life was characterised by the endless political turmoil following the 1916 Easter Rising and the  brutality of the Black and Tan war.
Her family lived in a big house Ballyrankin in County Wexford which was less dramatically affected by these events than some parts of the country. After the Irish Peace Treaty was passed in 1921 establishing the Irish Free State the traditional life of the “Big House” Horse Protestants continued albeit in a more impoverished scale. ; While their obsession with horses and hunting remained undiminished, they made do with second hand riding boots and worn or thread bare jackets.
Her mother was a poet writing under the nom de plume Moira O’Neill “the poetess of the seven glens”.  Her father Walter Skrine had been a colonial governor of Mauritius was and was a fanatical horseman and rider to hounds.  She grew up in a rather isolated way in her family house in County Wexford.

The Knight of Cheerful Countenance 1926 Edwardian hunt

She wrote, “my mother didn’t really like me and the aunts were ghastly to me and my father had absolutely nothing to do with me” She doubted either of her parents ever read her books even after she was outed as the author. “She (her mother) really didn’t know how to treat us. You can’t think how neglected we were, by our parents. I mean they didn’t do anything with us at all, they simply didn’t bother. They were utterly reclusive. My mother had great taste but was totally oblivious to comfort.

Life was much more stringent then, there was no such thing as hot water or central heating. There were fires but they went out and I remember the deadly cold of the school room and the blue cold coming off the wall. I never remember a fire in my father’s library or in the dining room, although my father was perhaps a bit more warmth conscious.”

Their life revolved around riding and the social functions such as hunt balls that went with it “even in riding the children were simply expected by their father to be able to ride well and stylishly, as though through some genetic inheritance,” she said. “It was extraordinary at dinner people would tell about some incident involving a small child shirking at a wall, blue with terror, or taking it clinging on for dear life as though it were the most amusing thing.”
She refused to go to boarding school in England with her brothers and sisters, instead being educated by her mother and a series of governesses and for a while at a boarding school outside Dublin.
Her passion, like all her class and race were horses. It was all any body talked of at dinner. Philistinism was a virtue. Reading was not part of the world of her set, and though her mother wrote poetry it was of a sentimental nature suitable to a lady of her class. But while Molly was passionate about horses she loved the books of Jane Austen  the only author she reread and like Austen, Molly’s ability lay in her talent for creating characters and this combined with her wit and her astute sense of what lay beneath the surface of people’s actions enabled her to depict this extraordinary world of the Big Houses of Ireland in the twenties and thirties, uniquely capturing her class in all its viscous snobbery and genteel racism even as the enormous changes swept through the country.
 
Molly’s real passion, like all her class and race were horses. It was all any body talked of at dinner. Philistinism was a virtue.
She claimed “I hadn’t set out to be a writer. I’d really only started because when I was seventeen the doctor said there was a threat I might have T.B. and I had to stay in bed. There was absolutely nothing to do, no-one paid me the least attention and I started to write.”
So at seventeen she began her first book The Knight Of Cheerful Countenance, published by Mills & Boon. She was always then dismissive of her talents describing her work as “an awful book, but I thought I was Shakespeare – I wrote it – and all the next books – under the name of M.J. Farrell (a name she saw over a pub, appropriately enough, on her way home after a day’s hunting) “and no-one connected them with me. I didn’t want to be recognised as a writer. I only wanted to be good in the hunting field and to be popular at hunt balls. I was so starved of fun when I was young, and I loved fun so much.”
So for many years she wrote in anonymity, ‘For a woman to read a book, let alone write one was viewed with alarm, I would have been banned from every respectable house in Co. Carlow’
Molly’s “scribblings” supplemented her dress allowance for all the hunt balls she loved to attend.  When funds were low she  locked herself away in her parents house, wrote a novel and with the few hundred pounds gained spent the next few months staying at friends’ houses, hunting almost every day. 
In her teens she escaped to the Perry’s house Woodrooff in the heart of fox and hound country in Co. Tipperary where she met sophisticated charming people who introduced her to London life.
“I almost lived there for six of seven years, mostly in the winter months, when I hunted three days a week on horses largely provided by Woodrooff. There were so many horses in those days of the late twenties and early thirties that if you were lightweight and a moderately useful rider your fun was endless.
Her friendships with the two children of the house Sylvia and John Perry led to her collaboration with John Perry writing plays, two of which had great success in the West End. Spring Meeting, produced in 1938 directed by John Gielgud who became a great friend. It was one of the West Ends hits of the year, and deserves revival.
“My mother disapproved of Woodruff – she was frightened by the idea of it. She belonged to the nineteenth century and didn’t change. There was a woman there who’d been divorced and some, what she would have called “dirty talk”, which I didn’t know a thing about, but i soon found out and was rather good at. My mother was alarmingly prudish and old fashioned int hose ways. In fact everyone there was wonderfully kind to me.”
She adored the theatre and close relationship she enjoyed with Gielgud and Beaumont. As well as their friendship this world of rehearsals and post theatre parties enabled her to escape the anonymity that her social world had imposed on her.

Her experiences at Woodruff formed the inspiration for her book Mad Puppetstown (1931)  in which the story is set before, during and after the Easter Uprising of 1916 and through the Irish War for Independence when Puppetstown becomes an isolated vulnerable fortress – like so many of the Big Houses.

To quote from Mad Puppetstown  “They were strange days for the gentry of Ireland these, strange, silent, dangerous days. The morning’s paper (and if the post was late it was because a bridge had been blown up the night before or the mail raided on its way from Dublin) might tell of a murder of a friend; or the burning of a house that had lately been like Puppetstown, careless in its wide hospitality; or, more rarely, of the capture of rebels or a successful raiding for arms.”

Her family’s own estate was destroyed during the Irish War of Independence. “It was a god-awful shock for my father who was a belligerent little Englishman. Everyone had warned him, had said you must come back and live in England and bring the children there, but he said. :I’d rather be shot in Ireland than live in England.” He wouldn’t leave when they came to burn down the house.”

Molly Keane – Later Years

“Once I was looking through the kitchen window at dusk and I saw an old woman looking in. Suddenly the light changed and I realised that the old woman was myself. You see, it all happens on the outside; inside one doesn’t change.”
“One of the few reasons to cut someone is when they put optics on the drinks”
In her teens Molly escaped the loneliness and misery of her family life when she was invited to live at the Perry’s house, Woodruff which lay in the heart of fox and hound country in Co. Tipperary.  The patriarch, William Perry and his divine wife Dolly adored her and her friendships with the two children of the house, Sylvia and John Perry, led to her collaboration with John Perry writing plays which took the West End by storm.
It was also at Woodruff that she met sophisticated charming people who introduced her to London life.
“My mother disapproved of Woodruff – she was frightened by the idea of it. She belonged to the nineteenth century and didn’t change. There was a woman there who’d been divorced and some, what she would have called “dirty talk,” which I didn’t know a thing about, but I soon found out and was rather good at. My mother was alarmingly prudish and old fashioned in those ways. In fact everyone there was wonderfully kind to me.”
“I almost lived there for six of seven years, mostly in the winter months, when I hunted three days a week on horses largely provided by Woodruff. There were so many horses in those days of the late twenties and early thirties that if you were lightweight and a moderately useful rider your fun was endless.”
Her experiences at Woodruff formed the inspiration for her book Mad Puppetstown (1931) in which the story is set before, during and after the Easter Uprising of 1916 and through the Irish War for Independence when Puppetstown becomes an isolated vulnerable fortress – like so many of the Big Houses.
To quote from Mad Puppetstown “They were strange days for the gentry of Ireland these, strange, silent, dangerous days. The morning’s paper (and if the post was late it was because a bridge had been blown up the night before or the mail raided on its way from Dublin) might tell of a murder of a friend; or the burning of a house that had lately been like Puppetstown, careless in its wide hospitality; or, more rarely, of the capture of rebels or a successful raiding for arms.”
Her family’s own estate was destroyed during the Irish War of Independence. “It was a god-awful shock for my father who was a belligerent little Englishman. Everyone had warned him, had said you must come back and live in England and bring the children there, but he said, “I’d rather be shot in Ireland than live in England.” He wouldn’t leave when they came to burn down the house.”
During her time at Woodruff she grew into an attractive blue eyed beauty. She was known as the radiator for the warmth of her personality yet along with her great charm she had that Edwardian clear honesty of her generation.  It was not considered good form to be false.  She was of the generation that should you ask “does my arse looks big in this?” she’d tell you the truth.
During a house party at Woodruff she met a friend of John Perry’s – a dashing young man who rode beautifully – Bobby Keane. He was to become the love of her life. It was love at first sight for them both. “He was the most enchanting creature and he had a brain too”.
It was Bobby who encouraged Molly to take her writing more seriously.
They began an intense secretive five year affair. He was wonderfully supportive of her scribblings and it was in her relationship with him that she was at her most prolific. They lived “in sin” together at Belleville in the Blackwater Valley.
He became her husband in 1938 the same year she became a West End sensation with Spring Meeting which was a writing collaboration with Johnny Perry directed by John Gielgud.
Spring Meeting was madly successful in the West End produced and directed by her great friend John “Johnny” Gielgud and starring Margaret Rutherford in her first comic role. It was one of the West Ends hits of the year, and deserves revival. Critics were fulsome in their praise of this “impish young girl” comparing her to Noel Coward. One of the most influential critics of the time, James Agate  wrote that she “Could well rival Noel Coward!”
Molly adored the theatre and the  close relationship she enjoyed with her life long friends John Gielgud, Margaret Rutherford and Peggy Ashcroft.  As well as their friendship this world of rehearsals and post theatre parties enabled Molly to escape the anonymity that her social world had imposed on her. She began to write under her married name Molly Keane.
Bobby and Molly had two daughters Sally in 1940 and Virginia in 1945 but a year after Virginia was born tragedy struck and Bobby died suddenly following complications from an operation.  Left alone to bring up her two young daughters she made them the focus of her life and for a time relocated to Switzerland.
In 1952 she eventually settled in Ardmore, Co Waterford which is on the Waterford Coast overlooking the sea. 
Writing took a back seat to motherhood  but eventually in need of money she again collaborated with Johnny Perry and John Gielgood on another play Treasure Hunt which was a huge success netting her enough money to continue looking after her daughters.
However for the next 25 years although she did write her career as an author came to a standstill. In fact her most famous book, for which she was nominated for a Booker prize in 1981 (Good Behaviour  may never have been published had Peggy Ashcroft not come to stay and pleaded for something to read. It had been so long between books that Molly had been too worried to show anyone her latest work – even her daughters. Thank goodness for Peggy Ashcroft because Good Behaviour is hailed as one of the finest books of the century.
Molly Keane was one of the original members of the Aosdana an Irish association of artists (translated as “people of the arts”) which was formed in 1981 – the same year as Good Behaviour was published. It is limited to 200 members – 250 members since 2005 and by proposal only.
She is buried almost in the centre of her beloved village Ardmore in cemetery of the Church of Ireland.