“One of the few reasons to cut someone is when they put optics on the drinks”
Molly Keane is the Irish literary queen of black comedy. If you are a fan of Nancy Mitford or Jane Austen (her literary mentor) you will enjoy these books.
With a wit as sharp as a meat slicer, Molly cut a literary swathe through the manners and mores of Anglo Irish aristocracy in the twenties & thirties when dancing was to the wind-up gramophone, everyone was drunk before dinner on White Ladies and there were mad amounts of bed hopping. Everyone knew everyone and everyone was obsessed with horses and hunting, in fact she only started writing to fund this passion.
Hailed as the Irish Nancy Mitford in her day, she was in fact so much more. As well as writing books she was the leading play right of the 30‘s, her work directed by John Gielgud. Unlike Nancy Mitford no one other than her closest friends had a clue that Molly who they rode out and hunted alongside daily was in fact the famous author M.J.Farrell – the nom de plume she wrote under.
There was feverish speculation amongst the huntin’ shootin’ Anglo Irish society over the identity of the “scribbler” of these best selling comedy of manners exposing their mischief and bed hopping hedonism. The same group of upper-class people met up all over Ireland at the same events every year. It was clear that M.J. Farrell was not just privy to their world but an integral part of it – in short one of their own.
Her characterisations were spot on, and her accounts an accurate and witty expose of the times and specifically her set. She wrote with the warmth and fondness of an insider, while pouncing with all the alacrity and might of her wit on their pretensions, falseness and dishonourable behaviour.
But as to who this M.J.Farrell chap (or chappess) was remained a well kept secret until her third book, Taking Chances was published by Collins in 1939 and a “friend” let her closely guarded secret out of the bag. There was an astonished and acerbic reaction from her set.
Molly explained; “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.”
Her first book was The Knight Of Cheerful Countenance “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.”
THE WORLD OF MOLLY KEANE – in her own words.
“Then : –
- They said: “You naughty man!”
- They wore hair nets and tortoise-shell combs.
- It was more than fast to accept presents from men.
- You bought a blood four-year-old up to weight for £60.
- There was no wire.
- The talked about “the ladies” and “motor-cars.”
- “By George!” they said, but never used Americanisms; such were not known.
- Their top boots were shorter and their spurs were worn lower down on the heel.
- You loved with passion.
- You did not trouble to keep your sense of humour ready in the background.
- Love mattered.
- Manners mattered.
- Children mattered.
- Places and dependents mattered too.
- Money bought much more.
- People drove about in dog-carts and pony traps.
- Invitations were issued to tea.
- Tea parties mattered too.
- Women who powdered their faces were fast
- Women who painted them – bad.
- Hunting, low wages, feather boas, nipped in habit coats, curly bowlers, bunches of violets, black furs and purple hats were much in vogue.
- A book called Three Weeks was both enjoyed and abused.
- Champagne was a frequent drink. Women never drank whisky.
by Molly Keane an extract from Mad Puppetstown published 1931 Collins Great Britain.