‘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.’
“my mother didn’t really like me and the aunts were ghastly to me and my father had absolutely nothing to do with me”
Molly 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.”
Her experiences at Woodruff is 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.
It was through the Perrys and Woodruff that she met “Bobby” Lumley Keane a gentleman farmer from Co. Waterford whom she married in 1938 after living with him for five years . -This in itself must have been truly scandalous at the time. She once said, “Bobby was incredibly supportive of my writing”. They lived at Belleville in the Blackwater Valley. Their daughters Sally and Virginia were born in 1940 and 1942 but tragedy struck when Bobby died in 1946 when she was only forty. After his death she lost her zest for writing.
She remarked one of the few reasons to cut somebody was “if they started putting optics on the spirits”. But her wit was often arch and her sardonic humour often came with barbs. In this she remained true to her Anglo Irish Edwardian routes which expressed itself through her disarming frankness. 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?” you’d be told the truth.
An aggressive little dog followed her around the place. Like many Anglo-Irish, she appeared profoundly upper- class English on the surface, with a deeply attractive pointed face, blue eyes of exceptional clarity and the voice of a woman in her youth. But as soon as she started to speak the illusion broke. Although a warm friend, she was never slow to point out the faults of others.
In her book, Eating Myself, Candida Crewe recalls a night she spent with Molly Keane, at the writer’s home, west of Cork, in 1993. Keane, almost 90 at the time, discouraged Crewe from having pudding at supper. It was just in case, she said, Crewe put on weight and subsequently put her husband off her. It is the sort of thing my own Irish mother or Grandmother would have said.
It may not be an anecdote to endear her to a modern, post-feminist audience, but for anyone familiar with Molly Keane’s novels, it sounds like just the kind of barbed, ironic remark she would have made. Beneath the sparkling façade of Thirties Anglo-Irish life that she portrayed in so many of her novels, lay the dark, bitter truths which have induced critics to liken her to Noel Coward and Jane Austen, and which earned her a Booker nomination in 1981.
Confident that we will still appreciate the woman who dared to portray a lesbian relationship in her 1934 novel, Devoted Ladies (only six years after Radclyffe Hall’s Well of Loneliness was banned as obscene) as well as an attempted abortion in her 1929 novel, Taking Chances depicts the grand country family seat sliding into disrepair and eventual abandonment. But it’s an association which has tended to see Keane primarily as, at worst a simple, popular marker of class, or at best, a satiriser of a particular set of people, when in fact she is a remarkably honest, some would say brutally so, explorer of relationships. And the first, and most important, of these is the relationship between a mother and daughter.
Molly Keane’s work has rarely made it into academic critiques of Anglo-Irish writing, perhaps because she was considered too commercial and popular a writer to deserve serious critical attention. But it may also be because she is the archetypal square peg in a round hole. While she didn’t have the Catholic, guilt-laden attitude to sex that James Joyce or Edna O’Brien grappled with, she was also far less inhibited about exposing the inner lives of the Anglo-Irish than Elizabeth Bowen, and she showed little time for the mysticism of the Celtic Revival headed by Lady Gregory and W B Yeats. As Boylan said of her books, “The stage curtain was ripped away to reveal some of the cruellest, most selfish, most riveting characters ever contributed to fiction.” Most of these characters were mothers.
Molly once said, “Well quite frankly I know you’ll say I’m mad if I tell you. But I’m so queer in my mind about houses and places. I know things. For instance people belong to houses – not the other way about –either living people or dead.For houses can be as jealous as lovers and mothers, and under provocation more bitter than either. Nor do houses ever forget. What are ghosts but the remembrances they shelter?’
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