“Make it like a novel,” Molly Keane advised her eldest daughter in writing this biography, adding, “I’m afraid you won’t be nasty enough.”
The bar is set high for Sally Phipps. Keane wrote the most spectacularly "nasty" black comedies in Irish Big House fiction. These late novels satirise the style and manners of Big House fiction; and merit comparison with Kingsley Amis and perhaps John Osborne. Mother/daughter hostilities, savagely waged over food and flowers, provide a constant theme. Aroon, in Good Behaviour (1981), feeds her ailing mother a deadly rabbit mousse for lunch. In Time after Time (1983), Leda, the Swifts' Jewish cousin, returned from the dead, defecates on the evening gowns that used to clothe their mother, her long-dead rival. Nicandra, the unloved child of Loving and Giving (1988), is tied to a chair and force-fed spinach as punishment for revealing her mother's affair with a servant. This battlefield seems to have loomed larger in fiction than life. Even so, Phipps's warm and vivid study is written on the psychological frontline.
Molly Skrine learned young how best to negotiate the eugenic politics of the Anglo-Irish drawing room. “Being attractive was essential, a passport to freedom and adventure. . . I always knew how to flatter and yearn. . .” Femininity among the gentry combined the decorative, conversational and managerial arts in equal measure, and was frequently competitive: “we vied with each other in the forcing of bulbs”. As fearless at the dinner table as on the hunting field, Molly appears to have performed as her class demanded, using her wit to entertain “the chaps” and to establish intimacy with their wives and sisters, while noticing the self-delusion and fantasy that sustained her class without pursuit of trade or income. At 18, she published the first of 11 novels under the pseudonym MJ Farrell. Later she’d describe a Farrell novel as “seventy thousand words through which the cry of hounds reverberates continually”, though this is to dismiss the complexity of their sexual politics. With the £7 advance, she threw a cocktail party at the Shelbourne and bought the dresses denied to her by her austere mother.
Agnes Nesta Shakespeare Higginson, naturally, also wrote. In 1901, she published the popular Songs of the Glens of Antrim as "Moira O'Neill". The native pseudonyms chosen by Unionist mother and daughter, express a claim to Irish identity increasingly disallowed their class. Ballyrankin, bought by Molly's English father in 1912, was the first house burnt out in the Wexford Troubles. Husband and wife leant against the haycocks to watch it blaze. Tellingly, the Skrines chose to remain in the area, and build from scratch next door.
”I would do anything to please, betray anyone to please,” Keane confessed to her diary. Her liaisons with older married men, the first at 22 with a master of hounds, appear to have been distinguished by an unusual capacity to charm their wives. At Major Perry’s house in Woodrooffe – “a smart commune where the butler boned one’s hunting boots” – she danced with the Major in the drawing room, assisted Dolly, his wife, in the kitchen and befriended two of their children, John and Sivie. Both were gay; at 16, Sivie had been “sold” (Keane’s word) by her father, to a “wealthy, kind, much older Welshman” from whom she quickly fled.
Phipps’s account of these events pulls away from the currents of exploitation explored in her mother’s later work, though what emerges is just how queer, in every sense, “the quality” could be. Campness, she observes, appealed to Molly who deployed its subversive sexual politics in several novels to reveal hypocrisies in the comedy of manners that masked straight, and queer, desire. Elizabeth Bowen, a friend and frequent visitor, compared marriage to “a train you simply have to catch . . . and then you sit back and look out of the window and realise you are bored”.
Molly herself waited to achieve full financial independence before catching Bowen's train. Bobby Keane, a keen huntsman, six years her junior, shared her passion and humour, and temperamentally, he suited her. They married in October 1939, on the back of her Broadway success with Spring Meeting, co-written with John Perry, directed by John Gielgud, and produced by Perry's lover, the fabulous Binkie Beaumont. At Belleville, near Cappoquin in Co Waterford, she entertained a whirl of stars: Peggy Ashcroft, John Gielgud, Micheál MacLiammóir. Phipps remembers picnics with sausages kept warm in Thermos flasks, large platters of prawns served with buttermilk scones and tea. "Fish came by train, sewn into flat, reed baskets", caught by cousins and brothers.
These happy days abruptly ended in 1946. Bobbie’s death occurs mid-paragraph; though this is loyal to her mother’s style, it is one of several instances where a better editor might have intervened.
In London, Bobbie had fully recuperated from an intestinal operation, and was ready and awaiting his wife, when he suffered a cardiac thrombosis. Molly was met with the news of his death. The shock was profound and reverberates through the later fiction. Unable to face his funeral, remarkably, she went shopping on Bond Street instead. The choice of headstone fell to her friend, the artist Norah McGuinness. So successfully did she repress all memory of the event, that she never recalled where her husband was buried, and years later, refused to visit his grave.
Keane’s writing provided a bulwark against grief, and the periodic depression her own mother also suffered. It must have been hard to get the words out. In her diary, she prayed: “God, keep me clear enough and sane enough to help Bobbie’s children.” She dealt pragmatically with her reduced circumstances and let out Belleville to English tenants, typically enjoying a brief affair with Bill Scott, and an enduring friendship with his wife. In 1950, she sold up and moved to a small house in Ardmore where the Keanes used to holiday.
After a hiatus of two decades in her writing career, Good Behaviour appeared in 1981. Nominated for the Booker, Keane predicted the winner with characteristic aplomb: "I should think the Indian [Salman Rushdie] will win. He sounds a jolly good bet." She enjoyed the new friends her success brought her, among them the chat-show host Russell Harty, a close confidant of her later years. For a television documentary, he persuaded the elderly Molly into a helicopter alongside Mick Jagger, "both of them pretending to know something about the other". Such unlikely encounters would have been grist to her mill.
Phipps succeeds beyond the terms laid down by her subject, and offers a colourful and sensitive portrait of Anglo-Irish society. Though never “nasty”, the narrative remains finely attuned to the complexities of her mother’s character, and captures the mix of “courage, glamour and fantasy” that sustained her entire class. This biography lays down new critical avenues for reappraising Molly Keane’s considerable oeuvre.
Selina Guinness is a writer, lecturer and author of The Crocodile by the Door