“Molly Keane: A Life” by Sally Phipps
(Virago, 338 pages, $26.99)
On a summer afternoon in Ireland, a horrified woman watches her bedridden mother choke to death on rabbit mousse. The family servant immediately starts “to pray in that loose, easy way Roman Catholics do” before turning on the daughter. “We’re all killed from you,” the maid roars, “and it’s a pity it’s not yourself lying there and your toes cocked for the grave.”
This is the opening scene of the 1981 novel “Good Behaviour,” a masterpiece by the Anglo-Irish writer Molly Keane, who was then almost 80. Now, more than three decades later, Keane’s daughter opens “Molly Keane: A Life” with a tender description of herself and her dying mother on a February evening in 1996.
“She longed for life and she longed for death, and she felt cheated of both,” Sally Phipps writes.
“It was six o’clock and the contest was nearly over for that day.”
Sipping a tiny whiskey, the frail writer encouraged her daughter to write her biography. Even though, Phipps writes, “she knew my weakness, my fear of the scalpel (which she wielded so fruitfully in her own work).” Not being “nasty enough” was not the only challenge. To write about her mother — and to explain a writer who disdained analysis — Phipps would have to depict “the small world which [Keane] inhabited and loved and hated to the bone.” In this engaging if uneven biography, Phipps does so with compassion and restraint, leaving nastiness to the writer who does it best.
Molly Keane was born in Ireland in 1904, the third of five children of Agnes and Walter Skrine, he an English gentleman and she a popular poet. Her childhood was one of horses, dogs, servants (typically in that order); of beautiful houses, bad food and good manners. By then, the heyday of the Anglo-Irish gentry, a Protestant landowning class since the 17th century, had passed. Ahead lay the First World War, the Irish rebellion of 1916, the War of Independence and Civil War (1919-1923) during which Keane’s childhood home was burned to the ground. Phipps paints the scene well. “Please steady yourself, Captain, or we will have to shoot you,” the Irish rebel commander warned Skrine, whose famous reply — “I would rather be shot in Ireland than live in England” — summed up the bewildered outrage of a rooted aristocracy, suddenly besieged.
Dense history is treated here with a light touch. Phipps has, after all, more intimate territory to cover, from Keane’s formative miseries (“My mother hated me and I hated her”) and her abiding passion for fox hunting and fox hunting men to her lean years and literary rediscovery. Writing, begun in boredom, was useful for supplementing her dress allowance. Or so Keane said, knowing that striving was considered lower class and “brainy” girls unmarriageable. Yet, under the pseudonym M.J. Farrell, Keane published almost a dozen novels, the earliest in the 1920s, and became a successful playwright with John Gielgud directing her frothy London triumphs.
Famous names pepper this biography — Gielgud, Peggy Ashcroft, Orson Welles — but Phipps wisely keeps our attention fixed on Keane, who emerges vividly, if elusively, as a sharp-tongued charmer, adept at deflecting any attempt to penetrate her chic armor. Grief, however, pierced her early and deep. In 1946, Keane’s young husband died suddenly. It was, Phipps writes, “the shaping wound of her life.” Married for just a few years and with two small daughters, Keane withdrew into domesticity only to be rediscovered in 1981, by chance, and this time as herself.
Ashcroft was an ailing houseguest when Keane gave her the manuscript of “Good Behaviour” for diversion; Ashcroft championed it, and later that year the first novel by Molly Keane was shortlisted for the Booker Prize. Inexorable and flawless as a Greek tragedy, “Good Behaviour” follows Aroon St. Charles, the unknowing narrator, from childhood to spinsterhood and brilliantly evokes not only Anglo-Irish life during the teens and 1920s, but also — omnipresent in Keane’s writing — a tactile sense of the Irish landscape, tamed and untamed: “huge, meaty dahlias” in a garden; “the thickness of rain … beyond the window.” The novel is also supremely, cruelly funny. “I felt the kind of admiration for it that’s exhilaration,” Eudora Welty wrote to Keane. “I knew I had a masterpiece in my hands.” Literary critics agreed, drawing comparisons to Elizabeth Bowen, William Trevor and Henry Green.
Keane, rediscovered, was now seriously regarded. But self-regard was another matter, as distasteful to Keane as earnestness. And here Phipps deftly conveys how an upbringing that discouraged reflection (what counted was “being amusing”), put Keane at odds with her own genius.
“She hid her love of writing from herself,” Phipps writes, “until the process began to unravel in old age, when it became obvious she was grief-stricken.”
Diminished by strokes, Keane nonetheless wrote two more great novels, “Time after Time” (1983) and “Loving and Giving” (1988), and relished the critical acclaim they received.
“Molly was essentially modest,” Diana Athill, Keane’s editor, writes, “but like all good writers, she knew deep down that she was good.”
In “Molly Keane” Phipps repeatedly ventures “deep down,” into her own life as well as her mother’s, to grapple with a mercurial woman, “enchanting and troubled.” Then she concludes, gracefully, where she began. Keane dies at daybreak, and Phipps raises her own whiskey glass in salute.
“One had the feeling that she had triumphed in some way,” she observes of a courageous woman who has, once again, slipped out of reach.