I must admit, having been born in Ireland (N. Ireland, but still . . . ) and harbouring a love for all things Anglo-Irish, pagan, druid, old world et al, I had never heard of Molly Keane. Perhaps I had, in passing, since my heroine Mariga Guinness warrants a mention in the book, somewhere in the 1950s, before the 18th-century had taken hold of her and she’s a shy princess in an Aran jumper and jeans, with her first baby sleeping on the sofa. This easy reference to Mariga should tell you that the book, written by Molly’s daughter Sally Phipps, is a trove of names. But not name-dropping, that’s not the Anglo-Irish way.
The book itself is more anecdotal than biography, however for the first seventy pages or so it does explore Molly’s childhood, her mother’s background in Antrim, and various other things. I did not read this in one go, and left gaps between delving in and out, so, to me, it did seem a bit longwinded. I really felt the book took off after this and I lapped it up in two sittings. The contrast of the two worlds in Ireland intrigued me, and I appreciated the author’s views on both, even Molly herself felt conflicted by a lifetime spent in country houses with servants and the threat of Sinn Fein. But with Molly, who had been accused of being a snob (‘the Irish Nancy Mitford’), she appeared to sidestep those tensions and people loved her, and she loved people.
I particularly enjoyed the asides about the people surrounding her in those days just before and during WW2 (a war she felt emotionally involved in, but was isolated from due to southern Ireland’s neutrality). A servant prays in the kitchen with a plate of dirty rosary beads; the local undertaker uses his hunting horses to pull coffins and often worried about meeting the hounds on the way to the graveyard. She befriended builders, seamstresses, even her house staff, and everything operates on a level that might have been impossible had Molly been more Anglo than Irish. But it is not all stiff tweeds, horse shows, and visits with the gentry (Adele Astaire (Lady Cavendish of Lismore Castle) pops in and out). There is a sting between the pages of Molly’s wit and generosity, and her daughter does not shirk from writing about her mother’s cruel put-downs, her slamming the door in her face, her telling her that she ‘talks a lot of nonsense’. Emotionally scarring, perhaps, but she rises above her grudges to portray a woman who, although brittle on the outside and was prone to flattery, had incredible inner strength.
As I am yet to read anything by Molly Keane – Good Behaviour will be devoured this spring – I felt a bit lost in the literary criticism her daughter deploys in the book. I wanted to learn more about Molly’s traits, but perhaps I am greedy. All in all, I enjoyed this book and would recommend it to anyone who enjoys a good read.
Molly Keane: A Life by Sally Phipps is available from Amazon as well as all good book stores.