Molly Keane: A Life

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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.

 

Mariga Guinness

 

Taken from The Irish Aesthete. No copyright infringement intended

Taken from The Irish Aesthete. No copyright infringement intended

She would have been the Queen of Lithuania had the Kaiser won the war

 

A German princess more in love with buildings than with people, Mariga was born in 1932 to Prince Albrecht von Urach and his wife, a bohemian Scotswoman named Rosemary Blackadder. Boasting an illustrious lineage, she was the great-great niece of Elisabeth ‘Sissi’, Empress of Austria, the great niece of the Queen of Belgium and the great granddaughter of the first King of Lithuania and a Princess of Monaco – Mariga rightfully held claims to the Principality of Monaco, the Kingdom of Lithuania and the Medieval Kingdom of Jerusalem. She was also a descendant of Marie Antoinette). And in spite of her imperious name – Marie-Gabrielle Sophie Joti Elizabeth Albertine Almeria Wurttembern, the Princess of Urach – Mariga’s childhood was far from privileged. Her father had been expected to succeed the throne of Monaco, but in the aftermath of WW1 this idea had been abolished, this Prince Albrecht came of age with no money and little prospects. A genealogist suspicious of her Royal claims, studied her lineage to discover that Mariga was indeed related to every Royal House in Europe. She was, in fact, more Royal and the House of Windsor.

 

Mariga’s first childhood memory was of living in beautiful buildings whilst her father carried out the duties of a foreign diplomat and journalist. The first of which, was an elegant house in Kamakura, Japan, where she lived with Rosemary, who felt increasingly isolated from the stuffy embassy staff and the Japanese who did not mingle with foreigners. Through Rosemary’s knowledge of art, Mariga, at the age of three, was taught to look upon things as an artist. Trapped in her lonely life, in a foreign country with foreign customs, Rosemary’s mental health deteriorated, and she begun to imagine that Emperor Hirohito was being misled by his generals. Entering the heavily-guarded Imperial Palace, she clutched Mariga’s hand, and in the other she held a diplomatic passport. Arrested by guards and sedated with a massive dose of Morphia, Rosemary was put on board the Scharnhorst en route to Europe. It was a memory that was to haunt Mariga for the rest of her life. She, too, was returned to Europe, travelling alone on a Japanese liner at the age of six, while her father remained in Japan.

 

Virtually an orphan, Mariga’s family life was dissolving around her. She went to live with her flamboyant godmother Hermione (Mymee) Ramsden, an old fashioned Fabian who held a lifelong interest in spiritualism, seances and practicing the Ouija board. This unusual upbringing included seventeen governesses (one of which was an exiled Ethiopian princess), all hired by Mymee, in a bid to educate the girl. And, when she was old enough, Mariga was sent to a boarding school in Scotland – ‘I am glad you are not a little girl here with me, it is horrid,’ she wrote to Mymee. Eventually Mymee withdrew her from the school and she passed her School Certificate from home.

 

When the war ended, Mariga thought she would join her parents in Germany. As she grew older she realised this could never happen. Rosemary had been institutionalized and diagnosed as having schizophrenic tendencies. Following a botch lobotomy, her memory was frozen in time and she failed to recognize her teenage daughter. And her father, Prince Albrecht, had remarried and had two children. This, Mariga learned indirectly, and her pain in discovering her father’s betrayal is apparent:

 

‘I have been reading some of the letters that you wrote to Aunt Mymee from Japan and I began to realize how trying and bouleversant things must have been for you and how you deserve all the happiness you may have from your second marriage. Please forgive me if I have been unkind about it….Then when I heard about your marriage in such a horrible, indirect way, you, my God of Perfection, were tumbled forever I thought into the dust. It was a frightful shock. It seemed the end of all things – a violent and horrid awakening from my charming dreams.

 

When the war ended, Mariga was sent by Mymee on a tour of Europe where she witnessed for the first time the old world aristocracy that her birthright afforded her (though she had been excluded from) and the once grand buildings that had been destroyed by air-raids. The buildings left more of an impression. Her father urged her to contact her relatives, and slowly Mariga became acquainted with her Royal cousins, aunts and uncles, and although many were distantly related, she felt relieved to belong to a family. Returning to London, she attended the Monkey Club (a finishing school) where she lived at More House, a Catholic hostel. At More House she met her cousin Prince Rupert Lowenstein, who would later introduce her to her future husband.

 

When Mymee died at the age of 84, Mariga was, once again, alone in the world. Having considered herself the girl’s parent, Mymee remembered Mariga in her will and fixed her with an income of £1 per day. Possessing great intelligence and a Patrician beauty, she modelled for pin money and studied a domestic course at Oxford. While in Oxford she met the young and married the extremely handsome Desmond Guinness, son of Lord Moyne and Diana Mosley, and scion of the brewing family.

 

Mariga’s first visit to Ireland was at the invitation of Mark Bence-Jones in 1953. She arrived wearing a ball-gown, having come straight from a party in London to catch her early morning flight.  ‘Ireland is heaven, everyone is so dotty and delicious and no-one dreams of taking anything seriously; except, perhaps, the Horse Show,’ she observed. Two years later the Guinnesses moved to Ireland, where they bought Leixlip Castle, their own version of Versailles, in the village of Kildare. Leixlip was painstakingly restored, with Mariga donning rolled-up jeans and perching on ladders in her bare feet to paint the ceilings. She littered the rooms with her favourite objects; mismatched china, enormous seashells, classic at with old family photographs and gaudy costume jewellery draped around the bathroom with the Floris soap.

The Mariga picnic of potted shrimps and bottles of wine was well known and always extended to whoever might be in sight from Mick Jagger to the local farmer. Meals were entirely moveable – I remember her once sweeping the knifes and forks, bread and cheese and pate off the dining room table and into the car, so that there would be time for a meal on the way to the airport. – the Countess of Rosse

 

Mariga brought a new, enduring international panache to Irish life and she positively exported a fresh awareness of Ireland to the chicest circles in Europe and America. During those legendary society parties, Mariga and Desmond hosted at Lexilip, she loved to wear authentic Victorian costumes – long velvet skirts, high-neck blouses ruffled with yellowing delicate lace, eighteenth-century military coats and corsets which supported her rigid, Queenly stride. Desmond adored socialising, but Mariga was more at ease with inanimate objects: stuffed birds, elks’ heads and books. Though their taste differed in entertaining, they were united in their passion for saving Ireland’s historical buildings, and, in 1958, Desmond and Mariga founded the Irish Georgian Society. Sir Humphrey Wakefield recalled, ‘[She] would have been stunning in Hollywood – she could radiate a mood, from scorn to delight, to fill a room. She immersed herself in a whimsical world of beautiful objects: possessions and buildings were her armor for the outside world. She feared insanity, she knew it plagued her family and ran through her very veins: ‘I am related to the Wittelsbachs and a little bit mad,’ she was apt to say.

 

With her marriage to Desmond disintegrating, she adopting the rootless existence of her childhood. Mariga wandered around Europe — she always felt the compulsion to go to Norway, and to exotic destinations. In the late ‘Sixties, she met Hugh O’Neill (now Lord Rathcavan), and together they travelled the world. Carrying on an affair with Lord Rathcavan – whom she referred to as ‘Mr. O’Neill’ –  Mariga went north and resided at the old courthouse at Glenarm, in Co. Antrim. But her time in Antrim was tinged with great sadness; she had ventured north in the pursuit of love and, sadly, hadn’t found it.

 

In 1981, the marriage to Desmond was over, and Mariga rented Tullynisk house in Co. Offaly. The old house was a world away from Leixlip, with dry rot and rising damp, her old friends were horrified that she lived there. With Leixlip gone, she had nowhere else to go. Though she drank heavily, and often alone, she did not have the appearance of an alcoholic. Mariga’s appearance was always immaculate, however, the cardigans were becoming threadbare, with holes in the elbows and her money had run out. To supplement her income she wrote a magazine column, offering advice on where to buy the best knickers in Offaly. Eventually, she gave up the column. ‘Never complain, never explain,’ was her motto for life.

 

All her life, Mariga felt a close bond with her great grand-aunt Elizabeth ‘Sissi’, the Empress of Austia, and their lives paralleled in alarming ways. In 1989, on her journey home from Wales on a ferryboat, Mariga finished her drink at the bar and ducked into the ferry’s cinema as a distraction from the violent crossing. When the lights came on, an hour or so later, she was found in her seat, having suffered a heart attack. Alone, in the middle of the ferocious Irish Sea, she was injected with Penicillin, of which she was allergic. She died shortly after. Like Elizabeth, the Empress of Austria, they both died at the same age and on a ferryboat, one stabbed in the heart and the other of a heart attack.

 

Two weeks before her untimely death, Mariga announced: ‘When I go, it will be pretty smartly.’ She rests in view of Conolly’s Folly near Maynooth – the dramatic arched building had been restored decades before by the Irish Georgian Society. Her headstone bears another of her favouite saying: ‘East of the Sun, West of the Moon.’

 

It would be wrong to end on a depressing note. Mariga enriched the lives of innumerable people and many more have benefited subsequently and will continue to do so, from her eye for beauty, her sense of style and the abundant warmth of her heart. – John Jolliffe

Our forthcoming annual

The Mitford Society’s annual has been a whirlwind of preparation but in the space of a month all of the submissions are in! I can tell you now that you’re in for a treat, the annual is a combination of academic essays, fun reviews, personal stories, photographs, a re-cap of Mitfords Eve at Sutton House and of course, the Mitford murder mystery which opens the book. I wanted to channel something quite unique, though paying homage to Nancy Mitford’s The Water Beetle and A talent to Annoy, and also The Pursuit of Laughter, though with less restraint than Diana’s critical essays. It has turned from a magazine sized vision into a full scale book! I have included the table of contents below, I hope you all approve!

Murder in the Hons Cupboard:- Meredith Whitford & Lyndsy Spence

Stranger than dreams and far more disordered:- An extract from The Fertile Fact

 The Most Charming Duchess:- Charles Twigger

 Pamela’s Irish Castle:- Stephen Kennedy

 Living in a Mitford House:- Debbie Catling

 Nancy’s True Love: Versailles:- Rebecca McWattie

 Nancy in Versailles:- Chiara Martinelli

 Esmond Romilly:-Meredith Mitford

 Diana Mosley :- David Platzer

 Understanding Unity:- Meems Ellenberg

 To the editor of the Daily Mail, a mock letter from Unity Mitford: – Emma Reilly

 Muv’s American Adventure:- Lyndsy Spence

 A Honnish Reunion:- Lyndsy Spence

 Stargazing with the Mitfords:- Astrology Charts by Victor Olliver

 From Countryside to Couture:- Natalie Tilbury

 The Mitford Sisters & The Turbulent Thirties:- by Lyndsy Spence, printed in Vintage Life magazine.

 The Photography Face:-Lyndsy Spence

 Laying the Foundations of The Mitford Industry:– David Ronneburg

 The Mitford Industry: An editor’s point of view:- An interview with Mark Beynon by Lyndsy Spence

 Re-issuing Nancy Mitford:- Emma Howard Capuchin Classics, Series Editor

 In Search of Nancy:- Barbara Cooke

 Evelyn Waugh & The Mitfords:- Jeffrey Manley of the Evelyn Waugh Society

 The American Way of Death & Pop Culture:- Terence Towles Canote

 The Pursuit of Love: The perils of a would-be film:- Lyndsy Spence

 Moths to the Flame: The Mitfords of Mull:- An extract of a play by Willie Orr

 Mitfords Eve:– A Mitford themed event hosted by The Amy Grimehouse in association with The National Trust & the BFI.

 The Mitfords & Modern Writers. Blog interviews with:

 – Meredith Whitford

– Deanna Raybourn

– Tessa Arlen

– Judith Kinghorn

 Extraorder Extras: Those Honnish by association:

 – Joan Wyndham

– Diana Skeffington

– Mariga Guinness

 Mitford sketches commissioned for The Mitford Girls’ Guide to Life:- Tessa Simpson