Molly Keane Essay - Critical Essays

Keane, Molly


Molly Keane 1904–

(Born Mary Nesta Skrine; has also written under pseudonym of M. J. Farrell) Irish novelist and dramatist.

Keane's strongly atmospheric novels recreate the Anglo-Irish world of family estates and fox-hunts in which she grew up. Her attitude toward this world has been described as one of "affectionate malice." She does not hesitate to reveal the foibles of the squabbling families she portrays in a style which sometimes verges on black comedy, but she does so with compassion, usually succeeding in eliciting sympathy even for her unattractive characters. Keane's love of Ireland is revealed in her enthusiastic descriptions of the Irish countryside, especially in the novel Mad Puppetstown (1932), in which two cousins choose to leave a comfortable life in England to return to their decaying childhood home in Ireland. Critics note that although Keane rarely varies her setting from the Irish country estate and repeatedly uses the popular theme of the decline of the landed gentry, she makes her novels appear fresh and original.

Keane's writing career, which began in the late 1920s, was interrupted by a long hiatus following the death of her husband. Her early works, which include the plays Spring Meeting (1938) and Treasure Hunt (1950) as well as several novels, were published under a pseudonym. Keane's return to writing in the 1980s with Good Behaviour (1981) and Time after Time (1983) marked her first publications under her own name.

(See also Contemporary Authors, Vol. 108.)

The Times Literary Supplement

M. J. Farrell's Young Entry …, presumably a first novel, has just those qualities that are more often found in books written by novelists of long experience. The characters, in the first place, are allowed to explain themselves instead of being explained by a process of oratio recta on the author's part; and, secondly, the dialogue springs naturally from the action and is not merely a decorative appendage of it. Miss Farrell has two admirable backgrounds, Ireland and the hunting-field, for her book, which is, in the last analysis, a character study of two "country girls," Prudence and Peter. Both are modern, but sanely and not tiresomely so; and one of Miss Farrell's greatest triumphs is the way she manages to give a vivid sense of their characters through stray snatches of their conversation. The dialogue of modern young people has been a great trial to novelists, who in their efforts to reproduce it have either over-elaborated or else reduced it to a series of more or less improper monosyllables. Miss Farrell has caught the exact tone of it—laconic, abrupt, illuminating, occasionally obscure owing to the quick, unheralded jump from subject to subject, and occasionally affectionate. In this cunningly shaped mirror the movements and features of Peter and Prudence are perfectly reflected. The reader can, as it were, sit back in his chair and understand without effort the similarity and the difference between them….

Because Peter and Prudence are so lovable and interesting the reader will the more resent Miss Farrell's unnecessary attempt to drag a supernatural element into the book. The suicide of the cook and haunting of the house are out of key with the rest of the novel—Miss Farrell's one lapse into amateurism—and he can be assured that in her descriptions of hunting, in her dialogue and, above all, in Prudence and Peter she has provided more excellence than anyone has the right to expect in three average first novels put together.

A review of 'Young Entry," in The Times Literary Supplement, No. 1364, March 22, 1928, p. 213.

Margery Latimer

You just can't be horrid and superior about [Young Entry] even though salmon fishing and fox shooting mean nothing in your life—and never will. The spirit of the young author is in every sentence, in the stiff phrasing, in the clichés and stock characters and the rough, eager form of the novel. You can't help liking her aliveness, which is neither deep nor lyrical but a surface quality of health and sturdiness. You smell good things all through the story; you smell the people and their excellent clothes and the clean, cool air….

All the time the two girls. Prudence and Peter, are not very different from the healthy girls who used to be in "The Youth's Companion," always making trouble for their elders and then saving the day in some fashion at the very end. But you have to like these girls anyway, you like the way they talk to their dogs and horses…. The eyes of all the characters are turned outward on the land, the hounds, rabbit holes, a good chunk of cake, foxes. Affection is not inhibited and can be expressed by swearing airily, eating a good meal together, riding hard, calling each other Puppy….

But you cannot read this book without thinking of all people as innocent manifestations of their backgrounds, no matter how amused and enlivened Miss Farrell intends you to be. Her intention is to write a simple story from the outside. Her main interest is the friendship between Prudence and Peter, their engagements, the separation, and then the return to their old gay manner. These people are all practical, all happy in their small world. They express themselves completely and joyfully in hunting and fishing and eating….

The author is usually bad when she tries to write about her characters—this for example: "Her very ordinary, jade-green frock set off to perfection the creamy thickness of her skin." But when she lets them talk it is always amusing: "I hate that cloth, Puppy—all flecks; looks as if the hens had been peckin" it." Or Lady Mavis: "My dear, when I think how different things were in my day! They [men] literally crawled. Yes, with boxes of chocolate, like worms."

Margery Latimer, "Young Folks," in New York Herald Tribune Books, March 10, 1929, p. 18.

The Times Literary Supplement

The modern novel of sex and cocktails grafted on to the old-fashioned Irish tale of foxhunting and country-house life is a curious combination. That, however, is a not unfair description of [Taking Chances]…. Miss Farrell has, it appears, determined to go a little deeper and to attack more important problems than in her previous light hearted books. In this there is a vein of tragedy all through, and the end is tragedy unadulterated. On the whole she has been successful. Her personages, with one exception, are perhaps only types, but they are true types. Her machinery is excellent, and the sporting and humorous accessories as good as before. Yet there is something unpleasant, not in her subject, but in her handling of it—a treatment of the sensual which becomes sickly after a while. And how tiresome the girls' oaths and slang, quite genuine though they be, their "Come on, chaps!" their "crashings" and "terriblys," are when administered in large doses!

The book has five characters who count: the three Sorriers of Sorristown, the brothers Roguey and Gerald and their sister Maeve; their neighbour Rowland Fountain of Castle Fountain, who at the beginning of the story is about to marry Maeve; and the English girl Mary Fuller, who arrives as Maeve's bridesmaid, and stays to become Rowland's mistress (first) and Roguey's wife. As we have hinted, the first four are conventional enough…. It is the Saxon visitor Mary, who spoils every one's life, including her own, that is her creator's best achievement. One may call her grande amoureuse or born harlot according to one's views and standard of politeness; in either case one cannot deny that she is not only disturbing and dangerously attractive but quite convincing. Miss Farrell might go farther if she would use a blue pencil, not in the interests of morality, but in those of good taste.

A review of "Taking Chances," in The Times Literary Supplement, No. 1434, July 25, 1929, p. 590.

The New York Times Book Review

Occasionally there appears a book which disarms criticism. "Taking Chances" is one of these, perhaps because Ireland gives enchantment always, and Miss Farrell had laid her scene there. To most people there is something much dearer and even much more exciting about familiar things than unfamiliar. Recognition can be more wildly rapturous than discovery. Everything in this book is delightfully familiar to any one who has read any good Irish novel before: the bog, the hunting, the weeping skies, the charming people, the innumerable dogs and horses—all are here.

Apparently modern Ireland is as good a place as the old Ireland; and, by Miss Farrell's convincing interpretation, even cigarettes and cocktails become part of the most romantic equipment of love. Of fox-hunting one might imagine that everything had been said, but Miss Farrell makes it afresh the most glorious experience that can fall to the lot of man. Whatever quality this is that she possesses of making the ordinary exciting, the dull brilliant, the foolish very engaging, is put most to the test and is most successful in her relation of the passionate love of Mary and Rowley. Mary is an enchanting character, vindicating all that is foolish, helpless, rash, unvirtuous and entirely modern in any woman. (pp. 6-7)

It makes a very good story. (p. 7)

"'The Love of Jeanne Ney' and Other Recent Fiction: Enchanting Ireland," in The New York Times Book Review, February 16, 1930, pp. 6-7.

The Times Literary Supplement

Miss M. J. Farrell has already written two or three novels with an Irish setting which are lively and amusing in their way, but nothing nearly so good as Mad Puppetstown…. It, too, is light and amusing, but it has its serious side also and the observation displayed in it is acute. Above all, the three chief characters, Easter Chevington and her twin cousins Basil and Evelyn Curtis, are delightful creations. The author's heart is evidently in Ireland, and she has weighed down the scales in Ireland's favour when contrasting life in an Irish and in an English country house. One cannot say, however, that she has exaggerated the charm of the former….

Puppetstown is the Irish mansion of fiction, but none the less real for that. The scene opens some seven years before the War, when Easter is eight and her cousins a year older. Miss Farrell certainly understands Irish children, and has made these three as amusing as they are true to type. Then comes the War…. A little later there is a flight from Puppetstown. The soldier who has come to pay his court to Mrs. Curtis is murdered on his way home; she dashes off to England with the children; and the house is left to the care of the old gardening Great-Aunt Dicksie.

Then we are transported to Oxford, whence the boys have gone on from Eton and where Easter, now of age, is visiting them. The rest of the book is taken up with the struggle of the three against their new surroundings. Handsome, princely Evelyn succumbs, but Basil and Easter, suddenly and without warning, dash across to Ireland to find Puppetstown in a state of filth and Aunt Dicksie living alone in the house but for Patsy the pantry-boy, her sole domestic staff. We leave them there putting things in order, probably going to marry when Aunt Dicksie dies. Basil, Easter and Puppetstown itself are all so charming that we should like to hear more of them.

A review of "Mad Puppetstown," in The Times Literary Supplement, No. 1545, September 10, 1931, p. 680.

The New York Times Book Review

["Mad Puppetstown"] follows a more or less familiar pattern, but it is written with so much beauty and freshness that it seems, while one is reading it, to be alone of its kind. It is primarily a novel of locale, and nothing in it is so important as the feeling of a particular place that it conveys—the atmosphere, the color and activity, the sights and sounds of an Irish home. The considerations of plot and character are secondary—though the plot, what there is of it, is quite adequate, and the characters are ably and unmistakably drawn. Puppetstown, the seat of the Chevingtons, dominates the book.

In those mellow and prosperous years before the war and before the turbulent outbreak of the Irish...

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The New York Times Book Review

"Point-to-Point" [published in England as "Conversation Piece"] is a sporting novel, from the opening pages in which a certain Captain Pulleyns arrives at Pullinstown by his cousin's invitation to attend the point-to-point meeting of the Springwell Harriers, to the closing pages, which are partly concerned with Willow Pulleyns's misguided little romance, but more with a cub hunt, and some thrilling out-of-season riding. To the casual observer it must have seemed that Willow and her brother Dick lived solely for sport….

Even their romances—or what threatened to become their romances, for there existed between brother and sister a sympathy and likeness of mind which outsiders found difficult to...

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Margaret Wallace

Miss M. J. Farrell, who has entertained us in the past with stories of fox hunting and horse racing in Ireland, has chosen for her latest novel a quite different background and a set of characters hitherto foreign to her pen. Excellent and full flavored as her hunting tales are, one does not regret the change. It is probable that "Devoted Ladies" is Miss Farrell's best novel to date. Certainly she finds in it an opportunity for the exercise of a stinging wit and an extraordinarily acute and vital faculty of observation. This, together with the graceful and luminous prose style which readers of her previous novels will remember, forms an irresistible combination.

The novel opens in London, at a party...

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Jane Spence Southron

[In Full House, M. J. Farrell] has deserted her Irish fox-hunting and fishing for satirical characterization blended with a psychopathic and exceedingly sympathetic study of inherited insanity. For a comparatively young writer this was undoubtedly an ambitious and hazardous undertaking, and one can understand why she elected to make a clean sweep of her former literary stock-in-trade. She has kept Ireland as the scene of her drama, but she treats it as a somewhat negligible background, instead of as the breath and life of the book.

It is true that some of the most satisfyingly beautiful passages are scenic … but they are subordinated to the moods and tragedies of the characters, with which...

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Charlotte Moody

[The Rising Tide] is an extremely interesting and absorbing novel…. It is as much a story of a place and a period as of people; the place is Garonlea, an Irish estate, the period 1900 to the first years after the war, the people are the family of French-McGrath. Despite its setting and period, the war and the Irish Troubles are not important to the story, which concerns itself entirely with personality and environment….

It is difficult to give an accurate idea of this book without falling into phrases about Periods of Transition and the Spirit of the Times, which would be unfair, because the book is too human for that, some of its scenes too indelible. It is written with considerable...

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Garrett Epps

I read Good Behaviour in one sitting, and, when I'd finished, shook the book like a greedy child hoping one more goody would fall out.

Keane's characters are the impecunious Anglo-Irish gentry between the wars, and her central character is Aroon St. Charles, one of those poisonous unmarried female relations who infest every extended family….

But as Aroon recounts her path to manipulative spinsterhood, Keane performs the difficult trick of getting us inside this unattractive, overweight woman to see the naive but appealing girl she once was. Aroon is betrayed by her adored brother Hubert…. She is betrayed by her mother, who regards her from birth as a rival for the love of...

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Sally Emerson

The opening of Molly Keane's Good Behaviour is chillingly unforgettable. The narrator, 65-year-old Aroon St. Charles, relates the death of her mother in the small Gothic folly where they have moved, with one maid, surrounded by mementos of their past…. Aroon then takes us back to her childhood and we see the distance between the harsh woman she is now—as her mother used to be—and the affectionate girl she was then. We see where life has let her down.

The eccentricities of Aroon's mother and father as they pass their days at their ancestral home, Temple Alice, make the reader forget the macabre opening for a while…. This novel incorporates something of the sparkling, irresponsible mood...

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A. N. Jeffares

[Good Behaviour is an] atmospheric novel … ruthless in its black humour, irony, clarity of conception and execution. It is also profoundly sad. To tell the plot would spoil its effect, for there is a very real intellectual pleasure in store for the reader who gradually begins to realize the different planes upon which the story moves: there is the illusion of Anglo-Irish life with its well-brought-up silences, its refusal to face the facts of life. These include money, politics, religion and sex. And so the characters move in a world of faded elegance and damp decay, of luxury and extreme discomfort, taking their horses very seriously indeed. This is the world of the big house in decline and disintegration....

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Quentin Crisp

Time After Time is an interesting and funny tale full of grim, accurate observations, but to me it does not possess the stylish, classical form of [Good Behaviour] … nor has it that masterpiece's almost Lillian Hellman-like inevitability. Furthermore, instead of tracing a single heroine's decline from innocence to obese self-indulgence, it scatters our attention among five characters almost equally detestable from the start.

As ever in Keane's world, we find ourselves hobnobbing with the gentry in southern Ireland. The action and inaction take place mainly in a dilapidated house where once three sisters and a brother lived with their parents in heedless opulence. The narrative swims...

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Anne Tyler

Good Behaviour was a dark, subtle, savagely amusing study of the decline of a well-born Irish family after the First World War.

The members of that family destroyed each other, and that they did so with all due courtesy made the destruction no less cruel. But compared to the Swifts in Time After Time, the St. Charleses of Good Behaviour were angels of kindness.

Time After Time describes a family already ruined…. They more or less dislike each other, and yet they remain together, sniping and bickering and scratching out some shabby kind of life for themselves….

The novel's pacing is perfect. Roughly the first one-third of the story...

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Ann Hulbert

Keane directs [the] symmetrical and suspenseful plot [of Time After Time] with a dexterous hand. Staging a drama of revelation, she plants hints … and plays agilely with her characters' distorted perspectives. Keane proved herself a master of unreliable narration in Good Behaviour, letting deluded Aroon tell the story, at the same time betraying to us the true, even sadder, tale of her family's fate. This time Keane multiplies the myopia and shifts, artfully and comically, from one solipsistic Swift to the next…. Keane's feat is not only to make us correct for their skewed vision but also, improbably enough, to prompt us to care about their cantankerous views and fates. The brittle caricatures are...

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V. S. Pritchett

As one who knew something of the period of Molly Keane's Good Behaviour I was astonished to find there no hint of the Irish "Troubles," the Rising of 1916, the later civil war, or the toll of burned-down houses. Was this an instance of the Anglo-Irish, indeed of the general Irish habit of euphemism and evasion? What, of course, is most real to Molly Keane is the game of manners, the instinctive desire to keep boring reality at bay yet to be stoical about the cost.

The Victorian and Edwardian codes stayed on far longer in southern Ireland than in England. Good Behaviour … is less a novel than a novelized autobiography which exposes the case of Anglo-Irish women, especially in the...

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Margot Jefferson

Good Behaviour is a tale of appetites, pursued and thwarted, written in a style that lusts after the lethal aims tucked into civilized exchange, yokes mournful, sensuous description with analytic dismemberment, and sifts a high-handed 18th century rhythm through 1920s speediness. Time After Time gives us the same world, moved from the '20s to the present—aged, sour, full of cracks and grudges. Keane's writing seems tainted by the woes of her world: there's too much expositional clutter and fuss; stage directions dwarf the moments they're supposed to set up. It's a domestic drama of manners (Keane is scathingly funny, but rarely comic) into which a World War II thriller intrudes, unsettling the writer's...

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