Molly Keane A Life by Sally Phipps

Reviewed by Hayley Anderton

From the moment I discovered Molly Keane it was love, not just for the quality of her writing, the unflattering but compelling sharpness of her observations, or her humour, but also because she’s one of very few to have chronicled the Anglo-Irish society that was just clinging on between the wars.

The first thing to say about Molly Keane A Life is that it’s more memoir than biography – possibly because Sally Phipps is Molly’s daughter – as a memoir it works really well, but as a biography there are perhaps too many unanswered questions. In much the same way it does an excellent job of giving more body to the background of Keane’s earlier novels, written under the name, M J Farrell, but arguably less so to her later work.

Born in 1904, a middle child, Molly’s upbringing was distinctly Victorian; her parents seem to have been very wrapped up in each other with little in the way of outward affection for their children. Molly’s mother (a well regarded poet in her own right) was also inclined towards reclusiveness and melancholy – very much at odds with her sociable daughter who craved love and approval.

It was a unionist household, and during the troubles the house was burnt down – which sounds like a surprisingly civilised process, or at least one lacking in personal malice. At any rate the family chose to buy the house next door with the compensation money, and that seems to have been the end of it. Meanwhile a Molly old enough to be out on the social scene is obsessed with hunting and social success. Her writing funded her social life, and her social life provided the background for her writing – done under a pseudonym because it wouldn’t have helped her popularity.

Her world is one of big houses, good manners, rigid social order, and one where being entertaining is seen as a duty (and possibly a way of making up for having no money). The social order is slightly baffling – Molly’s older sister falls in love with a hunting friend, but he’s a notch lower in the social scale so her parents refuse their consent to the match. Sue accepts this and leaves for Oxford to get a degree and become a socialist – which her parents don’t seem to mind at all, although Molly thought the man would have been better.

These kind of details, along with hints about Molly’s own love life (she was conducting an affair with her husband to be for four years before they married, something that ‘in those days … wasn’t done, but of course it was done.’) give invaluable context to her books. It’s also an engaging account of Anglo-Irish life in its own right, even if you’re not particularly interested in Keane – who remains somewhat elusive throughout the book.

The second half of the book is where those unanswered questions start to intrude. Long lists of friends and acquaintances coupled with a slightly disjointed chronology became slightly confusing at times. Keane’s involvement in the theatre could also bear more analysis. It was clearly a big part of her life and work, but doesn’t come alive in the way that the country house background does.

The problem with the book as a biography though is in the hints that Phipps makes about the difficulties in her, and by implication her sisters’, relationship with their mother. She also alludes to serious rifts with friends and family where Molly behaves unforgivably (mostly in the form of verbal attacks). The only time she really expands on this is when she explains how Molly conspired to stop her husband going to London when his mother was killed during the blitz. It’s an unforgivable thing to do which has serious ramifications.

It’s clear that Phipps’ reticence is motivated by love and loyalty; she’s thorough in explaining why Molly behaved badly at times, but not in the how. In some ways it feels like the salt has been left out of this particular dish. However, that’s the authors prerogative, there’s plenty of salt in Keane’s novels for those who want it, and there’s so much of interest, and to like, in this book that I wholeheartedly recommend it.

Hayley blogs at Desperate Reader.

Sally Phipps, Molly Keane A Life, (Virago 2017). 978-0349007526, 338pp., hardback.

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