Obituary: Kathleen Farrell
Saturday 27 November 1999
She was born in London in 1912, the only child of a rich builder, and was spared the necessity all her life of earning a living. This was a blessing, for she never married, doled out money to others, and became so crippled by rheumatoid arthritis that she would have proved unemployable anyway. Small and ultimately bird-like, she was extremely pretty in her youth, and even in her eighties, despite nights of constant pain, her face would light up with the joy of greeting a visitor to her garden flat in Brighton, the years and ill-health being wiped away in a flash.
Her books were written during a 12-year period, between the ages of about 35 and 47, beginning with Mistletoe Malice (1951). Take it to Heart (1953), The Cost of Living (1956) and The Common Touch (1958) followed, and in 1962 she published her last novel, Limitations of Love. By that time she had decided to live alone after 20 exhilarating years with Kay Dick, a personal and literary partnership that did however provide much entertainment and many heady parties for their friends, many of whom were roped in by Dick, who worked for a time as a magazine editor.
Kathleen Farrell's books very much reflected her personality. They were intelligent, witty and amusing but essentially lightweight, the work of an inspired amateur who would have benefited from tough editing and the encouragement to study and benefit from her friend Pamela Hansford Johnson's technique.
The two writers were felt by many to run in tandem, Farrell supplying the amusement in her books that so conspicuously escaped the more serious of the two novelists. Farrell's output was of its time and somewhat too autobiographical to allow for serious development. The Cost of Living, for example, depicts a woman who lived in Hampstead and spent her time typing someone else's books - the story of Farrell's life.
Farrell enjoyed, and employed, a genius for friendship. She was immensely witty, shooting off barbed ripostes in her high-pitched, rather squeaky voice. Told that two dinner guests had behaved well and seemed, unlike so many married couples, to be happy, she might say, "A happy marriage is all very well, but it can be rather boring for a whole evening."
She was fascinated by other people's actions and motives, piercingly sharp in her dissection of character, and alarmingly hospitable. Unlike her great friend Ivy Compton-Burnett, Farrell could scarcely be bothered with afternoon tea; she was far too anxious to produce, by five o'clock at the latest, a stiff whisky, and so get the conversation flowing again.
There was no one of consequence in the literary world of her own generation - the only world for which Kathleen Farrell cared - whom she did not know, and most of them long before they were famous: Stevie Smith, C.P. Snow, Isobel English, Neville Braybrooke, Olivia Manning, Joanna Richardson, Frank Tuohy, P.H. Newby, Francis King, Raleigh Trevelyan. And any new discovery, like Quentin Crisp, was instantly invited to a party to meet all the others.
She was a catalyst, who "made things happen". Even when, in old age, she lived alone, her back, feet and hands deplorably deformed, her first priority was to encourage writers in whose work she believed, and her coffee-table was always piled high with inscribed first editions and discarded review copies. Reading, smoking, drinking (she ate hardly at all, but there was usually smoked salmon for lunch), bridge and talking for hours with friends were the pleasures that kept her mind and spirits alert.
Her closest relationship was with her sybaritic mother, with whom she lived next door until Mrs Farrell died at the age of 90, attended, to the end, by a maid (herself so decrepit she had to walk down the stairs backwards). She drove a specially adapted motor car until it rusted away in the salt air and she managed to brush a young man off his motor-bike. Her inordinate devotion to an endless succession of dogs, mainly dachshunds, eventually took precedence over all else, and kept her happy and occupied long after she was able to change a light-bulb or draw a cork.
No one who knew and loved Kathleen Farrell will have failed to gain inspiration from her courage, enjoyment from her humour, and profit from her advice. Hers may have been a minor literary talent, but as a person she enlivened the lives of others to a rare and remarkable degree.
Her last two years of increasing immobility were lightened beyond measure by the selfless care taken of her and her affairs by the novelist Sebastian Beaumont.
Kathleen Amy Farrell, novelist: born London 4 August 1912; died Hove, East Sussex 25 November 1999.
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