Last notes in an Anglo-Irish symphony

The recent death of Molly Keane puts an end to a long tradition of Ascendancy literature
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Indy Lifestyle Online
If the best should be kept till last then it is fitting that Molly Keane, the very best of the Anglo-Irish ascendancy writers, was also the last of them. Molly's death last month closed the pages on Anglo- Irish literature. There are no more big houses. There will be no more big-house writers.

Considering the shortness of their reign, the smallness of their number, the hugeness and discomfort of their houses and the insubordination of their staff, their contribution to literature is enormous. Maria Edgeworth, George Moore, Somerville and Ross, Elizabeth Bowen, are just a few of their number. Yeats went native and turned what Edmund Spenser deprecatingly referred to as ''wylde Irishness'' into brilliant art.

Molly Keane ascribed her ''limited talent to amuse'' to having being brought up as a protestant in Ireland. "All the protestants were poor and had big houses. We entertained a lot but we had poor food, bad wine and no heat. It was an absolute duty to be amusing."

It is no surprise that most of the leading names of Anglo-Irish literature are female, though many of them disguised the fact by using pseudonyms. Several wars had consumed the young men. Edith Somerville and her cousin and collaborator, Violet Martin, recalled an Irish picnic during the Boer War at which there were 40 women and two men. Somerville and Ross are typical of their type: church-going, family-bound country girls with an abiding love of the hunt and of their burdensome houses and an enforced preoccupation with shillings and pence which goaded them into print. They had ruinous relationships with their servants, who could rarely cook and combined a fine contempt for the social order with an unruly devotion.

After Violet Martin's family had been destroyed by unpaid rents following the Land League's policy of rent strikes, the servants came back and worked for nothing. It is likely that a generation starved of intimacy in childhoods spent between the nursery and boarding schools found liberation in the disrespectful familiarity of the Irish. Stubborn, often slovenly and even spiteful, the Irish possessed a talent that was signally lacking in the aristocracy. They had the gift of merriment.

The result is a unique literary form encapsulating both a passion for, and a pastiche of, their Irish world. The best of Anglo-Irish writers all had a perfect pitch for dialect and an addiction to the richness and anarchic wit of Irish speech. Edith Somerville wrote to her cousin Violet an account of a local woman's sympathy upon the death of a neighbour's husband: "Oh, indeed, ma'am there she is - the crayture - and he having left her with one child and the invoice of another." In his introduction to The Playboy of the Western World, J M Synge (who used to lie on the floor to soak up the conversations of servants in the kitchen below) wrote: "In Ireland, for a few years more, we have a popular imagination that is fiery and magnificent and tender, so that those of us who wish to write start with a chance that is not given to writers in places where the springtime of the local life has been forgotten, and the harvest is a memory only, and the straw has been turned into bricks."

One might well say that Roddy Doyle has a fine ear for Dublin dialect or that Edna O'Brien's work is brilliantly gifted with Irish gab, but theirs is a tune on a single theme, whereas the ascendancy writers composed a symphony by running the inept and gleefully articulate Irish peasant world parallel to the mutely mannered one of the aristocrats. It makes for more sophisticated comedy and more poignant tragedy. Middle-class writers like William Trevor and Jennifer Johnston and Aidan Higgins have trespassed in the big house in fine novels such as Fools of Fortune, How Many Miles to Babylon and Langrishe go Down, but their writing has a wistful air. Except, perhaps, for J G Farrell's Troubles, outsiders have never quite grasped the mad social order of the ascendancy household.

The best and most sinister description of an Irish big house comes from the late Caroline Blackwood (daughter of the 4th Marquis of Dufferin and Ava), whose Dunmartin Hall in Great Granny Webster is allegedly based on Clandeboye in Co Down. She described it as "a grey and decaying palace fortress beleaguered by invasions of hostile native forces". The ceilings were whiskered with dangling pieces of string which directed the innumerable leaks into waiting vessels. The impeccably trained English footman and butler took to wearing muddy wellingtons at all times as they were forced to wade through puddles in the corridors. No one ever ventured into the freezing hall without an overcoat and the kitchen, in the exclusive custody of the three slovenly McDougal sisters, was a pit of filth. Among the mouse corpses and pheasant carcases, there fluttered a variety of old hand-written French menus, sent down daily to the kitchens and then thrown on the floor by the three illiterates, who could read neither French nor English and anyway, always cooked the one thing, pheasant and vegetables, boiled and roasted up in a batch every Monday and reheated daily. Day and night the grandfather "kept worrying about his ever-dwindling finances, for he had inherited Dunmartin Hall without inheriting a fraction of the money that was required to run it.''

This was fairly typical. When the writer George Moore inherited Moore Hall in Co Mayo the revenue in rents was pounds 4,000 a year, but after paying off mortgage interest accrued by his ancestors he was left with only pounds 500 a year. Elizabeth Bowen was noted for her exquisite taste at Bowen's Court but she was always short of money and her pink curtains, much admired, were made out of corset material which a friend in a drapery store had let her have on the cheap. The house was so cold that the domestic staff used play handball in the hall to warm themselves up. In an essay for the Irish literary magazine The Bell, she wrote: "It is, I think, to the credit of big house people that they concealed their struggles with such nonchalance and for so long continued to throw about what did not really amount to much weight. It is to their credit that, with grass almost up to their doors and hardly a sixpence to turn over, they continued to be resented by the rest of Ireland as being the heartless rich".

All the houses were freezing. One of Molly Keane's most delicious allusions to the chill of country-house living is her description in Rising Tide of Lady Charlotte's dinner preparations, in which she rolled down her combinations as far as the top of her corset (where, no doubt, the woolly ledge formed a sort of early Wonderbra), before being fitted into evening dress. Molly herself was driven to print by a need to augment her pitiful dress allowance. She believed that her sister's life had been ruined because her mother sent her off to her first dance in "a sort of tennis dress". Violet Martin spent all her earnings trying to keep up Ross House, and Maria Edgeworth killed herself attempting to help tenants who were victims of the famine.

In spite of hardship, there is no doubting the enjoyment in these writers of their lifestyle and their uniquely privileged position in society. Writing came a poor third to their serious concerns of hunting and country living. Molly Keane published 11 of her 14 novels under the pseudonym of M J Farrell. Her first novel, Young Entry, was written when she was 19, to fund a pair of hunting boots and a party at the Shelbourne Hotel. Had her publishers suggested a launch party at the same venue, she would have been appalled. Novel writing in a girl of her class would have been very mal vu, as she herself would have put it. Her commercial trade was plied strictly in secret. But within her own rarified world of dainty manners and blood sports, Molly was at the same time an eager participant and a starkly unstockinged lens. The nakedly black humour that delighted a later reading generation of Molly Keane's Good Behaviour and Time After Time was already evident in the novels of M J Farrell, which earned praise from such writers as Compton Mackenzie. He described her Devoted Ladies (about a lesbian pair) as "infernally good".

The elite and talented group of writers to which Molly Keane belonged had an absolute certainty of their place in society, but to which society did they belong? They thought of themselves as Irish, but educated their children in England and sent their sons to serve in the British army. They were snobs (especially in regard to Catholics) and never for a second considered this a flaw in themselves. Yet they were closer to their Irish servants than to their English peers, whom they considered as somehow unqualified for Irish rural living. When Molly Keane praised her friend, Elizabeth Bowen, she said. "She wasn't just a brilliant writer. She was a proper countrywoman. She rode beautifully and gave great, ordinary hunting lunches." English people were unable to comprehend the voluptuous passion of the Anglo-Irish for their crumbling houses and the rough, unprofitable Irish countryside about which they wrote so beautifully.

Evelyn Waugh was once prompted to a failed bout of househunting in Ireland, after which he wrote to Nancy Mitford in 1952: "Among the countless blessings I thank God for, my failure to find a house in Ireland comes first. Unless one is mad on fox-hunting, there is nothing to draw one. The houses, except for half a dozen famous ones, are very shoddy in building and they none of them have servants' bedrooms because at the time they were built Irish servants slept on the kitchen floor. The peasants are malevolent. All their smiles are false as hell. Their priests are very suitable for them but not for foreigners. No coal at all. Awful incompetence everywhere. No native capable of doing the simplest job properly."

Englishmen like Waugh would have been equally nonplussed by the equivocal feelings of the Anglo-Irish towards the nationalist bands that burnt down their beautiful houses. When Molly Keane spoke of the torching of her father's Georgian mansion, Ballyrankin, in Co Wexford in the 1930s, it was the tact of the Sinn Fein raiders that impressed her. "My father was a militant sort of man and he came at them brandishing something and they said, 'Please come quietly or we're afraid we'll have to kill you.' That's the difference between people then and now. People genuinely were better mannered. Nowadays they would kill you anyway."

Before she exited, Molly Keane, with her usual exquisite behaviour, closed the door on an era. Her Booker short-listed Good Behaviour, published when she was 76, stripped the last of the glamour from the big house, showing a world of petty cruelty and cultivated ignorance. Already, she was caricaturing her way of life in anticipation of its decline. Time After Time, her subsequent novel about aristocratic siblings growing old in a crumbling mansion is about the death of that world. Her final novel, Loving and Giving, depicts a beautiful young woman martyred to manners. "When I look back, I am astonished," she said then. "I can only see it all as a myth. Mostly we had a divine time, but what about others? We simply never thought. Nowadays, when I meet very successful, sensitive young poets and reporters and painters, I often think - my God, in my day they would have been housemaids!"

The straw of which Synge wrote has long been turned into bricks, and now the bricks have gone and all the people are dead; but the wild music made by the clash of manners, and by the reluctant entwining of the ruling classes and the rebel classes, remains a comic and compelling love story. It deserves to be re-read and enjoyed.

Two of Molly Keane's earlier novels, Treasure Hunt and Young Entry, have just been reissued this month by Virago at pounds 6.99 each. Loving and Giving and Time After Time are published by Abacus at pounds 6.99 on 6 June

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