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Obituary: Molly Keane

James Pettifer
Monday 22 April 1996 23:02 BST

Molly Keane had an unusual place in contemporary literature, in writing very good plays and novels under two entirely separate identities at different times of her life.

She was a leading playwright in the 1930s whose work was directed by John Gielgud and produced by Binkie Beaumont, and she was an interesting novelist. But all the time she wrote under the pseudonym of "M.J. Farrell" and few outside her close circle knew who she really was. Then personal tragedy intervened, she stopped writing and it was many years until, in 1981, the novel Good Behaviour was published under her own name, caused a sensation and just missed the Booker Prize. She became a celebrity both in Britain and in her home- country, Ireland. Despite being well over 80 she continued to write, and Loving and Giving and Time after Time, both published later in the decade, are among her best work.

She was born Mary Skrine, in 1904, into a family whose roots lay in the Anglo-Norman conquest of Ireland, but she spent a good deal of her early childhood in Bath, in the big house at Claverton now occupied by the American Museum, a use she deplored, promoting a culture she had little time for. Her mother wrote under the name Moira O'Neill, and was a significant minor poet, her father a colonial governor of Mauritius. Her childhood was lonely and deeply unhappy; domineering but incompetent mothers and weedy fathers are frequent characters in her books. In adolescence and young adulthood she lived mostly in Ireland, and her time there was marked by the endless political turmoil following the 1916 Easter Rising and the Black and Tan war.

But her family area of East Cork and Waterford was perhaps less dramatically affected by these events than some parts of the country, and after 1922 the traditional life of what were universally known as the Horse Protestants resumed, even if many participants were impoverished and had to resort to second-hand riding boots. It was in the comedy of these years, where a good deal of "nipping" between the bedrooms of the different sexes took place, that she found the raw material for her first books.

The importance of horses in this world cannot be overestimated. The same limited group of upper-class people met each other all over Ireland at the same events every year, sitting on the backs of these animals. But it was an expensive way to spend your time, even then, and the only reason Molly really started writing was to finance her obsessive hunting. Mills and Boon took her first effort, Young Entry, and she was, as she always put it, over the first fence. When funds were low she locked herself away in her parents' home, wrote a novel and with the few hundred pounds gained spent the next few months staying at friends' houses, hunting almost every day. It was a simple, straightforwardly hedonistic world; dancing was to the wind-up gramophone, White Ladies were drunk before dinner, hardly anyone opened a book.

To be known as a writer would have been social death, so she used the name M.J. Farrell, immortalising a Lismore pub. During this time her other main concern was an intense, five-year-long secret affair with the man who was, in 1938, to become her husband, Bobby Keane. He was dashing and, needless to say, rode beautifully, but he was also intelligent and sensitive and encouraged her to take her writing more seriously.

A chance meeting at a Tipperary house-party with John Perry, one of the sons of the house but also a working actor in London, led to her first efforts to write plays. They are, in general style, clones of standard West End comedies of the time, but with much better drawn characters and an accurate, pointed wit in the dialogue. The most successful, Spring Meeting, produced in 1938, was one of the Shaftesbury Avenue hits of the year, and deserves revival.

But she ran into trouble with Ducks and Drakes in 1941, a play that satirised the English war effort at a time when the desperation of the military situation led few in the audiences to appreciate her comedy. Although she tried again with Guardian Angel in 1944 and Treasure Hunt in 1949, she never again had the success of the earlier work. But she loved the theatre, not least because the close relationship she enjoyed with Gielgud and Beaumont led her to attend rehearsals and emerge at least temporarily, and privately, from the anonymity that her social world had imposed on her.

The death in 1946 of her husband, at the early age of 37, was a blow. Their marriage had been a great source of strength to her. She stopped writing and devoted herself to bringing up their daughters. In any case, the world of the hunt and the accompanying coherence of the Anglo-Irish social life had begun to decline, even in strongholds like West Waterford. The crisis in the economy after 1945 had led to a marked decline in the various sources of income from the Empire on which so many of those families depended to augment the meagre returns from their farms. Some of the families from which Molly Keane drew her ideas simply sold up and left.

The reasons for the renewal of her creativity that led to the Eighties books are not clear; perhaps she was just bored. She was too old to ride any more and, although she took an active part in community life at Ardmore, she may have felt the need to make a final record of a world as remote from contemporary Ireland as science fiction. With Good Behaviour in 1981, she burst on a largely unsuspecting world as a charming, wickedly witty old lady, very much Molly Keane, an independent Irishwoman and proud of it. She said then in an interview: "Ireland is the last bastion of civilisation . . . there is still great beauty, uninvaded." But she also knew the darker side of these years - a cousin was assassinated in the North by ex-SAS men who had set up as Protestant paramilitaries.

Keane was very unlucky not to win the Booker Prize with Good Behaviour: in many years she would have done so easily but it went to Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children. She was unsurprised herself, thinking she was seen by the London literati as a right-wing old fossil, compared to the politically correct Rushdie. In fact, her last books do anything but celebrate the aristocratic milieu uncritically. The increasingly black element in the comedy encloses a vision of the world of the Anglo-Irish privileged as one of loneliness, futility and often despair. It may have appeared a terribly jolly life, but it was inwardly corrupt and doomed. Yet it had its own unique quality, and she chronicled its final phase better than anyone else has, better even than her great friend Elizabeth Bowen.

Although having virtually no formal education at all, of any kind, Molly Keane was extraordinarily well-informed on a huge range of topics. She was a brilliant conversationalist. She read widely, but Jane Austen was the only mentor she acknowledged, and whose works she reread. Her little house on top of the cliff at Ardmore was her home for many years, with a fine collection of modern Irish paintings, those of Nora Guinness in particular.

Keane's social behaviour was formal, with children in particular being treated kindly but expected to keep to their allotted place. Drinks were generous: she always said one of the few reasons to cut somebody was if they started putting optics on the spirits. An aggressive little dog followed her around the place. Like many Anglo-Irish, she appeared profoundly upper- class English on the surface, with a deeply attractive pointed face, blue eyes of exceptional clarity and the voice of a woman in her youth. But as soon as she started to speak the illusion broke. Although a warm friend, she was never slow to point out the faults of others.

To make her books so good, she needed the dose of acid in the bloodstream as well as more conventional substances, but it did lead to a sense of foreboding and mild anxiety in the Blackwater valley sitting-rooms after Good Behaviour came out. It was fairly clear to a lot of people who the cloddish Aroon in that book was modelled on. Who would be next? Unfortunately, no one will have that flattering minor worry any more.

James Pettifer

Mary Nesta Skrine ("M. J. Farrell"), playwright and novelist: born Co Kildare 20 July 1904; married 1938 Robert Keane (died 1946; two daughters); died Ardmore, Co Waterford 22 April 1996.

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