16 March 2017, The Tablet

Chronicles of a vanished age


 

Molly Keane: A Life
SALLY PHIPPS

Given the caution about meeting one’s heroes, should a similar warning attach to their biographies? Ever since the spectacular success of Good Behaviour, the extravagant, blackly comic novel which eviscerated the toxic double standards of Ireland’s Protestant Ascendancy, many have prized the work of Anglo-Irish novelist and playwright Molly Keane. Often dubbed the last of the “Big House” novelists, she was born Mary Nesta Skrine in County Kildare and died aged 91 in 1996.

Until now, the facts of her life, like the elements of a fairy tale, have seemed so established and so vivid as to preclude further scrutiny. Fairy tales, however, frequently have their dark undertones, and this account of Keane’s life, written by her elder daughter at her mother’s request, tells a complex, disturbed tale.

Her first novel was written aged 17, so the story goes, solely to fund an idyllic, prelapsarian life of parties and hunting to hounds through the bogs of southern Ireland. It was published by Mills & Boon, under the pseudonym M. J. Farrell, a name taken from a pub she spotted while out hunting and adopted “to hide my literary side from my sporting friends”.

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