I had 2 Molly Keane novels in my substantial TBR, so this seemed a perfect opportunity to get to know an author so many seem to enjoy. I began with her first novel, the wonderfully titled The Knight of Cheerful Countenance (1926). Unbelievably, she wrote this at the age of 17 to supplement her dress allowance (!) and chose the pseudonym MJ Farrell to hide what she was doing from her friends, who were all huntin’ shootin’ fishin’ types. Molly Keane wrote the introduction to my Virago edition and it’s well worth a read, to hear tales of friends with uncles called Major Hyacinth Devereaux and the butler shrouding the parrot before morning prayers. I’d love to know if she ever met the Mitfords.
The plot of The Knight of Cheerful Countenance is slight: Allan comes to visit his Irish cousins, falls in love with one who loves another, while his other cousin falls in love with him. It’s full of horses and slightly less full of bloodsports, thankfully. There were about 2 passages I skipped because I just really don’t want to read about such things. And yet despite these unpromising qualities, I thoroughly enjoyed the novel.
In her introduction Keane fully acknowledges that the incredibly privileged, oblivious existence of her childhood and young adulthood is gone forever. The novel makes passing reference to the political situation of the time, but Allan and his cousins Ann and Sybil are walled up on an estate away from it all:
“Deeds of unbelievable foulness and treachery were still – judging by the newspapers – of almost daily occurrence in the land, but they seemed to leave untouched the district of Bungarvin. Yet wrecked police barracks and courthouses, country houses standing empty, and the charred walls of what had once been country houses, all went to show how little of a myth was the state of civil war in Ireland.”
As the title suggests, the novel is a romance and there is most certainly an escapist quality to it (the first publishers were Mills & Boon, although I think they published a wider range then than they do now).
“Dennys St Lawrence presented as good a picture of young manhood as one could wish to see on any glorious summer morning. With his bare dark head and his grey eyes, his handsome horse, and his easy seat in the saddle, he belonged to this Irish morning with complete entirety.”
This isn’t straight romance though. Keane views the events and the people with a fond, humorous eye:
“Silence, however, never reigned for long when Allan was anywhere about.
‘Jolly little successful what-not, what?’ he observed affably, by way of starting the conversation.”
The Knight of Cheerful Countenance is a short novel (272 pages) and so it doesn’t flag, and I would never have guessed it was written by a 17 year old. It’s not the most accomplished piece, but it’s not juvenilia either. I don’t really feel I’ve done it justice here. It’s very readable and good fun, and it certainly made me want to read more by Molly Keane.
Which is exactly what I did. Loving Without Tears (1951) was Keane’s tenth novel and she was also a successful dramatist by this time, so it is a much more sophisticated novel than her first. It is much darker than The Knight of Cheerful Countenance, centring around a wholly manipulative matriarch, the inappropriately monikered Angel, who bends her children, niece and faithful retainers to her will.
“Each worshipped her and each lamp should have its due portion of oil to feed that flame of worship, and from each she would obtain the maximum of that slave labour which is the expression of such a love.”
She is an absolute tyrant, all the more despicable because her tyranny is couched in expressions of maternal love and concern. But things are about to change. Her son Julian has returned from the war with a fiancée who is (shock!) American, and a woman of the world. She sees through Angel and will not be manipulated, unlike Angel’s daughter Slaney, who is oblivious to her mother trying to split her up from the man she loves:
“As a gardener tends nectarines, so did Angel minister anxiously to skin and hair and health of body. As well, she disciplined the beautiful body towards an excellence in the sports best calculated for its exhibition – a garlanded, shampooed young heifer, her looks a miracle, her thoughts unknown, Angel led her daughter by a ribbon towards the supreme sacrifice and glory of the right marriage.”
There’s also a niece, Tiddley, who Angel abuses despicably, bribing her to help with her plans to disrupt her children’s lives. The nanny Birdie, sees things as they are:
“the love she’s pinching out from each of us, same as I’d disbud a rose”
Yet the brilliance of Keane’s writing means that while I desperately wanted everyone to wake-up to what Angel was up to, and for her to get her comeuppance, I didn’t want her punished too badly. Loving Without Tears is an astute psychological study of a woman who behaves appallingly, but it is done without heavy judgement and you are left to fill in some gaps as to why Angel behaves as she does. To some extent it is a comedy of manners; if only everyone can cast aside convention and have an honest conversation, everything will work out. So it is funny, but with a cynical undertone running through it which stops it being fluffy. I enjoyed watching it all play out pretty much as I expected (not a criticism, I enjoy Austen for the same reason) and the ending was entirely satisfying.
To end, a song about another famous Irish Molly: