ELIZABETH BOWEN and MOLLY KEANE by Thomas McCarthy

The month of November, with its decreasing hours of daylight and lengthening nights, offers an opportunity to turn inwards. It is traditionally a month in Ireland when we remember those who have passed on, indeed the 1st and 2nd of November are known respectively as All Saints and All Souls days. On Trasna, our focus this month will be on Irish writers who have passed on and who are remembered by contemporary writers and scholars.

Here, poet Thomas McCarthy explores the novels of Elizabeth Bowen and Molly Keane, in a piece that discusses  literature and the world of the Anglo-Irish, and also the importance of friendship . 

 

Thomas McCarthy with Molly Keane in 1992

ELIZABETH BOWEN and MOLLY KEANE

by  THOMAS McCARTHY

Two great Anglo-Irish novelists, tossed ashore by the receding waves of Anglo-Ireland just as Irish nationalism achieved its great victory of an independent State: they now seem like beacons of a dissenting light at the edge of the larger Irish history. They seem godlike as they stand erect in the desert of history, polished, larger-than-life, yet they were both intensely private women; shy even, and fired by a common ambition: to write down the social details of all they knew, to make themselves into the last representatives of a lost Anglo-Irish world. If there was a difference between them it was simply this: Molly Keane lived intensely inside Anglo-Irish life while Elizabeth Bowen commented intensely inside the same complicated life. And they were such friends, friends to the very end. There’s a photograph of the two women shopping together in my native Cappoquin, Co. Waterford, taken by Noreen Butler of Kilkenny; the two were shopping for an attractive wig for Elizabeth who had lost her hair from the chemotherapy for the cancer that would soon kill her in 1973. Molly would live on for another twenty or more years – years of intense writing and crowning success.

Sally Keane Phipps in her superbly written memoir of her mother, Molly Keane: A Life, describes the two women together by the fireside at Belleville Park, Cappoquin, drinking wine and discussing the difficulties of fiction. And, no doubt, the difficulties of love. Molly Keane was always intimidated by Elizabeth Bowen’s intellectualism and cosmopolitanism, while Bowen could be equally terrified by Keane’s seeming hardness: ‘Molly Keane has been staying here since Tuesday. We have been working away like beavers…Molly Keane is a fascinating little character and I’m fond of her. She’s as clever as a bag of monkeys. But her cynicism and pessimism are terrifying. She makes me feel quite a blobby old idealistic sentimental optimist by contrast….’ (letter from Bowen’s Court, 23rd March 1957).

Elizabeth Bowen, last of the Bowens of Bowens Court, Co. Cork, came back to her Anglo-Irish world imaginatively when she was in her late twenties – up to that point of her ancestral encounter she was a suburban fiction writer, intense, stylish, English, with suburban Harpenden and the Essex coast in her imagination.  Encounters, her first collection from Jonathan Cape, and the wonderful novel, Death of the Heart, place her firmly inside that 1920s/30s English generation of Winifred Holtby, Virginia Woolf, Vera Brittain. But with The Last September, published by Constable in 1929, she uncovered a family territory of fictional experiences that couldn’t be claimed by any other young London writer. In creating the world of Sir Richard and Lady Naylor of Danielstown and placing the character of their niece, Lois, at the centre of the story, Bowen offered us the familiar drama of Anglo-Irish Ascendancy struggling for relevance in a land at war. She creates a brilliant picture of how tangential native Irish life and its politics could be to occupants of a Big House; tangential yet fatal, as the young Ascendancy woman Lois was to learn to her cost. The personal tension in The Last September is paralleled by the political tension that surrounds the doomed big house of Danielstown; that mansion where a lost Lois tries to create an adult beginning in her life through close observation of her elders and tentative attempts at love. The unsure, observing, semi-detached Lois is one of Elizabeth Bowen’s many memorable and finely drawn characters – a great procession of marginalized women that includes Portia of Death of the Heart (1938) and Stella of The Heat of the Day (1948). Anglo-Irish, never quite at home except when on the ferry between England and Ireland, Bowen was a master of placing lives that were marginalized centre-stage. All of her characters suffer in their differing, tentative attempts to form lasting attachments; and the perpetual metaphor for that lack of attachment is the solitary Big House in the Irish landscape.

In contrast to Molly Keane, it must be said. Keane’s characters thrive on excessive love, rage, resentment, attachment. They suffer not because of the weakness of attachment but because of the wickedness of others, the wickedness of rivals. It is the war between personalities that consumed Keane – she was ferocious in her own loves and enmities, determined and unforgiving, and tiger-like in her protection of friends and family. As far as Keane was concerned, history and politics were merely troublesome misunderstandings between men in authority, men who should know better. What mattered for Keane were personal attachments and the thrill of social interaction. Here is how she describes her heroine of Two Days in Aragon, Grania Fox:

Grania had no repose. She flew about doing things all the time … Grania was a fat little blonde with pretty bones under her flesh; rather a slut, and inclined to wear party shoes with old tweeds. She would be in her bath, and forget to wash very much, but she was a great hand at curling up her blonde hair, of which she was very vain. Three of the most marriageable men in the County Westcommon had asked her to marry them; but they had no skill for love-making so she refused them all, and returned to Foley O’Neill, who embraced her in the wood and other out-of-the-way places, whereas the eligible young men seldom did more than hold her hand before they proposed…

It is now nearly forty years since Molly Keane, the Ardmore-based novelist, burst onto the literary scene for a second time with her late masterpiece, Good Behaviour. I will never forget that September evening in 1981 when I heard the BBC announce her name as one of the short-listed authors for the Booker Prize. I was having tea in the book-lined sitting-room of Glenshelane House with Keane’s friend and confidant, the elderly Brigadier FitzGerald of Cappoquin, as we listened to her name coming over the airwaves from London. For the previous ten years, between 1970 and 1980, we’d constituted a two-man Molly Keane book-club, reading all of her golden novels of the 1920s and 1930s, written under the nom-de-plume of ‘M. J. Farrell.’

It is difficult to explain to our children, or to interested readers, just how magical and unexpected the late success of Molly Keane would become. Socially, I was not as intimate with Keane – or Mrs. Bobby, as she was familiarly and not uncritically known in Cappoquin and West Waterford generally – as was the Brigadier, the grandson of the Duke of Leinster (a social distinction not lost on Keane). But I knew her even then as a supreme writer, a craftswoman for whom the making of a literary sentence was as purposeful and full of love as an arrangement of flowers or the mixing of a 1920s champagne cocktail. While John McGahern had his Garda barracks, Seamus Heaney had his bogs and Kate O’Brien had her Presentation parlours, Molly Keane simply had her horses and stable-yards. Her invented characters lived in a world of horses. They were not so much Big House people, in the manner of Yeats’ politically-vectored poetic characters, as horse and hunting people. In Ireland, ironically, being on a horse was less exclusive and less excluding, less Eighteenth Century, than occupying a grand house.

For Molly Keane and her circle there were always horses, for riding and petting and buying and selling – even in the middle of wars, the Great War, the Irish War of Independence, the Irish Civil War. Her description of the still Edwardian Dublin Horse Show in Rising Tide, published in 1937, is a terrific pen-picture:

That Horse Show was like every other Dublin Horse Show…. Women in grey flannel coats and skirts, awful hats and brown suede shoes sat on shooting-sticks round the rings and gossiped and criticised and sometimes admired. There were busy men in clean breeches and boots without a moment to spare for anybody, and less-busy men in suits and bowler hats who had lots of time for a drink with anybody who would pay for it. There were Indian princes in Jodhpurs that zipped down their legs in all directions, and everyone in Ireland with a horse to sell coveted their acquaintance. …. There were lovely girls from England who made the lovely girls in Ireland look nothing. They wore their clothes so much less briskly and painted their faces with less-advanced skill and determination. … And last and first and all the time and through everything there were horses. Horses in the rings. Rows and rows and dormitories of stabled horses. Horses led and ridden about wherever anybody wanted to sit and have a chat. Never in any place are horses so thick upon the ground as in Ballsbridge at this time.

And fifty years later, in her mid-seventies, in Good Behaviour, 1981, she could still capture the moment like this:

The Horse Show proceeded on its traditional five-day course, but how differently from earlier martyrdoms of fixed and smiling loneliness. On the last day Richard bought a yearling in the Bloodstock Sales. I sat between him and Hubert on the circular benches, while the yearlings, coming up for auction in the ring below us, were pulling back, kicking, or mincing politely round. I didn’t even realise Richard was bidding, his gestures were so quiet and small and knowledgeable. I thank God still that I didn’t happen to be talking, just thumbing through the lots in my catalogue.

It is certainly true that Molly Keane and Elizabeth Bowen’s entire careers teach us a key lesson about the life of writing – write only about what you know or what you passionately wish to possess. Everything else will seem vague to the reader. Keane possessed her imaginative and imagined world passionately, in its entirety. She had no wish to describe elsewhere, and she rarely strayed from the tense atmosphere in an Anglo-Irish drawing-room or a stable-yard. She was the last of that great line of novelists that began with Maria Edgeworth and deepened imaginatively with Somerville and Ross. Elizabeth Bowen wrote always with the passion of her desolate self, inventing characters who cling to the edge of society, yearning always to, somehow, begin an authentic adulthood. It is not possible for us to fully know their world now, because the social yearnings and undiminished British Empire that gave it its full architecture have become dust, leaving behind in Ireland beautiful Georgian houses and magnificent parklands that seem to wait for someone to come home from abroad in the April sunlight. These Anglo-Irish spaces are haunted because they once really did heave with an abundant life. This world was not ours, but it was vital and real.

We are now blessed with the after-glow of this world, in all its glory and decline, its beauty and political hypocrisies, in the key novels of these two great friends. If you haven’t read these four novels, you must read them straightaway. I’ll give them not in the order in which they were published, but in the order in which you should read them: The Last September, Two Days in Aragon, The Death of the Heart, Good Behaviour.

 

Thomas McCarthy was educated at University College Cork and worked for many years at Cork City Libraries. His published collections include The First Convention, The Sorrow Garden, Lost Province, Merchant Prince and The Last Geraldine Officer. His Pandemonium, 2016, was short-listed for the Irish Times/Poetry Now Award and his new collection, Prophecy, was published in April 2019. He has won the Patrick Kavanagh Award, the Alice Hunt Bartlett Prize and the O’Shaughnessy Prize for Poetry as well as the American-Ireland Funds Annual Literary Award. A selection of his work is included in the new Harvard Anthology of Irish Poetry (Belknap: Harvard University Press).

5 Responses to ELIZABETH BOWEN and MOLLY KEANE by Thomas McCarthy

  1. Eileen Acheson says:

    Times past and creative talent recalled with aplomb by Thomas Mccarthy.
    Lovely to reflect on Elizabeth and Molly’s friendship.

  2. Fionnuala o shea says:

    Thank you for the review and recommendations. Beautifully and sensitively written.

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