I can't imagine having written a book at the age of seventeen. I can't imagine writing one now and if I did it would certainly be nowhere near as good as Molly Keane's Knight of the Cheerful Countenance (written using the pen name M.J. Farrell when she was only seventeen), which I found to be surprisingly good. It did take me some time to get into it, but once I did I was very much drawn into the story. I wrote a bit about Keane's introduction to the story here that she penned in 1993 some 67(!) years after the initial publication of the book. The world she wrote about then is long vanished and she felt some explanation to the modern reader was necessary. I barely touched on what she wrote about, which I found extremely fascinating (better than any historical fiction as she actually lived in this long gone world).
What took me some getting used to was something I was warned about. In the brief biographical material it's noted that Keane was born into a "rather serious Hunting and Fishing and Church-going family". They weren't joking. Her interests as a young woman were "hunting and horses and having a good time" and that certainly comes out in her fiction. I might add that dogs were a very important feature of the story--lots of dogs. She took a pen name in order to hide the literary side of her life from her friends--the sporting life being much more favored over such intellectual pursuits. I think I favor the intellectual over the sporting, so the many hunting scenes were slightly lost on me. To be honest I tended to root for the poor rabbit or fox or badger, or whatever was slated to be savaged. It's not that I have anything against the poor dogs who are simply following their instincts, but my world isn't one of hunting. So I greatly enjoyed the story in general and the hunting scenes I read more in terms of a sort of sociological study. Keane was writing about the Anglo-Irish, a privileged segment of society and everything she wrote about was not only normal but expected behavior no matter how much I might cringe from aspects of it.
The story itself is a pretty simple one. Allan Hillingdon has come to Ireland from India via England. Although relatives in England like him well enough, he isn't quite rich enough and the fear is one of the young ladies of the family will fall for him. Better to pawn him off on Irish relatives, so off he goes to Bungarvin to see his distant cousin Major Hillngdon. The Major has two lovely daughters and a few younger sons, but it's the daughters we're going to be concerned with. Miss Ann Hillingdon, beautiful yet practical is a good judge of horses and an excellent horsewoman. Allan instantly falls for her when she meets him at the station.
It's Captain Dennys Saint Lawrence who owns Ann's heart, however. Dennys is the Master of Hounds and he and Ann have been good friends for some time. Unfortunately Ann's father doesn't approve and isn't likely to agree to a marriage to someone of a slightly lower station. Dennys may be respected for his savvy with horses and dogs, but his father is an unscrupulous horse dealer who manages to throw doubt on Dennys's integrity. Because of questionable doings, Ann finds herself in turmoil, uncertain how she should feel about what she's heard about Dennys.
To complicate matters Ann's younger sister Sybil is as instantly smitten with Allan as Allan is with Ann. Ann may be beautiful in a classical manner, but Sybil's beauty is something more, she exudes charm and insouciance. It's obvious from Allan's countenance how he feels about Ann, but that doesn't stop Sybil from using her wiles to attract him. Events will conspire against the lovers from pairing up properly. Of course the story about how the relationships are worked out, and it's all set against late-1920s Irish high society, country society to be specific. Along with the sportier scenes there's also tennis parties and dances and life in general in a grand country house. Keane wrote about her inspiration:
"The sparks of invention were probably ignited when I discovered my elder sister on the edge of something rather more than friendship with an attractive young man--of course, a brilliant horseman--who had been employed to make and break my father's young horses. Of course, his social status was slightly beneath our own and, for this reason alone, he would never have been countenanced as a suitor. Before long, I was in love with him, and felt more distress than my sister when my father, perhaps sniffing the situation dismissed him."
"The first awareness of the Real Life ardour and anguish of romantic love was stopped in its tracks when I was struck down by a mysterious fever and confined to the sick-room for several long weeks. In this predicament I had to rely on my imagination and writing became my escape. The Knight of Cheeful Countenance began to take shape in my mind as I decided to write about the girl I most wished to be myself."
I was impressed that such a perceptive story was written by such a young person, definitely a talented writer in the making. I've already started on her second novel, Young Entry, published in 1928. About fifty pages in I can see it's in a similar vein has her first book--perhaps a love story, relationships to work out and more hunting, fishing and dogs. I still plan on reading my way through her work in the order she published her novels. It'll be interesting to see how she grows and changes as an author and how her stories reflect these changes. I think I've managed to find used copies of all her books. I only wish I could find a biography or memoir, but I have a feeling I'll be able to piece things together as I read--between the stories she tells and the introductions to the books. The blurb on Young Entry compares her to her "fellow Irish writers, Somerville & Ross". I wonder who they are and whether I should keep an eye out for them as well. Not that I don't already have plenty to keep me busy with Molly Keane!