Way back in March I decided to embark on a new reading project. I had just read Molly Keane's Two Days in Aragon, a book that I didn't write about at the time, but I was extremely impressed by. I liked it so much I thought she was an author whose work I'd like to explore more. So I scooped up nearly all her books, which are published by Virago Press (mine are second hand copies), and set to work reading them. Planned to set to work reading them anyway. You know how things go--I got distracted, but I've picked up her first novel, Knight of Cheerful Countenance, once again and am reading in earnest this time.
Molly Keane was born in Ireland (Co. Kildare) in 1904 to a "rather serious Hunting and Fishing and Church-going family". She was educated mostly at home by governesses and published her first book, The Knight of Cheerful Countenance, in 1926 which she wrote when she was only seventeen. One story goes that she did so in order to supplement her pin money. Part of my fascination with Keane, who wrote most of her earlier books under the pseudonym, M.J. Farrell, is the fact she was Anglo-Irish--or part of the privileged class. I've always found this particular period in Irish history interesting and complex due to the political climate and the nature of the class system which had such repercussions on Irish society.
The Knight of Cheerful Countenance concerns two sisters mainly. They live at Ballinrath House with their father and brothers, and are very like Keane--spending much of their time with their horses and dogs, making the rounds of parties and playing tennis. It's also a story filled with romantic entanglements and bouts of unrequited love. I don't normally like to read introductions before reading a novel, but I was curious to know more about this story. The introduction was written by Keane herself and discusses the story very little, but perhaps even more insightfully she talks about her life as a young woman during this time, a way of life which has since vanished. I wish Keane had written her memoirs, as the introduction paints such a distinct picture of the time and place. I thought I would share a few highlights.
"During the days of my childhood and girlhood, in the earlier years of the twentieth centuy, the title 'daughter-at-home' carried no stigma as it did later. Daughters were not educated to fit them for any job, and life in the family had many advantages and pleasures. One was sure of a horse and two or three days' hunting in the week. A dress allowance, if meagre, was a certainty. Travel expenses were paid. With a full staff of servants, there was nothing in the way of housework to be done. A girl with a talent for music or painting had leisure to practice her art."
The landed gentry in small and particularly in big houses would have numerous servants. Butlers were always known by their surname, first and second footmen were always 'John' or 'George' ("in order to save their employer from having to tax his memory with new names"), cooks were always Mrs. whether they were married or not, and a kitchen maid had no name at all. The lady of the house would rarely enter the kitchen. Due to lack of refrigerators food was eaten in season and Keane calls the ingredients of the day "so ambrosial as to demand only the plainest cooking."
"Puddings played a more important part than now. Fruit from the kitchen garden was there in season and, out of season, well-preserved in the skilful bottling that took the place of freezing. Queen of puddings or chocolate soufflé were abiding favorites for party lunches. For everyday eating, no one despised a steamed marmalade or lemon sponge. Custard was made as an accompaniment to most desserts and rich cream in a squat silver jug was always on the table."
Sorry, I had to share that passage. I'm always intrigued by what people ate! Unsurprisingly they also ate a lot of game and apparently even the plainest cook knew just how to cook it.
The class structure was sharply divided. There was no marriage across the social strata. "Seduction was understandable; marriage not." Sons went to English public schools and then on to military service. Eldest sons inherited everything. Younger sons were often lifelong bachelors (being too poor to marry). As for daughters--being an excellent horsewoman was paramount. Beyond horses dress was the primary object of interest.
"Country houses were often many miles distant from each other and, without telephones, friends and neighbors visited unannounced. Television and radio were undreamed of, so they, young and old, depended on each other for entertainment. Dinner dances were regular events. We danced happily to the piano and to records on the horned gramophone. Even as a child, I was popular as a good mimic. To reproduce the voice of stable-boy or cook was to be an entertainer."
This is a hodge podge of images that Keane shares in her introduction, and only a small smattering of them, but they serve to create a backdrop against which the story plays out. For once reading the introduction is a good thing, as I now have lots of visual images in my head and can place the characters within them.