In the back of my mind I've had such mixed feelings about Molly Keane, that I'm a little surprised at myself for picking her as an author whose work I feel so compelled to read. The more I read the more I like her, however, and with Taking Chances she seems to finally be breaking away from a more formulaic type of story to something slightly darker and deeper and more interesting and nuanced than her earlier novels. Her books give a glimpse into a long vanished world, which is where my fascination lies. I might be able to do without so many descriptions of hunting--foxes, rabbits, birds or otherwise--yet this was such an integral part of Keane's life, and likely the lives of the other Anglo-Irish aristocratic families of the period, that now I can't imagine a book without sporting scenes in them. I am curious to see how her work will develop with later novels as she becomes more sophisticated in her storytelling abilities, but I was very impressed with Taking Chances, which was published in 1929.
Irish author Clare Boylan (I read her Room for a Single Lady some years ago) wrote an excellent introduction to this novel. What I like about these Virago introductions aside from their shedding a little light on the text is the extra biographical detail they offer on Molly Keane, as I don't believe a book has been written about her life yet, and I'd like to know more about the woman behind the stories.
"Molly Keane was, herself, something of an outsider. Although her social credentials were impeccable, her mother, a published poet and 'literary recluse', refused to indulge Molly and her sister with the clothes, lunches and parties necessary to 'launch' a girl. Molly believes that her sister Susan's romantic prospects were permanently damaged by the gown she was compelled to wear to her first dance--'a sort of tennis dress'."
Molly depended on friends and invitations to house parties for her own launching into society. As a matter of fact she all but lived with one friend, much to her parent's disapproval. It was there where she met her husband, Bobby Keane. She initially wrote under the pen name, M.J. Farrell, as being a lady author wasn't something to brag about to her sporting friends and was more of an embarrassment. By the time her third novel, Taking Chances, was published her literary life was no longer secret. It was apparently met with some disapproval from the "stricter brigade of local mothers". Writing books was already bad enough, but to write about the more intimate aspects of relationships and with a sense of humor was frowned upon. To top things off she lived with Bobby Keane for five years before they married, something that just wasn't done (though according to Keane, "of course it was done").
One of the things I like about Molly Keane is her authenticity. She knew and understood the society about which she wrote--she lived it. She may have gently skewered the lifestyle, but you can't chide her since she was such a careful and affectionate observer. Her descriptions of the people, the houses and even the natural world are so well done you have the feeling of being there as you read.
"Molly Keane is adamant about the fact that their world was not based on wealth (her own family, she says, was only moderately funded and the need to augment her dress allowance was her literary spur), but on a knowledge of horses and easy access to cheap land and domestic labor. Whatever reason, times change and people too, but when a new and very young novelist--Irish and female to boot--pokes her pen so provocatively through the social fabric of her own world, one realizes that people do not change with the times; it is people who change the times."
The "their" in the quote refers to the Sorrier family of the fictional county Westcommon of Sorrier House--Sir Ralph (Roguey), Maeve and Jer. Orphaned, though now grown, the three siblings are quite close but will soon be split as Maeve prepares for her wedding to neighboring squire, Major Rowland Fountain. They have been a companionable trio and were used to doing things with much pleasure in each other's society.
"Jer felt it most--that was because he loved Maeve; while Maeve loved Roguey; and of the three of them Roguey loved Roguey best of all."
Handsome Roguey is very much what you would expect a lord of the manor to be--confident, somewhat self-absorbed and oozing a sense of entitlement, which includes an indiscretion with the daughter of one of his tenants. He and Maeve are consummate horse riders. Jer, the youngest, prefers shooting as he has a fear of horses as well as an incurable stammer, so he is therefore somewhat outside of things. Of the three he is the most sensitive as well as the most perceptive and sees and understands what the other two don't. He doesn't miss a look or a tone of voice. Into their lives comes outsider Mary Fuller, Maeve's English friend who is to be her bridesmaid. Maeve's not even all that fond of Mary and will have wished she had chosen someone else by story's end as she catches the eyes and hearts of not only Roguey and Jer but Rowley as well.
Mary steals the show really, and much is made of this femme fatale by Boylan in the book's introduction. She’s not beautiful exactly, but there is something about her. Boylan calls her one of Molly Keane's most dazzling creations—"vulnerable and ruthless and with an unsettling appeal". She messes up everyone's lives, including her own. I wish I could say I was fonder of her than I am, and maybe with another reading, I could be, as she is certainly an interesting concoction. I found myself more sympathetic towards Maeve, however--good but unimaginative Maeve. I don’t think I could ever be a Mary Fuller, but I probably could be a Maeve Sorrier.
"'It's a bad thing,' Jer thought, 'to care about people so much that you learn something about their natures. The more that you know about them the more afraid you are of them. Maeve is getting like that with Rowley. If only she'd crash along and beher herself, and not study him. I wouldn't like to bet on her being happy now. She's got a terrific handicap to play off'."
Supposedly Molly Keane modeled her characters on people she knew, and with such scandalous goings on in the Sorrier household, her friends must have been wary of her.
Next up is Mad Puppetstown, which was published in 1932. It has yet another country house setting. It's found its place on my nightstand and I hope not much time passes before I start reading. Perhaps this is my year to make serious progress on my stack of Molly Keane's novels. Even with characters like Mary Fuller (or maybe because of them?), I think it will be a pleasure.