‘I promised Molly Keane her funeral would be a celebration’

PUBLISHED: 08:00 15 February 2017

Molly Keane. Picture: D Donohue

Molly Keane. Picture: D Donohue

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Hampstead Theatre founder JAMES ROOSE EVANS reviews an honest memoir of his friend the Irish writer Molly Keane by her daughter Sally

Molly Keane, was the last of the major Anglo-Irish writers, and a way of life that no longer exists outside of such novels such as her masterpiece, Good Behaviour. In her early years she was part of the hunting set and her first novels, all published under the pseudonym of J.G.Farrell, brilliantly convey the thrill and the danger of hunting. It was through the hunting set that she met John Perry who was closely involved with London theatre. As a result she wrote four plays, each of which was produced in the West End by H.M.Tennents, with starry casts, each directed by John Gielgud. Her first play, Spring Meeting was a huge success . She told me, ‘Everyone from the hunting world in Ireland came to the first night to see themselves depicted on stage, and loved it. It ran and ran and was a huge success. It was at the Ambassadors Theatre where you had your production of 84 Charing Cross Road.’

In October 1939 she married Bobbie Keane, who died, quite unexpectedly, of a blood clot in 1946. Molly was devastated and could not stop weeping. Her daughter, Sally, then aged eight, said to her, as Molly told me, ‘Mummy, Mummy, you must stop crying. We mustn’t let them see us crying.’ For almost forty years, however, she stopped writing plays or novels until Good Behaviour, became an overnight success both in England and America.

Suddenly she was coming regularly to England for major TV, radio and press interviews, staying in Hampstead either with her oldest friend Dame Peggy Ashcroft, or with her younger daughter Virginia Brownlow, who lived across the street from me. This was how we met and our friendship began. I suggested that as she was now living through old age she might consider writing a black comedy about this. The result was the first of many visits to Ireland, including my having a home near her. She conceived of a play entitled A Waltz with Age, not based, as Sally Phipps says, on an unwritten novel about two sisters, but with a wholly original plot which also involved us in a journey to Sligo, and to Yeats’ Isle of Innisfree, as part of the research required. Alas, although she wrote quite a bit of dialogue for this, the energy required was beyond her and, instead, she asked me to adapt her novel, Loving without Tears, which I did under the title of Angel.

On one occasion I accompanied Molly to the small Protestant church in Ardmore, where Molly lived, for the funeral of her friend Patricia Coburn. It was the most lugubrious service I have ever attended. At the end, Molly grabbed my arm and whispered, ‘Darling, when my time comes, promise it won’t be like that!’ and I answered, ‘Molly, I promise it will be a celebration!’ When that time came, Sally, Virginia and I filled all the window embrasures with flowers, and lit many candles. Hurd Hatfield, a close friend (why is there no mention of him?) read a poem, and I spoke. The church was packed, with people standing outside.

A loyal friend, a wonderful hostess and lover of parties, none-the-less,like many of her characters, Molly’s anger could lacerate people. ‘Her anger was hard to deal with’ writes Sally Phipps. ‘It took her a long time to shake it off and it took her victims time to recover.’ Typical of Molly’s cutting edge was when she snapped at Sally, who did so much for her, ‘I don’t want you to come to my funeral. Virginia can arrange it all.’

It is this ability of Sally Phipps to see her mother in the round, and without judgement, that makes this a remarkable memoir.

Molly Keane A Life by Sally Phipps is published by Virago price £20


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