One did not talk nonsense to horses: Notes on Molly Keane by her daughter Sally Phipps

When the Irish author Molly Keane (1904–1996) suggested to her daughter Sally Phipps that she write Keane’s biography, she told her: ‘I trust you completely; the only thing I’m afraid of is that you won’t be nasty enough.’

Book cover shows a black and white portrait photo of Molly Keane as a young woman, with title ('Molly Keane: A Life') and author's name, Sally Phipps, below it, along with a blurb from Diana Athill: 'Marvellous'.The result of that proposal, Molly Keane: A Life (Virago, 2017), is an excellent account I can recommend to anyone who enjoys Keane’s work. It contains several passages and items of linguistic note, which – this being a blog about language – may be of passing interest also to those who have not read her.

Keane wrote her first dozen or so novels as ‘M. J. Farrell’. The name came to her fortuitously:

When returning from hunting one evening she saw the name M. J. Farrell over a pub doorway and she took it as a pseudonym. Secrecy was important to her as she thought no one would dance with her in the horsey society in which she moved if it was known she was a writer.

The seriousness of ‘horsey society’ extended to the horses themselves:

Daphne and she talked to each other in a secret nonsense language . . . . Silliness ruled completely for a time; it was an outburst, an indulgence. They communicated also through their dogs. Little dogs had a special position in that formal world. One spoke nonsense and baby talk to them. They responded in kind, and sometimes uttered insults and truths in disguise like the Fools in Shakespeare. Horses were a more serious matter. They were the elders. They carried one safely over fences, or not. They could drop one. They were adored, but one did not talk nonsense to them, or about them. There was a rather beautiful, almost academic language connected with them. It did not do to say the wrong thing about a horse.

As a child, Keane had a frank curiosity that was out of step with her family’s mores:

Sensual by nature, she sought a reality and an explanation which was not forthcoming. In her Victorian household these matters were accepted but not mentioned. One’s stomach was referred to a ‘your little inside’ and the loo was called ‘the place’. Taboo fuelled Molly’s interest. The locked door of Bluebeard’s cupboard was always seductive to her.

These and other taboos made their way into Keane’s writing: Previous posts on Sentence first look at the treatment of euphemisms for the toilet and the stomach in her novels.

In her youth, Keane befriended Adele Cavendish, known as Dellie, an American girl who shared and in some ways exceeded Keane’s directness:

Dellie and Molly were alike in temperament as well as physique, both originals, quick-witted, prone to changes of mood, and in a dark fit, to saying the unforgivable. They would relieve their feelings with a shower of foul language. Dellie did this on purpose to ‘épater [‘impress’] les bourgeois’, especially during a lull at her dining table. Molly applauded Dellie’s daring. She was daring herself, but she was imbued with her society’s rules. Adele neither knew nor cared about the rules. She came from another world, married into the highest echelons of the British aristocracy and regarded Anglo-Ireland as quite pretentious and ripe for send-up.

School brought to Keane the use of French and the habit of writing:

French was spoken at all times. Molly said they learned an awful ‘Irish’ French but she acquired a lasting admiration for the language, which she read all her life, and which eventually led her to Proust, her most loved author. To assuage her loneliness she turned to composition and writing became her great escape. This was the gift the school inadvertently gave her.

On starting new books, and revisiting old ones:

In one of her rare observations about her own writing, Molly said, ‘Does one get perverted by success, does it fatten the mind? Is there a despairing quality? . . . I can never do it again, that follows a peak achievement. You must go back to the beginning. Be as diffident as you were before you knew you were good.’

Knowing she was good was not something Molly experienced much. When she attempted to reread one of her books she said, ‘I feel slightly sick as though I had eaten too much.’ These feelings are familiar to many writers. You venture into the wilderness each time.

Keane resisted the use of a thesaurus until Noel Coward advised her otherwise:

His recognition of her talent was a lasting encouragement to her. He also recommended on a practical level, the dictionary of synonyms. Molly thought, because of her Skrine Calvinism, that getting words from a reference book instead of out of the labour of your head was a kind of cheating, but when Noel Coward sanctioned it she acquired a Roget’s Thesaurus and, in desperation, sometimes used it. [Skrine was the family name: Molly Keane was born Mary Nesta Skrine.]

In this final excerpt, Phipps laments Ireland’s traditional ways of speaking and more physical ways of knowing. Your mileage may vary on several counts here, but it’s a point of view with partial merit:

For generations our poets and writers have relied on the reality and metaphor of the natural world as the Celtic monks and Yeats and Heaney and Molly herself did. In the years since we put the anthology together, much has changed; rural, spiritual Ireland has retreated and been damaged by scandal. It can still be found in the landscape (also diminished by bad planning), in the music and the writing, and sometimes still in people’s talk. The old bachelors of Connemara, who used to be the best people in the world to hold a conversation over a gate with and who spoke a beautiful Irish-English honed by loneliness and imagination, have become extinct. The language has been diluted by Americanisms and technology. Irish people are keen on the web and are very good at it. They are more likely to see their history on a screen than in the ruins of a castle or an abbey.

One other item I’ll share indirectly: a passage on how Keane’s ‘chief education’ was her childhood spent immersed in the natural world. I posted this on Twitter in a thread featuring other lines I liked from some of her novels:

I’ve also updated my post on non-life-threatening unselfconscious hyphens to assess the use of ‘unself-forgiving’ in Phipps’s book.

2 Responses to One did not talk nonsense to horses: Notes on Molly Keane by her daughter Sally Phipps

  1. Thanks for reminding your readers of this wonderful biography, and of Molly Keane’s books. When I read the biography, several passages struck me so forcefully that I copied them out and saved them. The one that seems most relevant to this blog post is this, which describes Keane’s literary style perfectly:

    Her struggle with the two sides of her nature, the one which snatched up the stiletto of the “good put-down”, and its opposite, which radiated a total sympathy, gave her endless trouble in life. These opposing forces are very clear in her literary style and are partly responsible for its exhilarating, dangerous salt-air quality.

    • Stan Carey says:

      Oh yes, that’s a fine observation – thank you for sharing it here. The ability (and nerve) to deliver a ‘good put-down’ seems to have been an important part of her socialization, but she could temper it with uncommon sensitivity, and the two tendencies could lend her writing a particular tension.

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