Molly Keane: A Life, by Sally Phipps

Molly Skrine learned young how best to negotiate the eugenic politics of the Anglo-Irish drawing room. “Being attractive was essential, a passport to freedom and adventure. . . I always knew how to flatter and yearn. . .” Femininity among the gentry combined the decorative, conversational and managerial arts in equal measure, and was frequently competitive: “we vied with each other in the forcing of bulbs”. As fearless at the dinner table as on the hunting field, Molly appears to have performed as her class demanded, using her wit to entertain “the chaps” and to establish intimacy with their wives and sisters, while noticing the self-delusion and fantasy that sustained her class without pursuit of trade or income. At 18, she published the first of 11 novels under the pseudonym MJ Farrell. Later she’d describe a Farrell novel as “seventy thousand words through which the cry of hounds reverberates continually”, though this is to dismiss the complexity of their sexual politics. With the £7 advance, she threw a cocktail party at the Shelbourne and bought the dresses denied to her by her austere mother.

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