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Brilliant, fascinating and complicated - Molly Keane and the Anglo Irish world that proved her inspiration

Novelist and playwright Molly Keane was a brilliantly acerbic chronicler of the Anglo Irish world of Big Houses, hunts and secret parties. But as a new biography by her daughter reveals, her own life - with its lonely childhood, ill-advised affairs, deceptions and depression - was in itself the stuff of fiction, writes Emily Hourican

Shortly before she died, at the age of 92, Molly Keane suggested to her eldest daughter, Sally Phipps, that she might like to write about her. "Make it as much like a novel as possible," was Molly's advice, adding: "I trust you completely. The only thing I'm afraid of is that you won't be nasty enough".

She need not have feared. Molly Keane: A Life is wonderful. Sally is never nasty. In fact, the love and admiration she feels for her mother is very obvious, despite the fact that they were not always in sympathy with each other: "you and I are such different cups of tea that I think sometimes I have been very nasty and unfair to you", Molly once said to her, but she is rigorous and fair.

The Molly who emerges is a complete person, with faults and failures as well as brilliance and verve. She is the Molly you would expect from her best novels. And not only is her life vividly rendered, but so too is the vanished world of the Anglo-Irish - described by Elizabeth Bowen as "sustained by style" - revealed in a way that is meticulous, humorous and very affectionate.

Molly's mother, Agnes, came from Antrim and was a poet and writer. Under the name Moira O'Neill, she published Songs Of The Glens Of Antrim, which had modest but enduring success. Her father, Walter Skrine, was English, one of the many younger sons of grand families who was expected to make his own way in the world. Together, they settled in an 18th century house called Ballyrankin, in Wexford, where Molly grew up.

Hers was a very typical childhood of the time - remote from her parents, with little formal education beyond the odd lesson with a governess. Children were expected to get out and stay out, spending their days with just each other and the dogs for company, except when required by adults "to field tennis balls with sulky diligence", as Molly put it.

For years, Molly, the third of five children, felt herself to be inadequate. Like all her siblings, she had the long "Skrine nose", which spoiled, she felt, any aspirations to beauty, but Molly also had thick red hair - something that was seen as wild, too "Irish" so that the family cook called her "that right red rip". These things mattered in the world of Molly's youth, where girls were expected to marry, and marry well, because there were no other lives open to them.

As an adult, Molly described herself thus: "I was the unloved, unattractive child, and I was often sick. My mother hated me and I hated her." In fact, reality was far more complicated. Mother and daughter undoubtedly clashed - Agnes was deliberately, carefully moral, whereas Molly once confessed "I was born dishonest and a social snob" - and there was clearly much misunderstanding between them. And yet, Molly craved the love and attention of her mother, once saying: "She was a star. I loved her to distraction, and she loved me in an abstracted sort of way."

Molly was a child who yearned for affection and the kind of demonstrative love that her mother - whose intense relationship with her husband largely excluded her children - was incapable of. Agnes was restrained, reclusive and aesthetic where Molly was sensual, social and celebratory. Agnes bothered very little about food, meaning that the Skrine meals - particularly the nursery meals - were even more disgusting than was the wont in that era. The house was cold and unadorned, without much comfort, and maternal affection in short supply.

In response, Molly's own houses, as an adult, were always full of flowers, people, good food - she was an excellent cook - and open expressions of love. "Being a housewife is far more creative than writing, but it doesn't pay so well," she once lamented. The need for love that remained thwarted in her family relationships was expressed later in close friendships, including with Elizabeth Bowen, Adele Astaire (sister of Fred and married to the Duke of Cavendish), John Gielgud and Micheal MacLiammoir, and passionate romance.

Molly wanted far more than was given to her. She wanted affection and inclusion; as a child, and a girl, in that particular family, these things were not on offer. And so she learned watchfulness, an outsider's ability to analyse and deconstruct along with a lifelong itch to sting with sharp observations that would be the hallmark of her writing. She was addicted to the "good put-down", unable to resist, even where it caused real pain, something that jarred with the essential kindness and sympathy of her nature. It was a character twitch that cost her friendships throughout her life.

She also learned the importance of being good at the things that mattered. First among these was anything to do with horses, and particularly hunting, which Molly adored. Hunting was the raison d'etre of the Anglo Irish. It was what they did, and discussed; their social lives were built around it and celebrity derived from it - to have a good seat, good hands, be without fear, were the attributes most admired.

Although she learned to be charming and amusing, to attract friends and admirers with her sharp wit and willingness to engage, as a child Molly met few other children, and had no idea how to talk to them. When she was 14, she was sent to boarding school in Bray, an experience that only reinforced her sense of being an outsider. She was ignored by the other girls, made no friends and felt herself to be very much alone and unloved. She later said: "I might never have become a writer had it not been for the isolation in which I suffered as an unpopular schoolgirl."

While at the school, Molly suffered a great loss, one that remained with her. On July 7, 1821, Ballyrankin was burned to the ground by insurgents in the Irish Civil War. The Skrines were far from unique in this - so many Big Houses were burned at that time, often by people who knew the families well, even worked for them - but Molly mourned the house all her life, and continued to visit the ruins until she was very old.

With nowhere to live, Molly, now 16, and her siblings, were sent to cousins in Antrim, the Turnleys. There, Molly began to learn about a different kind of life, one she instantly adored. She learned to dance, to powder her nose, to dress well, and to flirt, which for Molly, back then, involved a "silly baby me" act, which apparently went down very well with men for whom a horror of "braininess" in women ran very deep.

The Skrines built a new house, on land next to the old one, and Molly moved home, where - possibly as a result of feeling submerged once again in family life - she developed an undiagnosed illness that kept her in bed for months. While there, she wrote her first novel, The Knight Of Cheerful Countenance, which she sold to Mills & Boon for £70.

She spent the money on clothes, train tickets, riding boots, the things she needed in order to shine. Her older sister, Susan, had been sent to her first grown-up party wearing "a sort of tennis dress", very much the wrong sort of clothes, and her social standing never quite recovered. Molly was determined this would never happen to herself.

For most of her life, she insisted that writing was simply a means to an end; a way to earn the money she needed, something to be fitted in around the main events - the parties and hunts that were so important to her, and indeed to her novels. And yet she worked hard at it. Rather than dashing off her pages, she applied herself diligently, working to the best of her ability, even if the time devoted to it was squeezed in between the real business of the day. "If only people and life did not matter quite so much to me. I would write better, and give my writing the passion I give to my living," she once said.

But the parties and hunts weren't just for diversion. They were also the only opportunities girls had to carry off the all-important feat of getting married. At the time of Molly's first social excursions, in the aftermath of the Great War, this was even more difficult than previously - "We girls, some silly, all jobless, belong to a curious social world in which men were few," she said, later adding: "How I envied the really rich girls, so pursued by the scarce young men."

Because Molly was adamant that marriage was the only thing. Just as her writing would always be secondary to her socialising, the life of the mind was entirely subservient to the life of the world. She had no intention of being a spinster - those unmarried daughters and aunts that were the glue of Anglo-Irish society, dispatched here and there in moments of need, to mend and mind and make, but little valued. Her sister, Susan, disappointed in a love affair that her parents deemed unsuitable, chose to study at Oxford, and became a socialist and supporter of Gandhi. For Molly, everything Susan did and achieved was second best, substitutes for the "proper" life of marriage, men and children.

When she was 22, Molly fell in love, with a dashing, married Master of Hounds, with whom she had an affair that was as dangerous as it must have been exciting. Her lover's wife wrote to Molly's mother, who told Molly she had burned the letter without reading it - a display of loyalty that Molly was very grateful for - and the fear of pregnancy must have been constant. Around that time, a baby's body was found floating down the River Slaney, born to one of the family's unmarried maidservants. The baby lay in a Switzer's dress box that was addressed to Miss M Skrine. For the rest of her life, Molly would tell this story, which clearly haunted her, both for its own pitiful horror and, possibly, a reminder of the risks she had taken.

The affair didn't last - and was clearly never going to lead to marriage - but Molly doesn't seem to have minded. By then she had talked her way into the company of "the rakish, charming people who understood" as she dubbed them; an amusing and sophisticated scene, far more lavish than anything Molly had been brought up to. Woodrooffe in Tipperary, home of Willie Perry, was the heart of this set. There was plenty of dancing and flirting and falling in love with unsuitable people, where jokes on any topic were allowed as long as they were amusing.

In fact, Molly - who took one look at the place and knew that it was exactly what she had been longing for - was forbidden to go by her mother, who considered the house and those who hung out there, too louche. And so she lied and dissembled in order to get there.

At Woodrooffe, Molly met many of the people who would be her friends for life, including Perry's wife, Dolly, who, despite the friendship between Willie and Molly that often tipped over into intimate flirtation, became one of the great heroines of Molly's life, and her model for how to run a house that was warm, inviting and beautiful, somehow financed by an uncertain income from horses, gambling, the harvest and odd hand-out.

Perry's two children, Sivie and John, were also to have a great deal of influence in Molly's life. Both were beautiful, fascinating and charming and had, according to gossip, swapped genders; John was gay, Sivie bisexual. John, in particular, was an all-important link with London and the world of theatre. Through him, she met Peggy Ashcroft, John Gielgud and theatre impressario Binkie Beaumont (Gielgud's lover and head of the production company HM Tennant), who produced her first play, Spring Meeting.

At Woodrooffe, she also met Bobbie Keane, handsome, dashing, horsey, a gentleman farmer six years younger than Molly, who she seduced, fell in love with, and had an affair with for four years before they married, in October 1939.

At the time, Spring Meeting was a great success, giving her the confidence and freedom she had always yearned for. "Praise sets me free," she wrote at that time, memorably describing success as something to walk into a room on. For her, Bobbie was the source of calm and certainty in Molly's life. She described waking in the morning and reaching out "to touch him with the ends of all my fingers to see if strength and quiet will flow out of him to me".

They had two children, Sally and Virginia, and lived a pleasant, country life for a time, at Belleville in Cappoquin, despite the distant menace of Second World War (Bobbie was refused by the army because of his stammer, something that caused him a great deal of secret shame).

Molly loved Bobbie, she loved her girls and being married, but was disillusioned when she found that these things were not, after all, a cure for the bouts of depression and loneliness that followed her all her life, and indeed the lives of all her siblings.

There was a strong streak of melancholy in all the Skrines that with Molly would often surface in tears and anger. "I go to sleep as calm and as happy and as blessed as if I were slipping through waves and then am woken by a terrible unrest, a desperate feeling of domestic crisis," she once wrote.

She worried about money to the point of panic and even illness at times, although she could be madly generous when in funds. There were rows with Bobbie, over apparently silly things like the cooking of sausages or rabbits destroying the lawn, but the scenes she could create out of seemingly innocuous disagreements or discontents, bit deep.

And then, in June 1944, a bomb fell on the Guard's Chapel in London, killing 121 people, including Bobbie's mother, Alice. Bobbie, at the time, was away from home, and Molly intercepted messages from his sisters about the funeral arrangements. Afraid that London was unsafe, she told Bobbie that only one travel pass to London could be granted, and that it had gone to his sister Frida.

It was, her daughter Sally acknowledges, a "mad act of hubris", although directed by "misplaced love". Whatever the motivation, it was clearly unforgivable and deeply affected their marriage.

By 1946, pregnant with Virginia, Molly thought Bobbie had fallen in love with someone else, and was distraught, although she tried to be, as she believed she should be, generous. She offered Bobbie his freedom, but he refused to take it, saying he would never leave her.

And then, just a few months later, while they were both in London, to see HM Tennant about staging Molly's Guardian Angel, which had a good run at The Gate theatre, Bobbie suffered a duodenal ulcer and was rushed to hospital where he was operated on.

About a month later he was told he could go home, and Molly went to collect him in a taxi. Waiting in a small side room for him, she was instead told by the matron: "Mrs Keane, you must be very brave, your husband is dead."

Bobbie had suffered a clot to the heart. He was 36. Molly went into shock. She didn't go to the funeral, instead going to Bond Street to buy a light shade and had no idea where he was buried.

Without Bobbie, Molly was lonely and heartbroken, but she threw herself into the only consolation she believed in - parties and social life.

She and the girls moved out of Belleville, letting it to a hunting-mad Englishman who she later had an affair with, and into the wing of a cousin's house.

There, she entertained often, giving parties and lunches. And she went out - lawn meets, lunches, teas, drinks and dinner, sometimes all in one day. "My heart is sad and my body is alone," she wrote at that time, but she nonetheless put on her bravest, gayest face, using all the "wit and nonsense" at her disposal to carve out a place for herself. "Don't whine and don't make a fuss," was the code of her people.

She wrote too, producing the play Treasure Hunt, which was a great success in London, starring Sybil Thorndike and Alan Webb, and earned her enough money to move back into Belleville, where the entertaining and socialising continued.

In fact, she seems to have buried her grief at Bobbie's death quite convincingly most of the time, although even years later she was capable of breaking down completely and crying as if she would never stop.

There were love affairs too, with married men, but conducted in such a way that their wives seemed not to mind; indeed, some of these wives were as close to Molly as their husbands were.

Gradually though, the lack of money began to show. It was impossible to maintain Belleville, and the encroachment of weeds, of damp and decay, all traditional enemies of these houses, began in earnest and Molly moved out, to Dysert, a bungalow in Ardmore, and sold up. The wrench for her was terrible, and only her long habit of putting a brave face on tragedy got her through.

Then followed many years during which she believed that her writing career was finished. Her play, Dazzling Prospect, produced in 1961, was a failure. In an era when grittiness and realism, the work of John Osborne and Samuel Becket, were revolutionising theatre, it felt like was an inadequate throwback to drawing room comedies.

Molly took the rejection hard. "My writing is dated. This is the end and there is nothing I can do."

She lived in Dublin and London, or for long spells in the houses of friends, renting out the bungalow as necessary, for a source of income, and putting her creative energy into cooking rather than writing, until she began to secretly work on Good Behaviour, the best and darkest of her novels, one that she was even a bit ashamed of and discouraged certain friends from reading.

The book was rejected by her usual publisher, and lay neglected in a drawer until Peggy Ashcroft came to stay at Dysert, got flu and spent several days in bed, when Molly gave her the manuscript to read.

The novel was an instant success and Molly, aged almost 80, greatly celebrated by a younger generation of readers and writers. Good Behaviour was short-listed for The Booker Prize in 1981 and although it lost out to Rushdie's Midnight's Children, thoroughly revived and invigorated Molly's career.

That book, and her two subsequent novels, meant that she had work, and money, for the rest of her life, allowing her to give Champagne parties and lobster lunches until the end. She died in April 1996, aged 92, a star and a success, just as she had always wanted.

  • Molly Keane: A Life by Sally Phipps, is published by Virago, £20

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