August 5th, 2012

book and cup

#80 Devoted Ladies - Molly Keane (1934)

I do love a book which divides opinion. As I was preparing to write about my reactions to the novel, I glanced over a few reviews of it on Librarything.com and Goodreads.com – and there certainly seems to be as many people who really liked it as didn’t. So before I go any further I must immediately put myself in the former camp, I loved it. It is only the second Molly Keane novel I have read – and I am looking forward now to reading more.
Molly Keane was the real name of writer M J Farrell, she wrote under a pseudonym because she was part of the small world of Anglo-Irish hunting aristocracy that she wrote about. Sometime before writing Devoted Ladies – Molly Keane had been made aware of lesbianism and homosexuality – and this novel was her fascinated response to it.

“In her friendships with men as well as with women Jessica spent herself so lavishly and so emotionally that soon there was no more she. She had spent what she was in a sort of dreadful effort towards entire mental contact with the person she loved. And having reserved no smallest ledge of herself for herself, no foothold for the last secret feet of her mind, she would retreat in anger and despair from her friendships. Then cruelly, disdainfully and despitefully she would speak against such a one as she had loved”

Devoted Ladies – is a darkly comic satire, some of the characters are quite unlikeable, although I really did love the ridiculously silly Jane and her dreadfully camp, deliciously vicious house boy/valet Albert. The novel opens in 1930’s London – at a party given by Sylvester Browne. Jane and Jessica have been living together for six months, Jane is rich very silly and completely bullied by the horrid Jessica. During the party they have an argument and Jessica throws a bottle of tonic water at Jane. It is also at this party that Jane first meets George Playfair, an Irish gentleman hunting type. George is something of an innocent; he has no idea about the truth of the relationship between Jane and Jessica. This hedonistic 1930’s world is wonderfully reproduced by Keane – it was quite a different setting for her books and was not where her readers at this time were used to finding themselves upon opening one of her novels. Jane, weak and suggestible succumbs to alcoholic poisoning - and it is during her recovery that George visits Jane – when Jessica is out – and persuades her to visit Ireland. From here on the reader is back in familiar Molly Keane territory.
Sylvester Browne – friend of George Playfair is now back in Ireland – staying with his cousins Hester and Viola (Piggy) Browne – Piggy is a desperately sad character who I found at times a little pathetic and at other times I couldn’t help but sympathise with. Piggy is utterly devoted to her friend Joan – George Playfair’s sister. Her unrequited crush is really quite pitiful, Joan married to another Irish gentleman hunter, and mother of twin boys uses Piggy – and quietly despises her. It is into the Browne household that Jane, Jessica and Albert crash land. Jessica is injured in a car accident on the way, and is laid up in the house, while Jane is able to go out and about with her new friends. She and Sylvester see in George Playfair her chance of freedom from Jessica. However Jessica is darkly vicious, she will do anything to prevent Jane having her own way. The stage is set then, for a battle – and it is never quite clear how it may be won.
I found this utterly compelling, and loved the dark humour of it, there are some terrible 1930’s stereotypes – which I am sure, were quite deliberate – it is a novel of its time. Still I found it immensely enjoyable.