Thursday, 25 October 2012

Devoted Ladies by Molly Keane

After reading Good Behaviour by Molly Keane earlier this month, I was thrilled to see that my library has most of Molly Keane's books in its collection.  I lost no time in putting them all on hold.   I was happy to jump directly into Devoted Ladies when it arrived last week.  There is nothing so satisfying as finding a new author to love!
Devoted Ladies is the story of a small cast of very badly behaved characters.  The story begins at a party in the flat of Sylvester, a jaded thirty year old writer and playwright who refuses to be involved in anyone else's business except if he can make it worse.  To Jessica, Sylvester has "a nameless quality which was Sylvester's power over others."  This domination and subservience between each character is the main thematic thrust of the novel.

 To the party come Jessica and Jane, a couple for only six months, who appear not to have anything in common beyone their relationship.  Jane is an alcoholic American and "genuine in nothing.  [Sylvester] believed even her complete stupidity was partly a pose of mind." (7)  Jane's tagline is "Oh, darling - fix me a brandy and soda, I feel horrible," or a variation thereof, which is all we hear from Jane for the first many pages.  Jessica, on the other hand, is the one in control.  She is keen, alert, and lives in her head.  From the beginning she is likened to an animal in her ruthless destruction of those she has loved.

In her friendships with men as well as with women Jessica spent herself so lavishly and so emotinally 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.
Her dreary enthusiasms were tolerated by her friends for the sake of those moments when, her lips curled back from her teeth like a dog, saliva in their corners and hysteria in her eyes she would tell and tell and tell of that past moment in her life; with pitiless mimicry and sure malice breaking the one who had shared it with her on the wheel of her words, on the wheel of her own despair. (9)
Sylvester can see that the violence in their relationship is heading down a dangerous road, but he feigns disinterest and positions himself in his chosen role as passive observer.  Even when his old friend, the aptly named George Playfair expresses an interest in Jane, Sylvester does not hint to him that she is involved with Jessica, but rather encourages him to pursue Jane.  He is not as passive an observer as he pretends to be; Sylvester is, in fact, a catalyst for all the action that happens in the story. 
How [Sylvester] adored to see an old woman really well made up and really well dressed. It was as exciting to him as the flight of a bird. White hair, a silver dress and pearls - the loveliest piece of decoration. She was queen of all the jewelled fishes in his green aquarium. So he saw his party now a little distorted as though seen through water - or, clearer still, gin - they were poised as though hung on threads - like those fish sold outside Lords (and other places too, of course). Yes, they thought themselves free of his aquarium and of their own lives, never perceiving the threads of their movements were gathered up and hitched to some reel of fate or accident that held them prisoners in its devices or, more terrible, in its lack of device, proportion or purpose.
We then move with Sylvester to Ireland where he stays with his cousins Hester and Piggy while working on his latest writing project.  Jane and Jessica, and their "nasty" (read: gay) manservant Albert, crash land with great violence on this quiet home after taking up George Playfair on his suggestion that they visit him in Ireland.  All the characters are all together and the story begins in earnest.  The cracks in all the relationships shatter as the subservient attempt to break free.  Keane cleverly pits characters against each other, and creates perfect foils - especially Jessica and Piggy as those who gave their all to their relationships.  But how they react is in perfect keeping with their position as a dominant or a subservient in their relationship.

Mary Nesta ('Molly') Keane (Mrs Robert Keane)
by John Swannell
Iris print, 1983
15 1/2 in. x 19 3/8 in. (395 mm x 492 mm)
Given by John Swannell, 1998
NPG x87599
Molly Keane is such an enjoyable writer to read.  Her prose is tight and direct without being abrupt, and her sarcasm and wit is in evidence on every page.  She is not above poking fun at herself, as here, after Sylvester finds himself thinking nostalgiac and poetic thoughts about the landscape of his childhood:
Such thoughts were rude and fit only for some hysterical Irish novelist writing her seventy thousand words through which the cry of hounds reverberates continuously: where masters of hounds are handsome and eligible men and desirable young girls over-ride hounds continually, seeing brilliant hunts on incredible three-year-olds: and all - after even the hardest day - are capable of strong emotion at night.
 And later, when Jane receives a gift of books, including one of Molly Keane's own titles, Young Entry.  She uses an acerbic tone of derision and dismissal in mocking the books that is really very funny.  I love an author who can turn that black humour around on herself.

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