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The charming Molly Keane
Diana Athill Writer
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Molly Keane was remarkable, because she was so charming and so lovely and so nice. She was a lovely woman, and she had become… it was really odd that she became a writer, because she came from a completely philistine Irish gentry background. And she always insisted that she started writing purely because she had to make some sort of money to buy dance dresses with and go to parties with.

And why she had first always written under a pseudonym was, that if her young men had known she wrote books, they would have thought she was brainy, and that was the most awful thing to be thought. And I recognised that, because it would have been the same in Norfolk. I always remember going to a dance with a rather handsome, desirable young man, and he said, 'Oh, oh, you're the brainy one, aren't you?' That was a sort of absolutely chilling thing to be said. And so Molly had chosen herself a pseudonym from the name above a pub somewhere. And her first, I think, 11 books were written or something… nine books, perhaps it was, under that name, so no one would know. And… but, if you read the books, even though they weren't so good as her last books, you still don't think that she can have written them just coldly to make money. She must have been enjoying them because they are so good and so funny.

And then she had a long spell of not writing, because her darling husband died young, and quite unexpectedly, and she was absolutely broken by that, and she had to somehow cope with bringing up her two children alone, and managing as best she could, and struggling terribly. And one day, Peggy Ashcroft, who was an old friend… she… her first books had been made into plays. She'd been a playwright, to start with, and very successful. And one of the people who acted in her plays was Peggy Ashcroft, and she'd known Peggy ever since and was great friends with her. And Peggy went to stay with her in Ireland, and said, 'What a pity you don't write anymore'. And Molly said, 'Well, you know, I have actually written something recently'. And Peggy said, 'Well, show it to me, show it to me, show it to me quickly', and went and took it away to bed with her. And came downstairs the next morning and said, 'You're mad, it's wonderful. It's the best thing you've ever done'. And Molly said, 'Do you think it is? Is it alright really?' And Peggy brought it over and I think showed it to Chatto's, where she knew them. And to our great good luck, they didn't like it and turned it down. It went to an agent who had worked with us. And she rang me up and said, she knew the sort of thing I liked, and she said, 'Diana, I think I've got a book here that you'll love'. And she sent it to me. And I did, I thought it was marvellous. Terribly funny and very, very good. And so we took it on. Called Good Behaviour. And it is a really, really good book, and it's the best book she ever wrote. It was about how these people were, her people, these impoverished Anglo-Irish people in their huge big houses. And she does a very clever thing, because she makes the person tell it, who doesn't know half the time what it is she's telling. She's a naïve person and she doesn't know how she's portraying herself. And it's brilliant, in that respect.

And then she wrote two more, when she was quite old. The last one, she was very old, and she had a very bad heart attack in the middle of it, but she still managed to finish it, and I loved the last one, too. But the thing about Molly was that she was so completely unconceited about her writing. She really didn't… I mean, she did, in a way, know that she wrote well, but she didn't think it was important. And she thought it was much more important to be a good mother and a nice person and have lots of friends and things. She was a lovely, lovely person.

And she was very charming. And she was not… so many people who are very charming become corrupted by their own charm. You know, you can't help knowing it, I think, if you're a great charmer, and so you exploit your charm. And I've known charming people who were really quite chilling to know, because they're… in a way, it's become automatic with them, to turn it on. And Molly could turn it on if she wanted to. She could. I've seen her do it if she was wanting to get through an interview or something. But on the whole, she was the most charming person I've ever known who didn't ever exploit it. She didn't fall into that trap.

Born in 1917, Diana Athill is a British literary editor whose publishing career began when she helped André Deutsch establish his company. She has worked with many notable writers, namely Philip Roth, Simone de Beauvoir, Jean Rhys and VS Naipaul. Following the publication of her memoirs, she is now hailed as an author in her own right.

Listeners: Christopher Sykes

Christopher Sykes is a London-based television producer and director who has made a number of documentary films for BBC TV, Channel 4 and PBS.

Tags: Good Behaviour, Loving and Giving, Molly Keane, Peggy Ashcroft, MJ Farrell

Duration: 5 minutes, 49 seconds

Date story recorded: January 2008

Date story went live: 23 December 2008