When Oliver visits Pullinstown, he is introduced to wild days of hunting and shooting, and to characters like his cousins, with their passion for horses and trickery, and Sir Richard, elderly, but a match for his headstrong offspring. The author has also written under the pseudonym, M.J. Farrell.
Release date: May 2, 2013
Print pages: 288
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Her books are witty, sardonic, human comedies, edged by black humour, and like all good comedies sadness and pathos lie close to the glittering surface. But they are now more than novels: they deliver a remarkable and vivid social history, an impeccably observed, occasionally delinquent record, full of relevance and revelation of a way of life and a vanished world that has not otherwise been given its due recognition in the country where it once existed.
P.D. Molly, when did you first start writing?
M.K. When I’d been to school for a short time I got some sort of bug – I don’t know what it was – some sort of virus I suppose. But everyone thought (and my mother was determined) that I was getting tuberculosis, so as a cure for that I was put to bed. Now, the only thing I could ever do at school was what they called English Composition. So for an escape and through sheer boredom I began to write a book. I wrote away under the bedclothes, and honestly I must have written about fifty or sixty thousand words or more, and I thought it was pure Shakespeare. Well, not Shakespeare exactly – more Dornford Yates.
P.D. And this was The Knight of the Cheerful Countenance?
M.K. Yes. Looking back, perhaps it wasn’t as bad as I think. It was probably tremendously pictorial because the only thing I thought about was hunting, and the only thing I wanted was glamour and lovely men.
P.D. A lot of young girls think of glamour and lovely men but they don’t sit down and write a novel.
M.K. Yes, but I was on my own, without the lovely men. Well, there was one I fancied, but he wasn’t any good for me.
P.D. Do you think it was the influence of your mother that made you write?
M.K. No, not at all, she would have been horrified at the idea of my writing a sort of Romance.
P.D. But she was a writer?
M.K. But she wasn’t a serious writer. When she was young she’d been quite a good minor poetess – Moira O’Neill, the Poetess of the Glens – and I don’t want to despise her poems because I think some of them are rather magical. She was terribly idle. But we thought they were lovely when we were small.
P.D. So do you think at some level –
M.K. – we were influenced by her? I’m sure I was, but it’s so curious because by the time I got to writing I was terribly at odds with her. – I’d sort of grown up and I was having great fun with my grown-up cousins and she disapproved of it all. She was frightened for me, just as I would have been frightened if my daughter was, say, in the drugs scene. I think, probably, having led a tremendously secluded life, she was terribly frightened of my knowing people whom she considered fast, which was anyone who had any fun at all.
P.D. Did you ever become friends with her?
M.K. No, alas, no. I mean when I was a child I had no one else to love. I was a terrible lover, and I adored her, though I hardly ever saw her; but she did have a sort of rapport with children.
P.D. Did she come round to loving your books?
P.D. Had she read them?
M.K. I don’t know. I never discussed them. Ever.
P.D. But wasn’t not knowing unsatisfactory?
M.K. We were at different ends of a civilization. I mean I was frightfully jolly and funny and off to all the doings I could and she thought this was dreadful and she didn’t know what was going to happen – I don’t know what she thought.
P.D. And the relationship between you and your father was a significant one?
M.K. No. None at all. There wasn’t any. No, he was completely of a life apart. The only time I think I was ever near to him was when he was dying and my mother had this phobia about doing nothing and not having proper nurses and I looked after him, and I insisted I go and get the old nurse from the village so that she would sit with him all night, and that really turned my mother against me.
P.D. Was he an uncomplaining man?
P.D. Was he like the father in Good Behaviour?
M.K. No, he wasn’t as jolly. He was very well behaved.
P.D. Did you love him?
M.K. No. I admired him because he was such a good horseman. I admired that about him.
P.D. Are you nervous by temperament?
P.D. And shy?
M.K. I think so. Yes, I think I am. I think I’m nervous. I was always disliked as a child. My mother didn’t really like me and the aunts were ghastly to me and my father had absolutely nothing to do with me.
P.D. Did you feel isolated… unloved?
M.K. Yes, I think I did. As a very young child I sort of depended on my mother and thought she was everything – but I don’t think I got much out of her.
P.D. That’s a dreadful legacy, isn’t it?
M.K. No. I don’t know. It’s what made me fight myself free. Now Susan, my sister, had always been much more popular. She’d always been gentler and quieter and jolly good at various things and she got on so awfully well.
P.D. Fight yourself free of what?
M.K. Fight myself free of that secluded life – that nunnery of a life, which it really was. Because anything like young men were frightfully disapproved of, and as for anything being done to help us – nothing was done, except the horses of course.
P.D. I remember that story about your mother seeing you lying on the grass showing your knickers.
M.K. Yes, and I must have been only eight or nine.
P.D. And she was genuinely shocked?
M.K. Yes, she was. I remember discussing this with Susan, who really had a much more liberal point of view about it all. And she said, ‘You see our mother’s generation felt that modesty was a thing that almost had to be beaten into people – that it wasn’t naturally born in them. They must be shown and made to be aware that that was a necessary element in life.’
P.D. And in Two Days in Aragon there’s a moment when Nan and Mrs Fox are discussing sex and they talk about it with a real prurient interest. You make it clear that they didn’t perceive anything loving or life-enhancing about sex.
M.K. A disgusting business, yes. And there was so little discussion about it. I remember there was a frightful scandal because we had a sweet old groom who was an ex-steeplechase jockey and he jumped down a stile coming out of the laurels back into the stable yard and he broke his neck and was found dead at the bottom of the stile. And the insurance looked into the whole thing and said he had been in the laurels having a go with the cook and there was a desperate hush about that. And there was another awful scandal, how they couldn’t have known all about it I cannot imagine, when a little housemaid had a baby in her bedroom, having done all her work and everything and gone into her bedroom and had the baby and there was an old cook who thought something must be wrong.
P.D. And this was Ballyrankin?
M.K. Yes, and the girl had gone out, how she could have done it, having just had a baby, and she found the baby in a large cardboard box, a dress box addressed to me from some big shop – well strung up and the address in large letters and labels, you know how things were in those days – addressed to me and she was just about to float it down the river. Can you imagine the scandal? How my mother can never have noticed that this girl was just about to give birth.
P.D. I can never understand these stories. At the end of pregnancy it’s so obvious.
M.K. There’s absolutely no mistake, is there? And Cook knew she was, but the cook didn’t say to my mother, ‘Look, this girl ought to be brought home.’ So there’s the baby floating down like the Lady of Shallot in a box tied up with string and brown paper and well labelled as Miss Skrine. The poor girl must have been desperate. Oh, those days. To think of them is so extraordinary.
P.D. And were you quite different from your brothers and sister?
M.K. Yes, very different.
P.D. And had they led the same secluded lives?
M.K. Well, no… They didn’t actually because my brothers were in the Army and Navy and that sort of thing that the boys all went into then, and had been to school in England. They all liked my mother, as boys always do, and got on with her.
P.D. You had one sister?
M.K. One sister, Susan, much older. She was four years older, but it made a big difference then; and she’d gone to school in England. And then she’d got tuberculosis.
P.D. Did your sister like your books?
M.K. I think she did. She disapproved and admired both. She thought they were terribly disloyal to the Anglos – the Anglo-Irish.
P.D. Because she was very loyal?
M.K. Oh, tremendously so. Dangerously so. And my mother couldn’t think of anything beyond it.
P.D. And was Ireland a foreign country to her, or her country?
M.K. It was my mother’s country. It was Anglo-Irish country, except for the poems of the Glens of Antrim. She was a great one for the dialect and I think that she used the dialect to keep her distance.
P.D. Was she an unhappy woman?
M.K. No, she adored my father. She was frightfully happily married to him, and she adored her sons.
P.D. But a show of emotion was not a clever thing to show?
M.K. When we were little she could be affectionate, but when one was older it somehow went altogether because of this tremendous disapproval. I understand now that I was everything that she thought was all wrong.
P.D. But then what happened when The Knight of the Cheerful Countenance came out? Did she just ignore it – pretend it hadn’t happened?
M.K. I think she shuddered and read it – or read some of it.
P.D. And you continued to stay at home?
M.K. I stayed at home on and off. In those days the funny thing was that if you were asked to stay somewhere you stayed for weeks.
P.D. Had you thought about a career?
M.K. No, it didn’t exist. Absolutely not. And the only thing I thought about writing was that it would give me some money so that I could go on having lots of fun and going to horse shows and hunting and enjoying myself with my friends – and actually, what did I get for my first book? About £70, I think.
P.D. But what did you envisage your life to be if you didn’t think of a career?
M.K. I just enjoyed life like it was… I adored parties. If I thought of anything I should have thought of some sort of dream-happy marriage.
P.D. That’s what people did think of?
M.K. Yes, I’m sure they did. And yet they kept awfully quiet about it. One thing I do remember very plainly that children now, girls now, discuss every iota of sex, or lack of sex, with their gentlemen. I do know that I never opened my mouth to my greatest, closest friends about my adventures. I just didn’t, and they didn’t to me.
P.D. It was taboo?
M.K. No, it was more… I don’t know how to describe what we were. I think for one thing the language about sex hadn’t been invented. I don’t remember the word sex occurring… ever… It just wasn’t there. There was a tremendously romantic outlook. I do remember, when I was awfully young, on my very first walk-out I thought I’d practically reached heaven, and where had I got to? Practically nowhere!
P.D. But leading this ambivalent and lonely life in a large house…
M.K. But then I had friends outside it… I mean I had my hunting and my hunting friends and I had a great friend who lived about four miles away. We were so childish compared to the people of our age today. We were like children of twelve, the sorts of things that amused us. Or just a bit more sophisticated. I mean there was a bottle of sherry and there were the gramophone records, and the hunting was tremendous. When I was young it was the central thing in my life, and any sort of social success depended on being good at it, and success meant a lot to me, really a lot, because it spelt people. It spelt people spoiling me, it spelt people being good to me. Because I had nothing to give back. I was just a lone girl who was fairly amusing and not even frightfully good-looking and I did have a lovely time.
P.D. And did the native life affect you?
M.K. Well, we loved all the people.
P.D. And listened to them?
M.K. Yes. Always. It was a kind of fashion then to see who could imitate the Irish peasant, or who could tell a good story about them. That was very popular. I think that was what gave me an enormous memory about dialogue. I can’t do dialogue well today, but then it was no trouble to me. I simply could remember what had been said to me, especially anything that hit me as funny. I think everyone longed to be a good entertainer; and I was very good at it, which sounds a vain thing to say, but I know I was. And I got myself into what I thought was exciting society by just being jolly funny – and knowing how to be sharp and funny about people. It must just have been born in me because I didn’t learn it from anybody.
P.D. Was your father like that?
M.K. No. He couldn’t have been more English and I don’t think he was a very clever man. But he was an awfully nice man, and a marvellous horseman, and totally conventional.
P.D. So, you’re nineteen, you’ve written one book, it’s been published. Do people know you’ve written it?
P.D. Was it hard not to be boastful?
M.K. Oh, no. I was rather secretive about it. I think I told my great chum Daphne. But in the end it leaked out.
P.D. And the name M. J. Farrell? You’d chosen it at random?
M.K. Yes, because it was awfully different from my own name and all that.
P.D. And it is true that you chose it –
M.K. – from a pub, as I rode home… Very boring, but yes, I think I did. I wish I was as good as the other Farrell, who was drowned.
P.D. Did you decide then you were going to be a writer?
M.K. My feet nearly left the ground when I heard it was going to be published and I decided that that was the way to get another £70, so I wrote another novel, Young Entry, and then Billy [William] Collins, the publisher, stole me away. I thought he was awfully attractive.
P.D. And were you a celebrity?
M.K. No. I was little Miss Nobody. I don’t know why Billy Collins went on, but he did go on publishing my books and telling me to write more. No, I was absolutely nothing.
P.D. And when did you use the word ‘writer’ to describe yourself?
M.K. I never did.
P.D. Have you ever done?
M.K. No… sometimes when I had to sign passports or forms I’d put playwright and author, but that was years later. You see I didn’t have to sign forms about income tax or anything else then. I remember I did have a terrible income tax argument, which I managed to win, and so didn’t have to pay tax on the £70.
P.D. And did you think, ‘I’m going to write a book every two years’?
P.D. No trouble thinking up plots? Getting time?
M.K. Funnily enough I never had much trouble then. I do now of course. I think how hopeless I was – I don’t know. It was always tough work for me to write anything except that first book which I thought was so marvellous. I just took time off to write and otherwise enjoyed myself. It wasn’t my occupation or my job. I used to come home from having jolly times in Tipperary or wherever and sit down and write a bit for Blackwood’s Magazine and thought I was getting enormous money – say £30 – for a lot of words. I thought it was marvellous.
P.D. For reviews?
M.K. No, for short stories. Very respectable short stories, sort of hunting and everything. They were done in the book then called Conversation Pieces.
P.D. Was writing hard work?
M.K. Always terribly hard work. The grims, absolutely the grims.
P.D. And how did you start your Woodrooff life with the Perrys?
M.K. Oh, that was a big secret. I’d met John’s father, William Perry, out hunting and he said, ‘You must come and stay at Woodrooff.’ And I pretended I was going to stay with a respectable friend and instead took the train to Clonmel, and when I got there it was just seething with young people, like that marvellous daughter of his, Sylvia Masters, and darling Dolly Perry whom I loved.
P.D. So this was an enchantment?
M.K. Oh, marvellous. I was never so happy in my life as in those first years at Woodrooff, it was carefree and lovely and the most exciting kind of racing people and everything, and I loved it, had a marvellous time. And I suppose it was there I met Bobby.
P.D. Had your husband read your books before you married?
M.K. Oh yes, very much. But he was never in the least involved in the writing. He used to say, ‘I simply won’t even look at your books until they’re in hardback, because I might be an influence and I might be hopeless.’
P.D. So now you’re married, you’ve come through the war, you’re continuing to write and quite suddenly, out of the blue, Bobby died.
M.K. What killed him was a clot after an operation. He was perfectly all right, he was leaving the nursing home the next day. I was having lunch with Gilbert Miller about a play and I thought I’d just go in before I went to lunch. A nurse met me and said, ‘Matron wants a word with you, could you wait in the hall.’ And Matron came in and said, ‘You must be brave, dear, your husband’s dead.’ It really was unbelievable – I hate to think about it.
P.D. And you’d got two small children? Sally and Virginia?
M.K. Mm. It was a bit much.
P.D. Was your husband’s death the cause of the creative block in your writing? Is this a romantic idea or a real one?
M.K. I think it’s a combination. I did write a bit after Bobby died. I was in the middle of a play, but I couldn’t go on. Then four years later John Gielgud and Binkie Beaumont said, ‘Moll, come on, write another play.’ Money, you see, got so scarce after Bobby died. So I wrote Treasure Hunt. Sybil Thorndike was in it and John Gielgud directed it: it was a great success. I was pretty desolate when I wrote it.
P.D. And had you written during the war years?
M.K. Yes, I’d written Two Days in Aragon. I was awfully tormented by the theatre. Binkie Beaumont was always pestering me to do a play for him, and then not doing it.
P.D. What started you writing plays?
M.K. Well, Spring Meeting.
P.D. Yes, but how?
M.K. Oh, John Perry saying to me, ‘Oh, Molly, you must write a play and I’ll get John Gielgud to read it.’ And I said I couldn’t possibly write a play, and he said, ‘Oh, that’s all right, just write a play about your own life,’ and I suppose Spring Meeting is more like my life than anything. Roger Livesey – a very good actor – played the old man, who was very much a portrait of John Perry’s father – old Willy. So it was my life, I think, very much.
P.D. Well, then, all possibility of anonymity had gone.
M.K. Oh, absolutely, totally gone, everyone from Ireland came to London for the first night.
P.D. Did you enjoy it – or were you rather sh. . .
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