Conversation Piece by Molly Keane

Although it is in print, as a Virago Modern Classic, ‘Conversation Piece’ almost seems to be Molly Keane’s forgotten novel. I can only find aa passing mention in her biographical details, searching online I found only a handful of very brief reviews, and even the author interview that takes the place of an introduction in the copy I have just read only mentions it in passing.

I can almost understand the lack of attention. This is an early work – but not so early as to be interesting on that account – and it lacks some of the qualities that made many of her thirteen novels so special. But it paints a wonderful picture of life in an Irish country house at the start of the twentieth century – the world that Molly Keane grew up in – and it tells a simple story well.

Conversation PieceThat story is told by Oliver, the son of a younger son, who comes to visit his uncle and his cousins at the family home, a grand if rather shabby country house, known as Pullinstown.

“To be with these Irish cousins, their kindness mine and the quick fire of their interest changes me strangely, I think, so that all safe known values are gone for me and I am theirs.”

He is enchanted by the house, and by the cousins, and he describes them simply and beautifully. I really did feel that he was telling his story, speaking or writing, and he brought a house, a family, and a way of living to life on the page.

I was as taken as he was with his cousins, Dick and Willow. They were close, they were completely caught up with life and their shared interests, but as soon as they realised he was one of them, and not quite one of the grown-ups, they warmed to him and drew him into their circle. I liked their father, Sir Richard, who knew that he was growing old but wasn’t quite ready to be bested by his offspring. And I loved James, the unflappable butler who could turn his hand to almost everything.

When James fell ill it was Dick and Willow who cared for him, while the housemaids ran riot.

Times were changing, and Pullinstown was a country house in decline …

‘Conversation Piece’ isn’t so much a story as a telling of how life was, and of particular times that would always be remembered. That’s where the story almost fall down, because the family’s lives were centred around hunting, shooting, fishing and other country pursuits. The stories were well told, but there were too many of them, and they didn’t hold my interest.

There was an underlying story, of young and old, of how they, sometimes knowingly and sometimes unknowingly affect each others lives. That was engaging, and I wish it had been developed a little more, given a little more room to breathe.

When the story ended I wished that I could have spent a little more time with Oliver, Dick and Willow, and know a little more of what their futures held.

What I found most interesting about ‘Conversation Piece’ was that, although the style was recognisably Molly Keane’, although there were so many things – the country house, the lifestyle, the period – that can be found in her other novels, this book was different. The style was straightforward, the tone was often elegiac, and it was so clearly written with love.

I’m inclined to think that it has elements of autobiography, or that maybe it was inspired by friends and family.

I think that I need to read more of her work, so that I can really put it into context.   I love her writing, and I am struck by the variation in the stories she has spun around Irish country houses.

I can understand now why ‘Conversation Piece’ is nearly forgotten, but I am glad that is not completely forgotten. For its own sake, and for the sake of understanding the writing life of an intriguing author …..

6 responses

  1. My grandfather knew her a bit, he told me that the early books (I’m not sure he would have read the later ones) had quite recognizable portraits of people from the hunting set in them (not often flattering) which makes me think they must be really quite autobiographical. I love her books!

  2. I confess that although I own several Molly Keane’s I’ve not yet read any. I’m intrigued by your review though – really must read some of these in the new year!

  3. A student tried to get me interested in Molly Keane maybe twenty years ago because her family had known her and said that many of the novels had recognisable people in them. I’m afraid I didn’t take to her, but perhaps now that I am older and possibly even wiser, maybe I should try again.

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