I usually run a mile from Irish novels of a certain period – memories of The Last September make me shiver at the thought of Irish Troubles novels – but I was attracted by Molly Keane’s Young Entry (1928), very kindly given to me by Karyn when we met up in Oxford last year. Any sort of political upheaval seemed a distant irrelevance to the carefree heroines of Keane’s first novel (written at the sickeningly young age of 20) – a dollop of romance, high-spirited teasing, and countryside dalliances seemed a fitting antidote to the more serious or tragic end of Irish literature (for which there is, of course, a place – but that place is not on my bookshelf.)
Well, the heroines did not disappoint – except perhaps in an unexpected name. Prudence and Peter (yes, they are both women) are described thus – first Prudence:
Her demeanour in public places was totally perfect. Had she been a boy one would have looked at her and at once said – Eton. As it was, those who knew her, if they saw the back of her head and shoulders across a crowded room, said: “Prudence Turrett – couldn’t be anyone else.” And those who did not know her asked immediately who she was.
And lest you think she’s a totally passionless society great, I rather loved this description earlier in the novel:
A ladder in a favourite silk stocking could reduce her to tears, just as a phrase of wild poetry made her drunk with ecstasy, or a witty story moved her to agonies of mirth. She did things to distraction – always.
And then, more level-headed, there is Peter (it is so strange thinking that Peter is a woman, given it is Our Vicar’s name – I’ve known a Peta or two, but are any women called Peter?):
Having long ago come to the conclusion that young men did not sparkle in her company, she very wisely restrained all impulse in herself to sparkle in theirs; and left matters at a satisfactorily comfortable companionship.
These companionships were many. Brilliant young men liked Peter, because she gave them time to make their cleverest remarks. Lazy men liked her because she never attempted to stir them to energy.
I’m usually one to value character over plot, and Keane’s characters were a joy – showing all the signs of a young writer, in both a positive and negative way. Good, that they were lively and enthusiastically drawn, and bad, that they were emotionally rather immature and over the top. And yet, above and beyond this, the plot defeated me.
Much of Young Entry I enjoyed, particularly when it concerned the friendship of Prudence and Peter, and even their budding (and unlikely) romances – but, as Diana Petre points out in her introduction to the Virago reprint, a 20 year old Molly Keane could only write about the limited world she knew, and that was the society hunting set.
And so there is a lot about hunting. I’m not just ignorant about the ins and outs and mores of hunting, I actively loathe it. I have no problem with culling foxes humanely – I am a country boy at heart, and I know that country life is not all fluffy bunnies; I trust farmers to know what needs doing on their land. What makes me shocked and angry and everything within me recoil is the idea that killing should be turned into a game or a sport. It’s not often that I demonstrate such strong feelings on this blog, and I don’t want the comment section to become and to-and-fro on the topic of hunting, but I wanted to explain why there were reams of Young Entry that I could not enjoy. Extracts like this one…
Peter was different. More of a purist than Prudence; the hounds and their work was her joy, her interest and delight. It supplied for her the poetry of existence. She rode a fast hunt well enough; but in a slow one, with hounds working out each yard of a stale and twisting line, almost walking after their fox, she was nearly as happy. While Prudence fretted and chafed, longing to get on, Peter – her eyes alight, alert for every whimper, watching, always watching – was content to see hound-work at its prettiest and most difficult. Her soul blasphemed in chorus with that of the huntsman, when his hounds were pressed upon; and was with him also in ecstasy when the line was hit off afresh after a successful cast.
There are many scenes of hunting, and many which require knowledge of hunting. They didn’t simply bore me, in the way that depictions of sporting matches would do, they upset and ired me. So when major plot points and character movements concern the social correctness (or otherwise) of hunting in certain areas, and Keane seems to think we will both know and agree with these principles, I was left rather lost.
I’m still very grateful to Karyn for giving me this novel, as it was fascinating to see where Keane’s writing career began and spot the seeds of what was to come – but, let’s just say I’m glad that she didn’t stop here.