Molly Keane’s Devoted Ladies, first published in 1934, is the third of her books which I have read to date. As I enjoyed both Treasure Hunt and Good Behaviour, I had rather high hopes for this one. Firstly, it must be said that I adore the Art Deco cover designs which Keane’s books have been reprinted with, and this is certainly one of my favourites. The great reviews written on the cover definitely enticed me too.
Keane is so skilled at crafting characters, and her protagonists even seem to come to life in the blurb:
‘Jessica and Jane have been living together for six months and are devoted friends – or are they? Jessica loves her friend with the cruelty of total possessiveness; Jane is rich and silly, and drinks rather too many brandy-and-sodas.’
The blurb goes on to speak about their friend Sylvester, a writer, who ‘regrets that Jane should be “loved and bullied and perhaps even murdered by Jessica”, but decides it’s none of his business’. The book’s introduction has been written by Polly Devlin, who sets the scene of the author’s life and the effects which Devoted Ladies had within society upon its publication. Devlin says that Keane’s writing is both ‘insouciant and stylish’, and that she presents ‘an impeccable picture of what is to us a vanished world, but still full of relevance and revelation’.
Devoted Ladies begins with a scene in which Sylvester throws a party in his ‘expensive’-smelling rooms. Jane is only attending – and, indeed, has only formed a friendship with Sylvester – because ‘she hoped on and on and on in the face of constant disappointment that Sylvester would put her in a book or in a play’. Jane is a fantasist to all intents and purposes, thinking of the most peculiar things which she can possibly do merely so that Sylvester takes notice of her and immortalises her with words. Sylvester is friends with Jane merely because she has an awful lot of money, and ‘the moment might yet arrive when he would require to borrow money from Jane, or at any rate make use of her cars or her houses or any of the benefits which providence spends on very rich young women that very poor young men may thereby profit a little’. This comic vein continues when Keane is describing Jessica: ‘Jessica was an intellectual snob. She seldom condescended to be gay, although she would take endless pains to be rude’.
Throughout, Keane builds her characters realistically, and she always injects surprising little details about them into her prose. The relationships which she portrays – and inevitably alters as the novels goes on – are quite complex, particularly with regard to that between Jane and Jessica. Jane, for example, says, ‘I’m very dedicated to Jessica, I love having her around, but I’m scared to death she’ll kill me’.
As with all of Keane’s books, Devoted Ladies is very character driven. The plot is relatively sparse, but she has such a way of writing that it doesn’t really seem to matter in the grand scheme of things. Whilst she is unwell, a parcel of books is sent to Jane, which provides the catalyst for her sudden need to visit Ireland to convalesce. Keane’s writing from this point moves from describing the rather comic happenings of her characters, to much talk about horses, food and gardening, and not much else. This sudden change in focus certainly changes the feel of the book, and the few supposedly humorous episodes which come after the setting has switched to Ireland fall rather flat, which is a real shame. To conclude, it must be said that whilst I did very much enjoy the writing and characterisation for the most part, Devoted Ladies is my least favourite Keane novel to date.