Dress Down Sunday: Loving and Giving by Molly Keane

published 1988


Loving and Giving 1

[Two young women, Lally and Nicandra, getting ready for a ball in 1920s Ireland]

“Oh, you’ve got a Kestos brassiere – quel absolute chic,” Lally plucked the bust-bodice out of the pile of underclothes Lizzie [the maid] had folded and laid, a picture of precision, on Nicandra’s bed. She stretched its modest cups on her hands.

“Aunt Tossie,” Nicandra explained. “It worries me rather. Still I know she knows.”

“May I try it on?” Without waiting for an answer, Lally stripped off the accepted bandaging of the day. “Oh, m’dear, too naughty for words.” She screamed with laughter.

Nicandra looked disconcerted and prim before a great light of kindness broke, telling her to spread a little happiness at any cost to herself. “I’ll lend it to you, Lally,” she said, “just for tonight.”

“Oh, Nico, I wouldn’t dream,” Lally fastened a button more securely on its elastic strap. The mild uplift of her breasts was frightening in its unexplored possibilities.

Loving and Giving 2

commentary: Given enough time, we will slowly track the Kestos through 20th century literature. There is a whole discussion of the word in this entry on a Christianna Brand book. (Kestos was the first bra with separated cups, and briefly was so popular it became the generic name for a bra.) The young women in Mary Wesley’s Camomile Lawn wear them, as opposed to Aunt Helena, whose ‘breasts were packed into a garment called a bust bodice which made Calypso and Polly laugh’. (Above, ‘bust bodice’ is used as an all-purpose term… )

One of the odd things about this book is that Molly Keane lived through the times she writes about – most of her books are highly autobiographical – but in this one some of the details have that feel of careful research when a conscientious writer looks things up fifty years after the book’s setting and puts in all the details she finds, and gets it slightly wrong. 

The bra conversation is followed by a discussion of deodorants, but again with a feel of research dropped in. Lally says the advertising slogan was ‘Are your armpits charmpits?’ which I think is a phrase from a much later era. There is a mention of dress preservers, ‘sewn into everything’, to avoid underarm odour - they came up on the blog in this entry on Margaret Kennedy’s book Lucy Carmichael.

Another odd thing is that the timings in the book never quite work out – Nicandra is 8 in 1914. She is being launched into society in the section above, so it should be 1924, at latest, and it’s not, and there was no Kestos in 1924: the company was founded in 1925, and proper Kestos bras with separated cups came later, in the 1930s. And then, not enough time passes before it is 1939…

More: In the American edition of the book, the opening section is said to be in 1904, though that is clearly a mistake – and would have made those events happen just a few weeks before Bloomsday: it is hard to think of two more different Irish writers than Molly Keane and James Joyce.

And then, the book was called Queen Lear in the US, which is quite incomprehensible: I have been thinking hard about this, and I cannot come up with one shard of explanation for calling it that.

The other odd thing – to me – is that people say it was Keane’s best book. I hard disagree. Good Behaviour is far better. There are certainly worse books by Keane than this one, but it seemed to be created from stirred-up fragments of her other books, and her own story (even more apparent since her daughter’s biography of Keane has been published). Oh goodness, Robert and Andrew, can I even be bothered distinguishing between the two young male suitors? Oh the careless and uncaring parents, the badly-treated child, the loyal servants, the decaying house – seen it all before. Not done particularly well this time. There is a famously shocking ending to this one – but I was beyond caring by that time. May have been a kinder outcome anyway…

The characters are thoughtless, selfish, lacking in empathy and full of entitlement. All of them. That is bad enough, but it also seems that Molly Keane finds them charming: and that is the problem I have with all her books.

But – despite the gobbets of research and mis-dating, I do always like Keane’s clothes. Sometimes, you just get a feel that she is describing an actual dress from her own life. In this one I liked the black feather boa which may have been bought for Black Ascot – the time the race meeting was run just after the death of Edward VII in 1910 ‘because that’s what he would have wanted’, but everyone wore mourning. Though yet another question: are they all stuck in the Big House with nothing more than a trip to the local point-to-point, or maybe the Dublin horseshow, to look forward to? Or are they flitting around going to Ascot and buying very up-to-the-minute lingerie items in London? It is never clear.

There are a few Molly Keane books on the blog, and this entry looked at the trope of the Big House in Anglo-Irish literature, with particular reference to her books.

The pictures are of slightly later Kestos bras, because I think that is what the book is referencing, even though the dates don’t work out.


  1. Oh, that's so interesting and odd about the inaccuracies, Moira! And, as you point out, it's not the only strange thing about this book. I do like the setting and time period, but I think might do better with another Keane? Oh, and that information about the Kestos is so interesting. I always love it when you give background like that. I didn't even know the word was used generically.

    1. Thanks Margot - my interest in the clothes and details means that even a less-than-perfect book will always have something to appeal to me...

  2. I'm sure I urged you to read E Nesbit's The Wonderful Garden. Big house now inhabited by one old uncle. Summer holidays that go on for at least six months (they all get measles halfway through which must have taken up several weeks). I see now that it is a parody both of the "language of flowers" genre and the pious Sunday School prize which urges living for others, being of noble character and never telling an "untruth".

    1. Not sure that you have - and I haven't read it. But have just downloaded it to my Kindle, thanks, sounds intriguing...

  3. Great sleuthing, Moira. That French ad intrigues me; my A-level French struggles to make sense of it: is it something like 'If the habit doesn't make the monk, the Kestos [bra-vest] makes a woman elegant'? This doesn't sound right, so maybe I'm missing something? I've not read MK, but I do like Anglo-Irish fiction like Elizabeth Bowen and W. Trevor. Not sure there's much about clothes in WT (though it'd be worth checking), but there must be in Bowen - it's a long time since I read her.

    1. According to the dictionary French uses the expression 'the habit makes the monk' in the same sense English uses 'clothes make the man'. So I would translate it as: Even if clothes don't make the man, Kestos turns a woman into a perfectly elegant lady.


    2. Thanks, both Simon and Clare! It's quite a strange way to advertise underwear, but there you go. I meant to put in the post that Kestos comes from a Greek word for belt or girdle.
      I love Elizabeth Bowen, and I'm sure she has good clothes - I'm surprised I've never done more than mention her in passing on the blog. There are a few authors that I read so long ago that they have slipped through the net! More re-reading is the answer.

  4. Lovely images for this post. I never thought about the history of bras.

    1. Thanks Tracy, I thought they were beautiful. And the history of bras is one of the things you can come to this blog for!


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