Dress Down Sunday: The Rising Tide by Molly Keane

first published – under the name MJ Farrell – in 1937


Rising Tide 1

They are defensive now— the Enids and Muriels and Cynthias. One asks them some absurd question— clothes, for instance!

Instead of saying, “My dear, you should have seen our buttoned boots, they were too nice. And you really were a dashing girl if you put black ribbon in your camisoles.” Or, “How well I remember my first ball dress— White. You practically had to wear White. White satin, the bodice cut down to the bust line and my bosoms propped and supported, all most pneumatic and attractive to the gentlemen. Puff sleeves and white kid gloves turning the elbow. And such a waist, darling— twenty-three inches without going black in the face. Then a full flowing skirt (bodices and skirt were not attached, you wore a folded silk belt pointed back and front). But petticoats— there was drama for you!— Flounces and lace and insertion and ribbon bows among the lace. It all gave one such a sensation of one’s own glamour. Glamour I think was what we had. Glamour was the thing——”
No. They say instead, “Well, I think our clothes weren’t so very unlike what you wear now…”

Why aren’t they prouder of their glamour and their chastity and their dainty boots and their rich leisured lives?

Rising Tide 3
observations: Two blog readers reminded me about Molly Keane recently: Lissa Evans pointed out that really I should have already done Good Behaviour on the blog, and she’s right. And new blogfriend Melanie suggested one of her earlier, more obscure ones: The Rising Tide. So they’ll be in date order, Good Behaviour coming soon.

I checked out Melanie’s blog, The Indextrious Reader, and she is obviously a woman after my own heart: so I strongly recommend her review of this book to anyone interested. She describes it so well that she has saved me a job.

Molly Keane’s story is an unusual one. She was born in 1904 in Ireland into the Anglo-Irish Protestant Ascendancy, and lived the life normal to a woman in those circumstances. She married and had children, and from her 20s to her 40s she wrote novels and plays, published under the name MJ Farrell. Then there was a long gap, till in 1981 Good Behaviour appeared to ravish the world and excite a new interest in her. It was hugely successful, and short-listed for the Booker Prize. She wrote a couple more novels, and died in 1996.

I was one of the people ravished by Good Behaviour when it came out – I then read a couple of her earlier ones, which I remember as light-ish romances, not in the same league as Good Behaviour. So with this one I was expecting something like an Irish Angela Thirkell – fine young men for the young women, a few misunderstandings and romantic crossed lines, some comic setpieces and wild social events, and happy endings all round.

But this was something much darker and more serious, and not at all light-hearted. It showed the miseries of family life, and the ways in which parents destroy their children’s happiness. From all my reading of Molly Keane, you would say she must have had the most terrible relationship with her own mother – she seems almost embarrassingly open about that, and ready to use is as copy.

There are two hideous mother-figures here: Lady Charlotte, and her daughter-in-law Cynthia. They lay waste to all around them. Lady Charlotte’s daughters don’t scrape together a whole life between them. Cynthia’s children, Simon and Susan, seem awful to the reader, secretive smug and pompous. There’s not much joy and happiness around. Keane has a good writing style, and you can see the seeds of the Good Behaviour era coming, but I found it unbalanced and strangely structured, jumping around as if Keane didn’t really know where she was going with it. I found it very reminiscent of Vita Sackville- West’s The Edwardians – this one starts in 1900 and covers 20+ years.

When the women described above were finally ready for the ball, they probably looked something like this:

Rising Tide dressed

-- used for an entry on The Edwardians, and other entries on that book also have suitable pictures of corsets and getting dressed. Also worth checking out the picture of Edwardian beauty Lillie Langtry - talking of ravishing - on the blog here

Clothes are of vital importance – Cynthia in her green facecloth suit, and later ‘a mauve dress with a good deal of silk fringe attached to it.’ Riding clothes and tweeds are discussed – hunting is a major feature in Cynthia’s life, and in the book.

In fact there are so many clothes issues, there will be another entry on this book.

The question of ‘insertion’, above, is discussed in this blog entry and the comments below it.

The top picture is from a magazine called Le Frou Frou, in 1900, via Wikimedia Commons.

The petticoat advert is from the NYPL.


  1. I think your post brings up something interesting, Moira. As you read an author's work, I think you can sometimes see how s/he evolves over time. This one, for instance, has a different style and tone to Good Behaviour. Sometimes that's because an author is experimenting with something new. Other times, though, it's a case of the author finding her or his voice. And there's the equally interesting subject of the way authors tap their own lives and experiences as they write...

    1. Yes, I agree, there's a lot to consider. I know authors often complain that you shouldn't take their work as autobiographical, and that's fine, but they often do seem to be giving away a lot about their own lives and thoughts...

  2. Thanks for this. Sooo love Molly Keane.

    1. I'd forgotten what a good writer she is, now I'm going to read more...

  3. This is so interesting - I've never read any of Mollie Keane's earlier novels and now I really must give this a go, if only to see the seeds of 'Good Behaviour' starting to sprout...

    1. The earlier books ARE interesting, though not as good as the later ones. And it is an ever-fascinating world she lived in in Ireland at that time...

  4. Not one for me, but my dad read her I'm sure, so some happy thoughts about him - cheers

    1. It's good solid Irish stuff, that's for sure, so he probably did....

  5. I don't know that I want to read about so many unlikable people and it sounds depressing. Lovely images though. And sounds right up your alley (the clothes, not the dark, depressing part).

    1. It was interesting for NOT being either a serious literary novel, or a light-hearted bit of froth. But I think this is one where I read it for you Tracy - and I really did like the clothes, there were loads of great descriptions.


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