Panter-Downes, Keane win new readers

Two authors whose earlier work has just come out in the Virago Modern Classics series are 79-year-old Mollie Panter-Downes and 81-year-old Molly Keane, each of whom firmly states she is ``not a feminist!'' Best known in this country for her ``Letter From London,'' which appeared for nearly four decades in The New Yorker magazine, Mollie Panter-Downes considers herself a journalist first and foremost, although she has also written poetry and fiction. Virago has just reissued her 1947 novel, ``One Fine Day,'' a beautifully written, highly evocative account of a day in the life of an upper-middle-class Englishwoman confronting a world irrevocably changed in the aftermath of World War II.

On the telephone from her home in Surrey, England, Ms. Panter-Downes talked about some of her aims in writing the novel. She was interested in preserving a ``record of England -- of my part of England, the south, so very different, you know, from the industrial Midlands and the north.'' In capturing the atmosphere of village life during this transitional period, she found herself using many of the same talents she uses as a journalist, although the novel is very much concerned with the domestic life of its heroine, Laura Marshall, and not with public and political events of the time. ``People who knew me when the book came out asked if I was Laura,'' Ms. Panter-Downes recalled. ``Absolutely not!'' Referring to a scene in which the hapless, dreamy Laura, unaccustomed to running a country house without the aid of servants, fails to cope with the demands of her kitchen, Ms. Panter-Downes assured me, ``Now I would never do that!'' The character is based upon sympathetic observation, not simple identification.

Panter-Downes believes she has led what some people might consider ``a very dull life: one home, one job, and one husband, all these years.'' But from her own viewpoint, this has been entirely satisfactory.

She began contributing to The New Yorker in the late 1930s. When the war broke out, The New Yorker's brilliant correspondent Janet Flanner was ``trapped'' in the United States. ``I was lucky,'' said Panter-Downes with genuine modesty.

Under the pen name of M. J. Farrell, taken from a sign outside an Irish pub, the Anglo-Irish novelist and playwright Molly Keane wrote 10 novels between 1928 and 1952. When her husband passed on at the age of 36, she stopped writing and devoted herself to raising her two daughters. Only in her late '60s did she turn once again to fiction.

Rejected by several publishers, her scintillating, darkly comic novel ``Good Behaviour'' was finally published by Andr'e Deutsch in 1981, under its author's real name, followed soon after by ``Time After Time'' (1983), both of which are now available in paperback from Obelisk. Virago has just reissued two of her earlier novels, ``Devoted Ladies'' (1934), a polished, sharply witty story of an unusual love triangle, and ``The Rising Tide,'' also written in the 1930s, but evoking the bygone world of hard-riding Anglo-Irish country gentlefolk. Virago will also publish three more of Keane's earlier books in the near future.

What is it like to be ``rediscovered'' after so many years? Speaking on the telephone from her daughter's home in London, where she was nearing the end of a long visit and preparing to return to her own home in County Waterford, Ireland, Molly Keane expressed herself with characteristic gusto: ``I feel like a bit of a miracle from above has hit me!'' ``Good Behaviour'' has already been made into a three-part television program by the BBC, and a television film of ``Time After Time'' is also on the way. John Gielgud, who directed Ms. Keane's plays back in the '30s and '40s -- and once in the '60s -- is in the new film, Keane informed me with delight.

Asked if she found that her approach to writing has changed over the years, she replied, ``Work does get harder as you get older. I do write more slowly now. I'm not really fond of writing -- it's hard work. But when I am writing, I give it all I've got. Not that I've got all that much!'' she added with a chuckle.

``I used to have a tremendous memory for dialogue,'' she reflected. ``But I find as I get older I can't quite catch on to the language of young people these days.'' Responding to the suggestion that perhaps young people are less articulate these days, Keane recalled, ``In my youth, we certainly talked more. We had to, you see. There was no radio, no telly. We had to be pleasant and amusing. And I was never good-looking. But if you were able to talk, well, then you were all right.''

Had she found herself making substantive changes in style or subject matter? ``Oh, no!'' she replied cheerfully. ``I haven't got enough education or brains to change anything!'' But considering the matter further, she remarked that some things do change. ``As you age, you find that you've observed more. You get sharper. And what you've been able to observe makes what you have to say of greater value, I hope.''

Now that changing tastes have revived interest in voices of an earlier vintage, how does Keane view herself in the context of the feminist outlook that critics -- and publishers like Virago -- have been sponsoring?

``I'm not a feminist at all,'' she confessed. ``I'm a real old clinger, though I haven't got anyone to cling to now.''

Will Molly Keane be writing any more novels? Yes, she's working on her next one. In light of how appreciatively she and her books are being received, she has sensibly concluded, ``I'd be mad not to!'' -- Merle Rubin

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