Molly Keane: Two Days in Aragon (1941)

Grania and Sylvia Fox live in the Georgian house of Aragon, with their mother, their Aunt Pidgie and Nan O’Neill, the family nurse. Attending Aragon’s strawberry teas, the British Army Officers can almost forget the reason for their presence in Ireland. But the days of dignified calm at Aragon are numbered.

I first read about Molly Keane’s Two Days in Aragon on Danielle’s blog. Molly Keane or M.J. Farrell, the pseudonym under which she published her books,  is one of Danielle’s reading projects and after having read Two Days in Aragon I can understand why. I’m trying to put into words what type of book this was but nothing I come up with seems to do it justice. Molly Keane captured beautifully the end of an area, portrayed a social system, drew complex character portraits and incorporated such a wide variety of topics that I’m full of admiration.

I love descriptions of big old houses. They seem to have a life of their own and their majestic presence can be felt so strongly, they are almost characters in their own right. Aragon is exactly such a house. The family home of the Fox’s is grand, old and full of history. There are hidden rooms and the ghosts of the ancestors seem to be hovering around. But Aragon is also a symbol. A symbol for a way of life about to end. Aragon also symbolizes oppression as it is the house of an Anglo-Irish family and as such represents everything that the Irish have come to hate and against which they are fighting in 1920, the year in which the novel takes place.

The end of an era can be brought by many things but war, rebellion, change of government are among the most frequent. All over the world when the colonized stand up against the colonists this signifies the end of a life in beauty and ease for the formerly advantaged. Molly Keane knew very well what she wrote about as she came from such a rich Anglo-Irish family who lived in privilege and never had to work. They loved their horses and hunting and eating well. All this was incorporated into the novel. The descriptions of these two days make one long to have been there, to have experienced the rituals, seen the beauty.

Molly Keane offers more than the description of a house and a way of life about to end. One thing I liked a lot in the novel were the characters. None of them likable, maybe with one exception (Sylvia), but all of them are drawn so vividly and in all their complexity that I was glued to the page.

Grania and Sylvia Fox live in the grand old house together with their mother and Aunt Pidgie. Their father has died after a hunting accident. Grania and Sylvia are very different which is also shown in their choice of men. Grania has an affair with Foley O’Neill, a socially unacceptable choice, while Sylvia is secretly in love with a British officer. One girl is described as a slutty, fat, blond and the other as a neat, groomed and very poised young lady. The mother has a bit of both of them but seems to like her passionate, wilder and slutty daughter far more.

Aunt Pidgie and Nan O’Neill, the house nurse, form a duo. Aunt Pidgie is an unwelcome elderly relative that is kept, far away, in the nursery. This reminded me of the first Mrs Rochester in Jane Eyre. The unwanted, especially women, were often locked away. Aunt Pidgie is a bit crazy but inoffensive. In the beginning we know nothing of her sufferings but when we learn more about Nan O’Neill and her well-hidden side of aggression and cruelty we start to pity this poor bird-like little woman. Nan O’Neill is the most complex and fascinating character. She loves Aragon and everything in it with a fierceness and as if it did belong to her. This has a reason. She is an impressive woman, commanding, extremely good-looking and adept at everything. She is especially good at hiding her true nature. Disappointment and lack of love have made her cruel and pitiless. In her role as nurse she is one of the most powerful characters in the novel. She knows about unwanted pregnancies and how to end them, about subtle ways how to torture someone in keeping them alive but constantly uncomfortable. A very chilling character.

I have read a lot of novels about the end of an era, many have houses in their center. I loved Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited as much as E.M.Forster’s Howard’s End and of course,  Bassani’s The Garden of the Finzi Contini. They are often nostalgic and melancholic books. This isn’t the case here, Two Days in Aragon is completely different in tone and although tragedy strikes all of them I wasn’t sad after reading it but rather full of admiration for Molly Keane and her very unique voice and fascinating approach to tell her story.  And I felt exhausted. She is such a vivid storyteller, I lived in those pages, I almost felt as if I had experienced two very intense days.

18 thoughts on “Molly Keane: Two Days in Aragon (1941)

    • I should have known that this is an author you like. Thanks for the comment about Time after Time, I wasn’t sure which one to read next. She is quite a discovery. Already when I first read about her on Danielle’s blog I thought this is an author I must read. A unique voice.

  1. This sounds like something I would love, Caroline. Brideshead Revisited was one of my favorite books. Did you see the miniseries with Jeremy Irons and Laurence Olivier? It was beautifully faithful to the novel, almost word for word. I think there was a film released last year, but I can’t imagine it being as good as the miniseries.

    • Thanks for the suggestion, Carole, I haven’t seen the miniseries. I loved that book so much. It’s one of my all time favourites.
      I highly recommen Two Days in Aragon. the tone is different but there are similar elements. It has quite a shocking ending, btw. I wasn’t familiar with these elements of Irish history.

  2. I’m so glad you enjoyed this! She does have a unique voice and she knows very well of what she writes as she lived that life–she has a very authentic voice. Now that I think of it–her characters aren’t really always very likable, but they are so interesting that it doesn’t matter. I went back and have been (very slowly) reading them in order. I think Two Days in Aragon is one of her best books–the earlier ones are good but they don’t quite have that same depth that it has–but they all give a sense of what it was like to live in Ireland at that time and in a grand house. I need to pick my “current” Molly Keane book up–I keep it on my sidebar as I have every intention of reading it next! Howards End is one of my favorite books and I want to read In the Garden of the Finzi Continis sometime soon (I have it sitting out actually). Need to read Brideshead, too! I have to ditto Guy–Mollie Panter Downes is a marvelous writer–I am getting ready to reread One Fine Day–it’s an excellent book!

    • I was wondering if it was such a good choice to start with Two Days in Aragon as it would be hard to top that. I will try the next one soon anyway. I need books to balance out the R.I.P.
      I got Mollie-Panter Downes after you mentioned her. I’m looking forward to read her as well.
      The Garden of the Finzi Contini is the saddest of them all. It’s almost painfully beautiful. It is one of my ten favourite books of all time. And so is Brideshead Revisited. I liked all E.M.Forster novels but I kept one for last, A Passage to India.
      You will see, they are much more melancholic in tone. Two Days in Aragon is as well at times but the characters are not.

  3. Funnily, when I saw the title, I expected something in Spain.
    If you and Guy recommend it, I’m adding it to the TBR right now. And then comes my usual question: is the language difficult? The French title is “Les Renards de pierre.” A play-on-word with Fox?

    I also love those English old mansions. We don’t have this in French literature that much, probably because a lot of these houses disappeared with the Revolution. (The only example that comes to mind right away is Anna Gavalda, and it’s only an apartment)

    • The Spain association is correct. It is explained in the book why the house has a Spanish name. I read the foreword first, if you don’t mind spoilers….
      the house has fox figures on the stairs. They are afamily of hunters plus the familiy name is fox.
      I would say the English is easy, nothing regional or dialectal. You will like it, I’m sure.
      Maybe there aren’t all that many houses in the literature like this but there area lot in France, I just think we don’t have that type of novel in French literature, about country house. Those big old houses are often located in Paris. Most of the novels that came to my mind were English.

  4. Thank you for posting this review. I’d never heard of the author Molly Keane or Two Days in Aragon. I love your comparison to Brideshead Revisited and Howard’s End, two novels I have read. So I think this is a title that I would enjoy reading.

    • You are welcome. I hope you will like it. It’s absolutely unique. The voice is so hers, you don’t find that all that often in fiction.
      I was thinking of your comment about unlikable characters, these characters are not likable but so fascinating. The description of Nan will stay with me. And the house as well.

  5. I’ve been meaning to read Molly Keane (sound familiar?) for ages, thanks to Danielle’s wonderful reviews. I seem to be booking myself up for so much this autumn that it might be 2012 before I get there, but it’s clear I have a lot to look forward to!

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