The Dry Mirth of Malice


Mistletoe Malice KATHLEEN FARRELL (Faber & Faber)

By the time of her death in 1999, the writer Kathleen Farrell hadn't published a novel since the 1962 appearance of The Limitations of Love; then came silence, though she continued to sporadically appear in various short story anthologies, sharing literary space with Salman Rushdie, Graham Swift, William Trevor, and Muriel Spark.  

Farrell was, in many ways, a writer's writer. Her pared-down observations about human nature were much appreciated by a select few, but her works sold modestly and never made it into paperback. She remained valued by those who encountered her books, evidenced by the appreciative tone of the obituaries she garnered in celebration of a voice worthy of recall.

There remains unsparing darkness to her output; though never explicitly ruthless, her view of human nature was far from cozy; the reason why her tone may have jarred with a post-war audience seeking comfort instead of exposure. Her characters have been described as unsympathetic, which, indeed, they mostly are. It would have seemed a heresy to her to sweeten the truth she was trying to expose via her cryptic and steely observations. That would have utterly diminished the remit of her entire exercise.

Mistletoe Malice, her debut novel from 1951, contains all her future strategies. Dry in tone and challenging by nature, Farrell takes few prisoners. A woefully dysfunctional family gathers in a coastal cottage to celebrate Christmas under the watchful and controlling eye of their matriarch, Rachel, who is slavishly attended by her goose of a niece, Bess. As her brood assembles like a conference of unruly birds, tensions begin to creak, and ancient resentments raise their heads from long, disgruntled slumbers. It becomes the perfect setting for everything that Christmas shouldn't be but all too often is.

This novel seems better suited to present times than when it first appeared. Farrell's witty and unforgiving insights raise smiles of the knowing and uncomfortable kind. It is a perfect gift of discomfort dressed as a celebration. Endurance is maintained in the face of great expectations. All is deftly handled, and despite the characters being far from palatable, understanding, but not dislike, is the reader's ultimate reward.

Kathleen Farrell was friends with Ivy Compton-Burnett, Stevie Smith, and C.P. Snow. A survivor of a lost literary era, she played chess with Quentin Crisp and befriended Barry Humphries in his early days in London. For twenty years, she shared her life with the mercurial novelist Kay Dick, a relationship that physically ended in 1962 but which was only really concluded with Kathleen's death since they lived a stone's throw from each other in Hove.

Farrell remarked towards the end of her life that leaving her literary estate to anyone seemed futile since nobody would ever be interested in her work. She may have been pushed into the margins of memory by the angry young men of the Fifties and later by the cacophony of the swinging Sixties, but her relevance has rightfully resurfaced. 

Here is a clear, fine intelligence, an observer of foibles, a voice from another time that so effortlessly transcends it.

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