A leading light for contemporary writers
The warmth and kindness in Maeve Binchy’s novels and her understanding of human nature and its myriad frailties account for her enormous international success
BEFORE THE resounding success of her first novel, Light A Penny Candle (1982), Maeve Binchy published three short story collections, Central Line, Victoria Line and Dublin 4.
With the later dominance of her novels, these collections became somewhat overlooked, but they were my introduction to the brilliance of Maeve’s writing and her empathy with the characters she had created.
It was clear that she would ultimately leap from the short story into the novel and expand her relationship with the characters she had created, but in those first stories there was a warmth and kindness about her writing that I had never encountered in a published work before.
That warmth and kindness followed her into her novels, which makes it easy to see why they were internationally successful.
Maeve Binchy didn’t simply observe her characters on the page and inform us of what was happening to them. She lived their lives with them, following them on their journey and wishing them well, even as she was plunging them into the depths of despair by facing them with unexpected pregnancies, illness, bereavements or families that didn’t understand.
What Maeve brought to her writing was a richness in her cast of expertly drawn characters, coupled with a gentle familiarity in her dialogue; both delivered with a quiet understanding of the complexities of life and how it affects us all.
But more importantly, for the generation of Irish women writers who followed her, Maeve set her novels in Ireland and wrote about the country as it was becoming, rather than the Ireland it had been.
Although many of her stories are set in small towns, they are not the small towns of squinting windows, but small towns where people have big ideas and where there is as much talk about the future as there is of the past.
This was no mean achievement. Even now, much of Irish literature deals resolutely with times gone by. Two years ago, Julian Gough, writing in the Guardian suggested that in Ireland “novel after novel (is) set in the 1970s, 60s, 50s. Reading award-winning Irish literary fiction, you wouldn’t know television had been invented. Indeed, they seem apologetic about acknowledging electricity.”
Whether Gough has a point now (and I believe he has), there was an even greater obsession with writing about the past in the 1980s.
It seemed that to write about Ireland you had to write about an inward looking country, rooted in age-old divisions about land and politics, where love was never joyful and sex was always guilt-ridden.
Although Light A Penny Candle had its origins in war-torn England, the story follows two young girls through their lives so that it ended up being a contemporary novel, perfectly pitched, with writing that seemed to envelop you, so that inevitably and inexorably you became part of Aisling and Elizabeth’s lives and you rooted for them through every page.
It was Maeve Binchy’s ability to make her characters real, rather than stereotypical caricatures of people who ought to populate novels, that elevated her books to the bestseller lists and found her a whole legion of fans. And it was the fact that she was writing about issues that were important to life as we were living it, that brought people to her books. She regularly described herself as a storyteller and that is what she did so brilliantly.
Her love of telling that story shone through every single book she wrote. Maeve’s voice, breathless and excited, resonates as the words tumble on to the page, hurrying to get the story down, wanting you to understand the characters, their motivation and the challenges that they faced. That those challenges were ones so many of us have also had to face only made them all the more urgent, all the more believable.
The Queen of Irish Fiction was a title often bestowed upon Maeve, along with National Treasure, which she truly was. Reviews of her books tend to focus on their warmth and cosiness without usually acknowledging the difficulty of writing novels that are so very easy to read.
The fluidity of the language, the observational touches, the exuberant descriptions are often passed over, as though the very ease with which Binchy wrote is unnecessary to praise. And so, although she did receive many popular accolades, she probably never received the highest regard in literary circles that she undoubtedly deserved.
When it comes down to it, Maeve will not be remembered for the delights of her prose, even though she had a wonderfully light touch with the written word and an unparalleled ear for dialogue. What she will always be remembered for is the joy and humanity she brought to her writing and her understanding of human nature and its myriad frailties.
She will also be remembered for making it acceptable for many other Irish writers (myself included) to set contemporary novels in Ireland. To write about a country that is not imprisoned in some literary vision of the past. To write about families and friendships and relationships, and allow them to be an important part of our lives.
She will be remembered for writing books that encourage people to read, books that make you feel as though she is sitting across the table talking to you, telling you about someone else’s trials and tribulations and allowing you to wonder how things will turn out. She will be remembered for writing books that were as generous in spirit as she was herself and books that always tried to see the good even in bad situations.
She was a brilliant writer and storyteller and her legacy will live on, both in her own work which will remain relevant for years to come, and in the works of the writers who have followed her.