From abortion to infidelity: how Maeve Binchy chronicled Ireland
Rage drove the women in many stories by Binchy, whose writing was of huge social significance
Maeve Binchy: her global reach is obvious
University College Dublin Special Collections holds the papers of Maeve Binchy, a treasure trove of scripts, correspondence, first reviews and other publication materials.
Given what would prove to be an immensely successful career, spanning 17 novels, three plays, many collections of short stories and much journalism, it’s a particular pleasure to trace in the archives the excitement among Binchy’s first readers, and her publishers, when the popularity of Light a Penny Candle, her first published novel, became rapidly clear.
One of its first reviewers was Molly Keane, writing in the Irish Press in October 1982. Keane began by acknowledging that she had first thought “as I began the book: not for me”; she then went on to declare it a “remarkable novel”, “deeply interesting and vastly entertaining”.
Keane’s review also identified what would prove to be enduring features of Binchy’s style: her strength in dialogue and her ability to create and manage a proliferation of distinct characters. As Keane noted, “It is personalities, from childhood to maturity, far more than events and circumstances, that spell out the fortunes of her characters. For better or for worse they draw to themselves and on themselves love, fun, money, sickness, madness, happiness and disaster. There is none of the mist that does be on the bogs, Begorragh-Irish in this book.”
Binchy’s papers at UCD also include an early review of Victoria Line (1980), published in the English magazine New Society, which is much more unexpected in its appraisal. Its author, American journalist and novelist Clancy Sigal, offered a distinctive take on gender roles in Binchy’s work: “her real concern is rage, the wily and often fiendish ploys women resort to in a male-dominated world, where the men are moral and emotional shadows despite their political power. So Binchy’s women have to take up the slack, which they do with a vengeance.” Notwithstanding his use of stereotypical terms such as “wily” and “fiendish”, Sigal’s review is a welcome exception to the often bland reception of romance fiction, and he rightly recognises “rage” – be it against unfair workplaces or loveless marriages – as the driver of women’s actions in many early and later Binchy stories. “Anger hath a privilege,” as Shakespeare’s Kent observes. And what his comments also point to is a feature that is becoming more and more apparent in the years after Binchy’s death: the social significance of her work.
Light a Penny Candle is a personal favourite, as it is for many of my contemporaries who tell of first reading it long into the night, in the way our mothers read Gone with the Wind. Re-reading it recently, I was struck by what has and hasn’t changed in the decades since the novel was conceived and published. In 1972 Binchy was posted to the London office of The Irish Times at a time when workplace opportunities in Ireland were still governed by a ban on the employment of married women in the civil service and local authorities; 1979 was the year of the Family Planning Act: an “Irish solution to an Irish problem”; and 1983 and 1986 saw two highly contentious referendums on abortion and divorce.
Socially this was a period of deep strife and dissension, what Anne Enright in her memoir Making Babies aptly describes as a “moral civil war that was fought out in people’s homes with unfathomable bitterness”. These themes were present in Binchy’s first novel in the twinned fates of Irish Aisling and English Elizabeth. But what is key is that the reader doesn’t experience them as sociological treatises, written in “capital letters”; instead they are part of the threads of an individual life, in characters whose intertwined fates are lovingly worked through by their author.
While the opening lines of Light a Penny Candle invite readers into a romantic novel, they also poke fun – in Binchy’s characteristically mischievous way – at the absurdities of the genre:
“Violet finished the library book and closed it with a snap. Yet again, a self-doubting, fluttery, bird-brain heroine had been swept away by a masterful man. He would silence her protests with kisses, the urgency of his passion would express itself in all sorts of positive ways … He would organize the elopement or the wedding plans or his emigration to his South American estates. The heroine would never have to make all the arrangements herself, standing in queues at the travel agency, the ticket office, the passport office. Violet had to do everything herself.”
This is a novel that begins with the snapping shut of a romance novel and ends in a coroner’s court, with a verdict of misadventure and accidental death. The story in between concerns young Elizabeth, Violet’s daughter, who is evacuated from England to Ireland for the war years, and her lifelong bond with Aisling, daughter of Violet’s school friend Eileen. The intricacies of female friendship – what nurtures it, what threatens it, what makes it so precious – are central to the story as they are to so much of Binchy’s fiction, between and across generations of women.
One of the hallmarks of Binchy’s narrative vision is compassion. This is richly evident, for example, in the conflict between father and son when Aisling’s brother Sean enlists in the British army, and how it is negotiated by Eileen, Sean’s mother: “She didn’t know whether Sean ever read his son’s letters. She often left her bag open so that he would see them; but he never made any mention of it and they never seemed to have been disturbed when she returned.” Another episode in Light a Penny Candle recounts Elizabeth’s having an abortion in London, accompanied by Aisling.
The chapter possesses much narrative power, but more perhaps because of the striking rarity in Irish fiction of such scenes. (Another of the few examples is also by Binchy, who in Shepherd’s Bush, the opening story in Central Line, recounts, step by step, the experience of an Irish woman coming to London for an abortion.) Within the novel this is narrated quite simply and directly, with a focus on the different perspectives of the matter-of-fact Elizabeth and the horrified Aisling. The “plain-speaking” woman who runs the “very cheerful” guesthouse where the two girls stay on their way to Mrs Norris’s house, remarks on Elizabeth’s luck in having a friend with her: ‘Lots of them come on their own.’
From the early stories named after London tube stations to the later Lilac Bus, Binchy also keenly observes the crucial importance of mobility and movement, of travel and migration, in women’s lives. The scarce educational opportunities available at home is a central theme of Binchy’s 1985 novel, Echoes, set between 1950 and the early 1960s.
Here the importance of female friendship is expressed through dedicated and generous mentoring; the success of young Clare O’Brien in securing scholarships first to secondary school and then to university echoes the experience of her teacher Angela O’Hara. Early in the novel Angela muses on the likely fates of her students in a characteristic Binchy passage, mild in tone but with a final charge: “It wasn’t David Power’s fault that the system was the way it was. A system that made it natural that David Power should be a doctor like his father, and James Nolan a solicitor like his father, but made it very hard for Clare O’Brien to be anything at all.”
Binchy worked as a teacher for a number of years in the 1960s, before joining The Irish Times in 1968. Free secondary-school education was introduced in Ireland in 1967 with huge consequences for the education of Irish girls and boys. In 1961, the period at which Binchy’s Echoes ends, just over 4,500 boys and 4,000 girls sat the Leaving Certificate examination; by 1980 this figure had risen to 15,885 boys and 20,654 girls.
Once asked “as a teacher, what was the most important thing you wanted to give the children”, she replied: “I was very anxious to give the girls I taught confidence, to tell them that they were responsible for their own lives. It didn’t matter about being married, or rich or good-looking or thin, inner happiness is what we create for ourselves. Of course, I am sure they didn’t believe me – who believes a schoolteacher – but if there was a way of telling them that, I would be happy. I try to do it in my books now. Women don’t need to be rescued, they rescue themselves.”
In Binchy’s later works, recurring themes include marital tensions and infidelities; economic problems (not unrelated to marital conflict); the difficulties of ageing and society’s attitudes to the old; addiction and mental illness; tensions between generations caused by different opportunities and differing expectations. The view of the world from Binchy’s fiction includes a belief in human goodness and an unflinching eye at what is less than good; along with disappointment and disillusionment, rage or pain, her writings illustrate a reassuring belief in human resilience and recovery. Tara Road (2005) is an early exposé of the excesses of the Celtic Tiger and of a growing obsession with material goods and property gains. Minding Frankie (2010), recently adapted for theatre, is a moving portrayal of the new forms of support that emerge for a bereaved child when traditional family structures collapse. A noticeable feature of Binchy’s work – and no doubt part of her appeal for readers – was her interest in alternative forms of kinship outside of conventional norms. In Heart and Soul (2008) Binchy’s continuing interest in travel and migration comes full circle with the compelling character of Ania, a Polish woman newly arrived in Ireland. Experiences of new communities in Ireland are still a regrettably rare theme in contemporary Irish fiction (another important exception, writing in the mode of literary thriller, is the 2008 novel Open-Handed by Chris Binchy, Maeve’s nephew).
An interview with Maeve Binchy conducted by Róisín Ingle for The Irish Times in January 2007, on the occasion on her winning the Pen, award noted that “At the moment she is interested in writing about the Filipinos and eastern Europeans who’ve come to live in Ireland in recent years. ‘There’s the sense that they are still at the window looking in at us, not yet living the life. There’s a loneliness in that I want to look at,’ she says.”
In Henrietta McKervey’s recent novel Heart of Everything, a lovely vignette concerning a Maeve Binchy novel occurs early in the story. The central character, Anita, muses on the difference between her twin daughters’ school experiences and her own: they are currently writing an essay on ‘which of the characters you would choose to be in Circle of Friends’, while Anita remembers swapping Maeve Binchy books with her friends under their desks ‘when the teacher was having a fag break’.
This is a tender moment of affection from one writer to another but it’s also a useful reminder of the changing generations of Binchy readers both in Ireland and internationally. Younger Irish readers may first encounter her work as an optional comparative text on the Leaving Certificate English course – English teacher turned literary subject – while their parents and grandparents (like Audrey in Coronation Street) may have been stalwart fans for generations. Her global reach is obvious in the many translations of her work, which now include some 40 languages, including French, Italian, Russian, Chinese and, most recently, Korean.
The enduring appeal of Binchy’s fiction is personal to her readers but also, as the years go by and as Irish society continues to change, the significance of her writings as social chronicle deepens. A future edition of The Irish Times, say 50 years from now, will, I hope, offer space to someone like me who will exhort readers to read Maeve Binchy as a key witness and chronicler of Irish life in the last decades of the 20th century and the first decade of the next.
- Prof Margaret Kelleher is chair of Anglo-Irish literature UCD
CELEBRATING MAEVE BINCHY
Dalkey Castle & Heritage Centre hosts Echoes, an inaugural event celebrating the work of Maeve Binchy and other renowned Irish writers. On Saturday, September 30th, a whole day of Binchy-related events is planned: Prof Margaret Kelleher of UCD will open the day with a talk, Maeve Binchy: Her Lasting Appeal.
On the same day Joseph O’Connor, Martina Devlin, Danielle Keyes-Byrne and Christine Green will take part in the talk Can Journalism Lead to Creative Writing?
Maeve’s Times features Róisín Ingle in conversation with Maeve’s niece Sarah Binchy and broadcaster Seán Rocks.
Actor Barry McGovern will explore the Beckett connection in When Beckett Met Binchy. Playwright Bernard Farrell, a personal friend of Binchy’s, will close the day with Maeve: A Legacy in Laughter.
On Sunday, October 1st, the Maeve Binchy and Irish Writers Guided Walk begins at Dalkey Castle at 11am. For tickets and more information visit echoes.ie