Maeve Binchy: Was she a ‘quiet’ feminist?
Despite critics’ perceptions, the writer addressed radical topics throughout her career
Maeve Binchy at home in Dalkey, Co Dublin, in September 2006.
“Men like fat, cuddly women. Men like women without make-up. Men like women in midi-length clothes. Everyone looks better in summer than winter. Pregnant women are beautiful. It doesn’t matter if you aren’t beautiful.”
Maeve Binchy’s thorough debunking of what she called “the world’s greatest lies about women” was as good-natured and witty as her Irish Times readers would have come to expect. Written in June 1970, her response to each “greatest lie” makes it clear that she believed women ought to behave, dress and think for themselves.
The previous year, her article, The Nonsense of Etiquette, challenged the way in which class distinctions were being used by nuns in a secondary school to promote some girls and hold others back.
A few weeks before that, a piece about women’s underwear – “the real joy of living when we do is, of course, the invention of tights” – what was quick, labour-saving and comfortable, three words rarely associated with underclothes in a time when women were often putting on “a total of six garments” as underwear alone.
'My feminism came from feeling that if I could write fiction books showing that women were sometimes too humble and took themselves too timidly'
Smalls were just the start. From the outset, she questioned the attitudes, beliefs and conventions that kept women, in a thousand exhausting ways, tied down. From her first articles in newspapers in the early 1960s, she was, at the time of her death in 2012, a worldwide bestseller.
Published in 37 languages, her work included 17 novels and four short story collections, and from that early journalism through to her later fiction, Binchy’s essentially practical and compassionate take on what women “should” and “shouldn’t” do holds fast.
In 1991, Binchy told RTÉ’s Arts Show that the nicest thing anybody ever said about her in a book review was that she was a quiet feminist: “I was absolutely thrilled . . . I wanted to put that on the cover of every book but the publishers won’t put it on. Firstly, it was so delightful to be called quiet; in my entire life, no one had ever called me quiet. And secondly, my own feminism came from feeling that if I could write fiction books showing that women were sometimes too humble and took themselves too timidly and that only by being courageous and taking charge of your own life did you succeed.”
Binchy became women’s editor of The Irish Times in 1968, a time in which newspaper content aimed at women was flagged by a “Women’s Page” or “Women First” graphic (presumably to be interpreted either as invitation or warning, depending on what sort of reader you were). Her fellow journalist Mary Kenny commented: “There was perhaps a feeling that they’ll be writing about knitting, and how to burp a baby, and so we don’t need to pay too much attention . . . so you could put all kinds of incendiary things into the women’s pages before anybody saw them.”
Binchy believed she was unsuited to the role of women’s editor: “I knew nothing about fashion, and my theory about fashion was if all those little skinny things could go out and buy clothes, then let them go out and buy their own bloody clothes – I wasn’t going to! And I knew nothing about cooking; I lived at home and meals were put on the table in front of us.”
Yet what she did know really mattered: “I was very anxious that women should not be apologising for themselves. I very often meet people who when I said what I did, said, ‘I’m only a housewife’, and this used to really drive me mad.”
Her writing in The Irish Times was loved for its common sense, comedy and compassion.
In both fiction and in journalism, she wrote about abortion, alcoholism, infidelity, poverty, motherhood, joy and independence through the prism of ordinary women’s lives
From royal weddings (“the bride looked as edgy as if it were the Badminton Horse Trials and she was waiting for the bell to gallop off”) to chiding Trevor Howard and Cary Grant for lousing up women’s lives “by making us think that chance meetings were great”, and assessing politicians (“the trouble with Thatcher is that she gives with one hand to women and takes away with the other”), she had the ability to bring a reader from light to dark with ease.
An article from 1980 about the time she bought a custom-fitted bra from a fancy London shop ends with the knowing line: “If there’s another revolution and I’m told to burn it, I’ll abandon the sisters before I’d let it go.”
In both fiction and in journalism, she wrote about abortion, alcoholism, infidelity, poverty, motherhood, joy and independence through the prism of ordinary women’s lives. In A Snatch at Some Happiness (1976), a newly-married woman feels judged by everyone, including her boss, for not becoming pregnant within months of her wedding: “His eyes seemed piggy to her rather than kind, and she thought again how appalling it was that this man who never even addressed her by her first name should feel free to comment on the possibility of a life growing or not growing in her body.”
Women Are Fools, published in the Women First page in May 1973, was a three-part series billed as “case histories”. Mary, the subject of the first in the series, has known only misery in relationships, both with men and her mother. Now pregnant, she doesn’t know who the father of the child is. Life is unfair, Binchy writes. Unfair on Mary because, “she has this belief that a lot of women have that they don’t control their own lives. That they are somehow blown along by fate . . . It has a lot to do with expecting life to be beautiful and easy like it is for everyone else and [being] bitterly disappointed when it isn’t. And that’s why we are all such fools.”
That she returns time and time again over the decades to certain topics shows that she never wrote to simply graft a predictable feminist stance on to her work. Shepherd’s Bush, the opening story in her first collection Central Line (1978), is about abortion. In the second story, Holland Park, a woman takes a female friend as her plus-one to a party she’s dreading and, when she twigs that the other guests assume they are a couple, realises with shock and confusion that she does, in fact, love her.
Notting Hill Gate, an intricate, deft story that takes in racism and murder, opens with domestic abuse: “Everyone knew that Daphne’s friend Mike was a shit and to give us our due, most of us said so. But she laughed and said we were full of rubbish. She agreed, still laughing, to take the address of the battered wife place, just in case, then we gave her a lovely fur jacket that Mike wouldn’t be able to share, and she left us and married him. We never saw her again.” In this story, a bored newspaper reporter becomes fascinated by her new colleague – “Rita was big and black and tough about luncheon-vouchers” – and insists on solving what she imperially views as the “mystery” of Rita’s never-mentioned domestic life.
'I’m not the kind of person who would win prizes and I don’t mind that. I’m an airport author'
In Central Line women are challenged by women as well as men. These are not stories in which women are automatically victors; characters are regularly left bemused, their endings ambiguous and untidy (how like life). They are intimidated and tricked, hustled and harassed by the status quo. Men, despite their economic and political power, are often shadowy creatures, present but diluted. A UK magazine review of Central Line’s companion piece Victoria Line (1980) described Binchy’s female characters as being driven by “rage” against the male-dominated world.
A Few of the Girls, the collected short stories published in 2013, explores infidelity, insecurity, motherhood, rebellion against loveless relationships, divorce, changes in female friendships over time, how society treats women as they age, and bereavement, all written in what her husband Gordon Snell describes as Binchy’s trademark “straightforward and sensitive” style. She used to say: “I don’t have ugly ducklings turning into swans in my stories. I have ugly ducklings turning into confident ducks.”
In that collection, the story Funny Little Thing takes a well-aimed swipe at sexist language: “I used to say that the five worst words in the language were Flat Packed for Easy Assembly. Barry used to think that was funny. ‘Aren’t you a complicated little thing!’ he would say. But he found everything I said funny back then. And I was always a mad little thing or a quirky little thing, a clever little thing – even a sexy little thing. But that was then, not now.”
Despite this, the assumption that Binchy’s writing was “cosy”, that she wrote romance novels, persists. The London Independent once referred to her as “the Queen Mum of literature” and “a spectacularly successful writer of romantic fiction”. She herself said: “I’m not the kind of person who would win prizes and I don’t mind that. I’m an airport author, the sort of person who people buy to take on their holiday.”
In an interview with Caroline Walsh, former Irish Times literary editor and a pupil of Binchy’s during her teaching days, she commented: “A journalist said to me once, ‘What do you think of the fact that more people buy your books than buy Shakespeare?’ I said that if I was going on a flight, I’d prefer to buy Maeve Binchy than King Lear. ”
Though she did in fact win plenty of awards – including a British Book Award, a Jacob’s Award, a People of the Year Award, the Irish PEN Award, an Irish Book Award – somewhere along the line Binchy seems to have become two people: the “cosy”, much-loved writer, and a compassionate advocate for feminist causes who wanted to ensure Irish women had a voice.
Perhaps that is the reason the “quiet” tag has stuck like lint to her feminism for so long. And yes, not all of her writing is equally challenging, but much of it deals with difficult topics for both men and women, and she was brave and realistic enough to leave endings unresolved and ambiguous. It is worth noting that the “spectacularly successful writer of romantic fiction” label gets completely debunked with her suggestion for the first line of a sequel to Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca: “Last night I dreamed I went to see my solicitor and began the whole business of getting shot of Max.”
When her mother died in 1968, she and her father continued to live together in the family home. When he died in 1971, she moved into a flat, and in an interview years later recalled, “during that year in the flat I decided: it’s time for me to change now”. That one line is so revealing of her personality: confident and determined, yet delivered with the sort of easy charm that is often mistaken for casualness.
In How To Be A Woman, Caitlin Moran writes: “I don’t want men to go away. I don’t want men to stop what they’re doing. What I want instead, are some radical market forces. I want CHOICE. I want VARIETY. I want MORE. I want WOMEN. I want women to have more of the world, not just because it would be fairer, but because it would be better.” It’s hard not to imagine Binchy agreeing. And the more of her writing, particularly from the 1970s and 80s, you read, the more that description of her feminism as “quiet” itself becomes disquieting. As Irish women’s lives slowly changed over the last 50 years, her voice was one of constant empathy and good sense. Remove the “quiet” and there are plenty of alternatives ready and waiting to take its place: persistent, considered, compassionate.
Her niece Sarah Binchy once asked her for advice. The response began with the very sound suggestion “Learn to type” and ended, “Don’t wait for permission to be happy. Don’t wait for permission to do anything. Make your own life.”
We hear you, Maeve. Loud and clear.
Echoes festival, celebrating the work of Maeve Binchy and other renowned Irish writers, runs from October 5th-7th.
Henrietta McKervey’s acclaimed third novel Violet Hill, a literary adventure of deception, danger and detection, is out now.