Rereading Maeve Binchy — as loved and relevant as ever – The Irish Times

Maeve Binchy is one of those rare authors whose surname often isn’t necessary; particularly for her fans, she’s simply “Maeve”. Sure it’s partly due to her phenomenal and well-documented international success but it’s far more to do with how much people loved her. Her writing spoke so clearly to readers because we believe she was writing with us in mind. She cared about us. She was us.

She sold more than 40 million copies of her books in 37 languages, and new translations continue to be produced since her death, 10 years ago. To mark the anniversary, Seán Hewitt, Róisín Ingle, Lorraine Kelly, Jamie O’Connell, Joseph O’Connor and Caroline O’Donoghue each recently reread a favourite Maeve Binchy book for The Irish Times. Their responses here show that not only does she remain as loved as ever for what both O’Connell and Kelly agree is her “warmth, wisdom and wit”, but that the significance of her writing as a social chronicle has become increasingly recognised and appreciated.

Binchy emerged, as O’Connor notes in his rereading of Maeve’s Times, a collection of her journalism, into a “patriarchal, less self-confident, perhaps culturally cringing Ireland”. Her husband, Gordon Snell, has often said his wife was unafraid to tackle quite fierce topics and modern issues, and “puncturing pomposity” was her trademark, according to her Irish Times colleague and friend Mary Maher. In 1991, Binchy told RTÉ’s Arts Show that the nicest thing anybody ever said about her in a 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.”

What has become increasingly apparent in the decades since is how consistently loud the “quiet feminist” was actually shouting.

She highlighted and questioned the attitudes, beliefs and conventions that kept women, in so many large and small ways, tied down. In her fiction and journalism she wrote about abortion, alcoholism, social class, infidelity, poverty, ageing and ageism, motherhood, joy and independence. As Irish women’s lives slowly changed over the decades, her voice was always one of compassion, empathy and good sense. A few years ago at the Echoes festival, an annual event to celebrate her work in her hometown of Dalkey, historian Diarmaid Ferriter commented that in Ireland we had “official archives that told us what happened, they didn’t necessarily tell us what it felt like. Maeve’s work was very powerful in communicating what it felt like”.

For too long, snobbery dictated a writer could be a successful storyteller or a serious social commentator, but not both. Binchy proves how wrong this was. As we mark 10 years since her death on July 30th, 2012, it’s heartening to see new generations of readers discovering her. And to acknowledge that alongside the memorable characters and riches of her storytelling, she wasn’t merely telling us who we were, she was showing us who we could be.

Rereading Maeve

Light a Penny Candle (1982)

Lorraine Kelly

Light A Penny Candle was my introduction to Maeve and right from the first page I was completely immersed in the world she created and utterly hooked on her brilliant storytelling. It’s a book I have returned to often over the years and each time I am drawn back, I discover something new to admire.

There’s Elizabeth, an anxious, buttoned-up little English girl leading a rather anxious and grey life in the middle of her parents’ chilly marriage. She is evacuated during the second World War to Ireland, to stay with the colourful O’Connor clan.

Elizabeth becomes friends with Aisling, who is the same age and in many ways her exact opposite, a girl thrumming with emotion and wanting to squeeze every last drop out of every single day. The story of their 20-year friendship is told with such skill you truly feel you have walked in their shoes and know them inside out. Every character is utterly authentic and we grow to care deeply about them, even with all of their flaws, insecurities and selfishness.

There’s not one single cliche. Reading it now, it’s still as fresh and heartbreaking as the day Maeve wrote this cleverly crafted story. She gives us loss, betrayal, misunderstanding and ultimately, deep and abiding love. We also discover such a lot about Elizabeth and Aisling through their letters to one another when they are apart, often by what they don’t reveal. The famous Maeve wit, warmth and wisdom shines through every page.

At times I identified with lonely Elizabeth, always wanting to do the right thing and be a “good girl”, but I also was drawn to Aisling the rebel who strives to live life on her own terms. It’s devastating but also oddly comforting to discover both of them ultimately fail. Their lives are messy and complicated and frustrating and often desperately tragic and sad, but there’s also joy and love.

Maeve’s writing is uncannily good. The ultimate storyteller with magical skills, she casts a spell with words and keeps the reader completely invested. Light A Penny Candle is a Maeve masterclass.

Lorraine Kelly presents Lorraine, on ITV on weekdays at 9am, she also contributed to a reissued edition of Maeve Binchy’s Circle of Friends

Echoes (1985)

Seán Hewitt

Echoes begins with a schoolgirl in the fictional coastal town of Castlebay, walking up to a cave that is said, rather than to echo, to answer. “Will I win the history prize?” Clare shouts. The cave only returns the last syllable of her question: “ize ize ize ize”. She’s overheard though, by David Power, a schoolboy.

In these simple brushstrokes, Binchy lays out the key themes and tensions of the book, which will chart their lives and the lives of another family, the Doyles. Social class, hope, the governing forces of a life, romance and self-determination in mid-century Ireland are eased into the story with brilliance, and with a total lack of polemic. This is romance that looks at who we’re allowed to love, and who we’re allowed to be.

What begins as a seemingly quaint opening becomes poignant in retrospect. In Echoes, Binchy paints a portrait of small-town life in Ireland in the 1950s — her comic timing is brilliant, but there are threads of sorrow throughout. Living before the free secondary education legislation, introduced in 1967, the future for Clare is uncertain. Unless she wins a scholarship, her family cannot afford to keep her in school. Everywhere, social class permeates the intertwining families of the novel, and there are some great arguments, where Binchy has Clare and others strip back the privileges of the wealthier characters. In this rich fabric, other difficulties arise too; one subplot has an Irish priest who is to be laicised and to marry his Japanese fiance. Castlebay, it is feared, is too judgemental to allow him to return, and so the freedoms of England and of life in big cities acts as a foil to the quaint seaside setting.

Echoes is Binchy’s second novel, the follow-up to Light a Penny Candle. It’s not a small book. In the latest edition, it comes to just under 750 pages. It is brilliantly immersive, sweeping, detailed, funny and moving. At no point would you wish it was a sentence shorter.

Seán Hewitt is an author and poet. His latest book is All Down Darkness Wide

Circle of Friends (1990)

Caroline O’Donoghue

If you’ve published anything as writer — whether that’s a book, a pamphlet, a guide to jellyfish scouting in the Mizen region — it is only a matter of time before you’re asked to give advice on writing. There is an entire cottage industry based on the doling out of writing advice, and I bring this up because I am currently sitting in a hotel room in Bantry having just doled out some at the West Cork Literary Festival. Advice? I have no advice. Like every author, my journey to publication was specific to time, place and luck: all factors that are impossible to recreate, and may not work again even if you tried.

And so, the only advice I give is this: resist cynicism. This industry is full of bitchers and moaners and pretenders and begrudgers, and you can’t afford to be one. Take it from me: I almost was. And then I read Circle of Friends.

In the summer of 2018, I was asked to do a live Sentimental Garbage podcast with my friend Sarah Maria Griffin on Circle of Friends. #MeToo had just cracked open the global female psyche. We had fought for Repeal [of the Eighth Amendment] and we had won. There was a sense, certainly among other contemporary female novelists, that to be good was to be fierce. To be sexual was to revel in the addictive yet terminally disappointing nature of having sex with men. I felt bitter and weary and like my path to greatness, if there was one, would be lined with snide asides littered along the way.

And then I sat down with a 600-page book about a bunch of friends going to University College Dublin.

Yes, 600 pages! About a few nicely brought-up kids having a laugh together. I couldn’t believe it. Of course, there’s plot and drama — a car accident slicing some poor boy in two on page 60 or so, a pregnancy, the faking of wedding rings in Dublin hotels — but on the whole, this is a book about hanging out. About making friends. About the thrill of sitting around a pub table with a group of people who don’t know you. Of not inventing a new personality, exactly, but of identifying the nice qualities you had all along and falling in love with the strangers that seem to bring them out of you.

I couldn’t believe the buoyancy, the wit. The sense that even very serious things (in this, the summer of Serious Things) could be dealt with in such a warm and forgiving way. The prose I was reading at the time — as well as creating — was largely preoccupied with identifying the horrid behaviour of quite ordinary people. The mission, then, was expanding out those observations as being indicative of society as a whole. If a person was bad, it was because the Bad Bad World had made them that way.

Binchy was partial to horrible behaviour, but context was important to her. We might scream at the treacherous Nan for double-crossing both Eve and Benny (the former by shagging a Protestant lord in Eve’s cottage; the latter, by stealing her boyfriend) but we worry for her, too. I find myself stopping in the street to wonder if my terrible friend Nan is okay.

There was my writing career before I read Circle of Friends, and after. Before it, I wanted to be a writer who was raw and hard, and who wrote sharp, difficult things. After it, I realised that life is hard enough. You can write about difficult subjects but you must not do it cynically. There is never a person so awful that you can’t worry for them, too. Binchy famously lost her faith after a trip to Israel as a teenager, but even so, I think she retained something Catholic. Her writing hated the sin, but never the sinner.

Caroline O’Donoghue is the author of novels including Promising Young Woman and her first book for young adults The Gifts That Bind Us

The Glass Lake (1994)

Jamie O’Connell

Quentin Crisp once said: “There is a kind of glow that surrounds many people who have succeeded at synthesising their professional and personal lives.” These artists “enter the profession of being”, where they themselves become as resplendent as their work. For me, Maeve Binchy, like Oscar Wilde or Maya Angelou, or Germaine de Staël, falls into this category. I often rewatch her interviews on RTÉ and enjoy their unique blend of warmth, wisdom, and wit.

It has been wonderful to read The Glass Lake and enjoy Binchy’s warmth, wisdom and wit displayed over a vast 700-page canvas. A great raconteur in life, this novel displays Binchy’s impressive power of storytelling, with a plot that grows increasingly high stakes with every hundred pages. She has a gift with character too, the most complex and compelling being Helen McMahon, a woman whose choice to abandon her children at the opening of the novel makes her easy to condemn, and yet, there is much to admire; the choice to escape her stifling life in rural Ireland allows her to reach her true potential.

Writers, when creating portraits of rural Irish life, have often focused on the underbelly of country towns, on themes like petty crime, alcoholism and abuse. However, The Glass Lake focuses on those who, on a surface level, have apparently comfortable existences. Binchy examines these “lives of quiet desperation”, notably those of women, where comfort and safety come at the cost of hope.

Unsurprisingly, The Glass Lake is one of the all-time best-selling books in Ireland. It is wonderful to read a book that had me wanting to read “just one more page”; that I looked forward to picking up each day. Just like the writer herself, it has a glow that has been a joy to be around.

Jamie O’Connell’s debut novel Diving for Pearls was published in 2021

Tara Road (1998)

Róisín Ingle

Tara Road sold over five million copies in the United States and was an Oprah Winfrey book club pick. It melded a story of contemporary Ireland with an Irish woman in the US plot and as with all Binchy’s work, it had universal appeal. The novel was made into a movie albeit one not quite as successful as Circle of Friends largely because, according to at least one critic, it left gaping holes in the narrative and characterisation which had been fleshed out in the novel by Binchy who was not a woman for gaping holes or loose ends.

Returning to the novel was like catching up with old friends. Remember Ria? She lived on Tara Road in Dublin with her charming husband, Danny, and their two children. Ria thought her life and marriage were grand but then Danny dropped the bombshell that he was leaving to be with his young, very pregnant girlfriend. A random phone call introduced her to Marilyn, a separated woman in New England, grieving after the death of her only son. Ria and Marilyn embark on a house swap and the book explores the women’s lives until inevitably they come face to face.

Tara Road, even years later, is still everything you want in a Maeve Binchy book. It’s moving, original, funny and entertaining. As the reviewer of Tara Road noted in The Irish Times back when this book was published “there is always a moment of mild astonishment when you turn the final page of a Maeve Binchy novel and look up, only to discover that the characters don’t actually live in your house”. It’s the same skill shown in their craft by Irish writers such as Marian Keyes and Sally Rooney. A rare gift. Now to go back to more Binchy novels.

Róisín Ingle is an Irish Times journalist

(Eric Luke)

Maeve’s Times (2013)

Joseph O’Connor

Anyone seeking a wonderful spread of Maeve Binchy’s unshowy, compelling, witty, truthful writing would find riches in Maeve’s Times, a 2013 collection of her journalism. You could read it as a textbook on how to write brilliantly. Cut into a scene late and leave it early. Use sense imagery often when telling a story. Show, don’t tell, but tell when you need to. She’s using many of the techniques of fiction.

She has the writer’s sense of how one word can make a phrase burst into life. Schoolgirls boarding a coach after a visit to a chip shop are “fragrant with vinegar”. A fellow aeroplane passenger who has told Maeve he is smuggling 15 watches “ticked his way towards the airport bus”.

The sentences are warmly elegant; the tone is wry but never cruel. I’m struck by how many of the opening lines are like the beginnings of short stories and by the confident, cosmopolitan, often affectionate, slightly self-mocking voice. There’s no virtue signalling or sermonising in these hugely enjoyable pages.

Her account of meeting Samuel Beckett is extraordinary: “He has spikey hair which looks as if he had just washed it or had made an unsuccessful attempt to do a Brylcreem job on it and given up halfway through.”

Maeve emerged in a patriarchal, less self-confident, perhaps culturally cringing Ireland, where notions of what constituted a successful writer were rather tightly defined and gatekept. Gender was a big part of it, and so was theme, preoccupation. Emigration, crucifixes, the struggle with authority, the importance of land, the rural versus the urban. The grim, silent father. The violence of power. Those were the things that this capital-N novelist wrote about. And it was complicated in Ireland because several geniuses made that material their own and wrote immensely powerful novels as a result.

The great Edna O’Brien had crossed all categories, as to some extent had Kate O’Brien before her. Not knowing how to respond, some Irish critics got their tweeds in a twist. Maeve was one of many important writers omitted from anthologies. It was still a time before writers such as Roddy Doyle, Sally Rooney, Marian Keyes, Lisa McInerney and Donal Ryan busted the categories to dust. The postcolonial hang-up was that a best-selling author, by definition, couldn’t be an excellent writer, and vice versa. Decades after The Beatles proved you could be creatively brilliant and wildly popular, Irish writing was still shuffling inherited epiphanies and falling over itself in McDaids pub.

If Maeve’s first novel were to be published now, she’d be feted in a different way; and the work would be marketed and jacketed differently — important elements in the construction of a writer’s image. It might be tempting to see her as behind the times, but in fact she was in several senses very far ahead of them. All of that is there in the journalism.

Joseph O’Connor’s next novel, My Father’s House, will be published in January. He recently received the American Ireland Funds Literary Award.

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