Donal Lynch: Maeve stirred up love with a long spoon . . .
She was held in great affection, but even in Ireland the compliments could be backhanded, writes Donal Lynch
Published 05/08/2012 | 05:00
AMID the outpourings of grief last week it's notable, if unsurprising, that the majority of tributes to Maeve Binchy came from ordinary women.
She emerged, after all, from what was then sniffily referred to as 'the women's pages' of journalism, and wrote books that were understood to be primarily for nanas, aunties and mammies.
In a country where women were, to a greater or lesser extent, still patronised this was understood to also mean that the works had lesser literary merit. Even as Binchy became a publishing giant, eclipsing, in terms of sales, every one of her male contemporaries this fact, far from being proof that she was deserving of respect, proved to her critics that she was merely guilty of a second crime: she was a woman and a populist.
But there were other aura issues too. She had a down-to- earth sanity that's supposedly incompatible with greatness. The best writers, we feel, shouldn't write books by the dozen or come across as a loveable and sensible aunt. There needs to be more sex and death and pain. They need to have some sort of street cred. And so even if she, as the phrase goes, "gave more pleasure in bed than any woman" she never received the highest literary awards.
In the last decade of her life, by which time sheer longevity might have won her a place at the table, she was still being snubbed. A few years before her own death Nuala O Faolain wrote with fury of Binchy being omitted from a particular anthology of Irish writers -- all the more galling Nuala felt, since Binchy was probably the best-known living Irish author.
When the movie of Circle of Friends came out, she was described in the British press as "a writer of novelettes for women". These were the positive reviews, it must be said, but with Binchy, snobbery infused much of the praise due to her. Even in Ireland compliments were often backhanded. Perhaps that, as much as the great affection in which she was held, explains the sheer volume of the tributes last week -- day after day she was waked in the papers. We did love her all along. Finally, we could let it all out.
A part of that love came from the very thing that caused her to be slightly trivialised as an artist -- her persona. When she appeared on The Late Late Show and described to Gay Byrne her naive and sincere belief of her mother's prophecies that boys would fall at her feet when she went to her first dance, she simultaneously sent herself up and conjured a teenage wasteland that we could all relate to. Growing up in Dalkey, she never felt herself to be attractive; she was always a big girl. As she put it herself "as a plump girl I didn't start on an even footing to everyone else".
In later life, it seemed like a natural outgrowth of her warmth and expansiveness but, according to Mary Kenny, even as a teenager our Maeve was always around 15 stone. We don't know why this was -- she said her childhood was very happy. But still, that must have been hard. As a happy by-product however, it gave her something that would be of use later -- a font of misery out of which sprung the knowledge that since she would never be the pretty girl she could instead be the funny one, the clever one. This was all incorporated into her general sunniness, however -- she was not a tortured, writer-ly young one. In fact, her career writing began after her parents showed her letters -- written while on Kibbutzim and other foreign trips -- to the editors of the Irish Independent and it was impressed enough to commission her, paying her £16, which was then a week-and-a-half's salary for her.
It takes a certain kind of young person to write these kinds of letters -- the kind parents find brilliant and hilarious. The letters also show that she had talent and the necessary degree of extroversion to make it known.
In the RTE documentary about her last week she said that as a child when her father read her a story she always demanded to know where she was in the narrative. "Yes, but where am I?" she would demand as the scene for the story was set. He would have to say "Oh, up an oak tree" or "Behind a wall". She needed to place herself in the story before they could go on, she explained. A writer has to believe in themselves as a protagonist of sorts. Maeve must have had that instinctively from the start.
In time this made her an outstanding journalist, adored at The Irish Times, where she became the first Women's Page editor, and respected by her competitors, including the editor of this newspaper, Anne Harris, whom she would archly accuse of unleashing "another fiendish women's page".
In 1982, Light A Penny Candle, was published and it was a huge success, enabling her to leave life as a hack behind. The book, set in wartime England and Ireland, won her a legion of fans. It depicted a more modern Ireland than most novels of the period, and with her characteristic lightness of touch explored a country where sex and religion were held in check by the third great force -- class. The dialogue in her books, famously honed by years of eavesdropping on other people's conversations, was always pitch perfect. Madeleine Keane, the literary editor of this newspaper, recalls her legacy as "a writer who introduced many people to the solace and pleasure of reading". Mary Kenny
last week wrote of Binchy ignoring the dark side of life, but in a country which came to specialise in the misery memoir, the wholesome escapism of her works came as welcome respite. To paraphrase Frank McCourt, one of the exponents of that other genre, she stirred up love with a long spoon, and we ate it up. Throughout the Eighties and Nineties she would outsell every other Irish author.
By then she had met the love of her life, Gordon Snell. In the aftermath of her mother's death she had stared down the barrel of a life of spinsterdom. "I expected I would live at home, as I always did," she remembered. "I felt very lonely, the others all had a love waiting for them and I didn't."
Snell was then a freelance producer with the BBC and when Maeve was in London, recording a piece for Woman's Hour, they met. They remained friends for years and romance slowly blossomed. He visited her in Ireland and her family described him as "no trouble" -- the ultimate accolade. They went back and forth between England and Ireland for a while. Through The Irish Times she eventually got a job in London -- Snell was "startled but pleased". They married but never had children together, something that didn't seem to perturb her, although she did concede she would have loved grandchildren.
In latter years she became the grand old lady of Irish writing -- our Queen Mum with a dash of Jane Austen. Two years ago, she was presented with a lifetime achievement award by President Mary McAleese at the Irish Book Awards, one of many accolades that flowed as her health slowly waned. She handled her illness with remarkable grace. Employees at St Vincent's Hospital in Dublin remember her humbly queuing with other patients, never attempting to leverage her celebrity status for special favour. She worked almost right to the end. I, coincidentally, attempted to get an interview with her two weeks before she died. The reply came back that she had a new book coming out later in the year and would be doing publicity then. The mind was still willing, even if the body, by then, could not go on.