Saturday 19 October 2019

Mary Kenny: Maeve Binchy shunned the dark side

MAEVE Binchy and I were young journalists together in Dublin. She was woman’s editor of the Irish Times, while I was woman’s editor of the Irish Press – now, alas, defunct – and we would drink together at the famous Pearl Bar in Dublin – now also, alas, defunct – where the storytelling was hilarious and the boozing heroic.

We were rivals but friends, and I was disappointed when Maeve turned to writing novels, since I thought journalism more fun than fiction. She had been a brilliantly acute reporter, with an eye to the humorous and a deft take on humanity’s more pretentious elements.

But Maeve metamorphosed from the sometimes sharp reporter into a novelist whose take on life was sunny, warm, generous, even wholesome. Hemingway once said that a writer must find an inner truth, and Maeve found her success through a truthful pursuit of her own instincts.

When she presented her first book, Light a Penny Candle, to her publishers, they liked it, she told me, but were unhappy that it contained no explicit sex scenes. It was an established formula that there should be a bedroom scene every 19 pages in a modern novel. Maeve said, rather bashfully, that as she hadn’t had a very colourful sex life herself she didn’t really know how to write sex scenes, and if she made them up, they might strike a false note.

The book was a bestseller and made her name. Her approach to storytelling went down especially well in the United States. She told me about visiting some Midwestern town on a book tour where the ladies would approach her and say, “Oh Miss Binchy, we’re so grateful to have stories with no pornography and no profanity – I’ll have four copies, two for my aunts, one for the pastor’s wife and another for myself…” One of her greatest fans in America was Barbara Bush.

Maeve was not personally prudish, and she didn’t set out cynically to “market” her work as wholesomely sunny: she just found, by writing about the families and communities she knew, that while sex sells, there is also a constituency for readers who don’t want a sex scene every 19 pages.

She had the disadvantage, as a writer, of having a very happy childhood. But every writer needs at least one source of unhappiness, and Maeve’s came from being a very large girl: tall and stout. Even as a teenager, she weighed in at 15 stone, and though she tried every kind of diet – we once embarked on a grapefruit-and-gin-and-tonic diet together – she could never weigh less than 14 stone.

So, realising at her convent school that she couldn’t compete with the pretty girls and the svelte, athletic ones, she became the roly-poly lass who tells funny stories. And that was where her storytelling gift was honed. Although she could jokingly refer to her weight problem, deep down she was very sensitive about it, and I think the only truly nasty character in one of her short stories was a beastly woman on a cruise who was spiteful about fat people.

Maeve’s parents were observant Catholics, but she herself lost her faith when she was living on a kibbutz in Israel as a young woman. Typically, she had a funny story to tell about this episode: one very hot Sunday she set off to find the location where it was said that the Last Supper took place. She heaved herself up a mountain-side and finally got to a desolate-looking cavern, guarded by a Brooklyn-born Israeli soldier. Maeve burst into tears when she saw the unprepossessing cave: the guard wisecracked, “What’ya expect, ma’am – a Renaissance table set for 13?” “Yes!” she cried. “That’s just what I did expect.”

And yet, paradoxically, at a time when most Irish writers were anti-clerical and anti-Catholic – the cruel Christian Brother and the paedophile priest being the stock baddie in the literary Irish novel – priests and nuns are sunny and benign in Maeve’s stories. But that’s not because she set out to make that point: it was the way she had experienced the Irish clergy herself. To the good, all things are good, and I used to say to Maeve that she didn’t need formal religion – she was a saint already.

She once said to me that she only ever wanted two things in life: to succeed in her work and be happily married. She achieved both of those aims abundantly. She was so happily married to Gordon Snell that she dedicated every book to him. They didn’t have children, but a couple of years ago, she wrote and asked me to send her a photograph of my granddaughter, Kitty, as she wanted to make a picture collage of her friends’ grandchildren. She added that she didn’t mind not having children, but she’d love to have had grandchildren, citing Gore Vidal’s famous quip, “Never have children, only grandchildren”. In typically generous fashion, she loved the snapshot I sent. That was Maeve – always full of largesse d’esprit.

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