On Saturday October 6th I’m discussing ‘Maeve Binchy: the Quiet Feminist’ at Echoes, the Dalkey festival celebrating her and other Irish writers. Yet the more of her writing I read – particularly the early fiction and journalism from the 1970s and 80s – the more disquieting that ‘quiet’ has become. Take her article The World’s Greatest Lies About Women, published in the Irish Times in 1970, which begins: “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.”
Although she had only been writing for newspapers for a couple of years at that point, Maeve’s debunking of each Great Lie was as good-natured and witty as her readers must have come to expect. For example, in response to, “Men like women without make up”, the article continued: “They don’t. They like extremely well and carefully made up women whose skin has that expensive cultured look which comes from three hours at the dressing table. A woman who is really without make up would frighten them to death. They regard blotches as eczema and uneven colouring as a sign of tertiary syphilis.’ The similarly thorough going over she gives each of the other five of the Greatest Lies makes it clear that she believed women ought to behave, dress, and think for ourselves.
From the outset, Maeve questioned the attitudes, beliefs and conventions that kept women, in a thousand exhausting ways, tied down. From that early journalism through to her later, constantly bestselling fiction, Maeve’s essentially practical and compassionate take on what women ‘should’ and ‘shouldn’t’ do holds fast. She said “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.”
Her writing in the Irish Times was loved for its common sense, its comedy and compassion. She had a remarkable ability to lead a reader from light to dark with ease: 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 1976, she published a short piece called A Snatch at Some Happiness. It is about a young newly-married woman’s fear that she may never have a baby, in which case she doesn’t understand what this new life is to be about. It begins “She had been married for ten months and she found it odd that this sense of doom lay like a big heavy meal on her chest.” This unnamed woman feels judged by everyone, including her boss. Maeve wrote: “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.”
That Maeve returns time and time again over the decades to certain topics shows that she never wrote in order to simply graft a predictable or fashionable feminist stance onto her work. (Though I do love that in an article in 1980 about buying a wonderful custom-fitted bra from one of those fancy London shops that supplies the Queen with her six garments of underwear, 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 2013, the collection of short stories published posthumously under the title A Few of the Girls 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 with what her husband Gordon Snell describes in the introduction as Maeve’s trademark “straightforward and sensitive” style. In this collection, a story called Funny Little Thing takes a clever, 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.”
Many interviews with Maeve quote her as saying, “I don’t have ugly ducklings turning into swans in my stories. I have ugly ducklings turning into confident ducks.” Yet despite this, the assumption that her writing was “cosy”, that she wrote romance novels, persists. The UK Independent once referred to her as “the Queen Mum of literature” and “a spectacularly successful writer of romantic fiction.” Somewhere along the line Maeve seems to have become two people: the “cosy”, much-loved writer; and this compassionate advocate for feminist causes, who wanted to ensure Irish women had a voice.Perhaps that is why the “quiet” tag has stuck like lint to her brand of feminism for so long? And though not all of the writing is equally challenging, 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. t is worth noting that the“spectacularly successful writer of romantic fiction” label gets completely cast aside 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.”
As Irish women’s lives slowly changed over the last fifty years, her voice was one of constant empathy and good sense. A piece of advice offered on many creative writing courses is show don’t tell: allow the reader to experience the story through action, words, thoughts, senses, and feelings rather than through the author’s explanation or description. Maeve’s feminism is the perfect example of show don’t tell in action. Remove the “quiet”label and there are plenty of alternatives ready and waiting to take its place: persistent, considered, accessible, compassionate.
Quiet or not, I think we would all benefit from being more like Maeve. By which I mean, of course, by being completely ourselves.
A longer version of this article appeared in the Irish Times, September 29th 2018.
Here Roisin Ingle & I are chatting about Maeve Binchy in an Irish Times Women’s Podcast (ep. 246).