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Maeve Binchy

May 17, 2014

Yesterday I finished Maeve Binchy’s biography. I have enjoyed her books for years and when she died I actually felt bereft because there would not be any more books to immerse myself in.

I’ve always felt she was an old friend; even though I didn’t ever meet her, and to my eternal regret I did not ever write to tell her of the pleasure her books had always given me. On the one hand her books had indeed told me much about her and her life (There was lots of her in Benny from Circle of Friends) on the other hand there was much I had not known. I’d never have imagined she’d spent three summers working on a kibbutz for example.

I like her books because despite the fact she writes about Ireland – a place I know very little about I can relate to her characters and relate to the small town world she writes about. I may live in a London suburb but effectively it is a small town where everyone knows everyone else and there are no secrets.

I’ve always liked the fact that she doesn’t tie up all the loose ends neatly and there isn’t always a happy ever after but there is hope. There may be terrible betrayal and hurt but always there is the sense in a Binchy book that her characters can and will overcome whatever awful thing life has done to them. They are books you can turn to for comfort and wise counsel. I can remember a crushing, bruising day in the wrong job and knowing I had to travel alone to Sheffield that night then stay in a hotel in a strange city with a hostile office to face next day. I went to Waterstones on my way to St Pancras and bought a Maeve Binchy I loved but did not own. Suddenly it didn’t seem quite so lonely.

Binchy didn’t have the easiest life and there were some very hard knocks but she carried on anyway. One of her lessons is that when it all falls apart you can pick up the pieces and do something with what’s left of your life. I suppose it’s the whole taking charge thing and doing the best you can with what you’ve got. Taking charge of your own life is a strong theme throughout all her books. It’s a message I should probably aim to emulate.

She wasn’t a super, skinny, glamorous type but she was still successful. I like that. Like it or not (and I don’t) the prevailing message at the moment is that if you are not a size eight you are worthless. I have lots going for me but always at the back of my mind is the insidious message it would all be better if you were thin. I am well aware that this puts me in the majority rather than making me unique. This week I’ve lost 3lb – hayfever has stolen my sense of taste and with it my appetite. I should be worried about it but I’m thrilled. I love that not only was Maeve an overweight success story it wasn’t even an issue for her (in public anyway, I’m aware it was an issue for her when she was younger.) or her readers or the press. Her weight was irrelevant and that’s so refreshing.

I was also impressed that she did not allow a disappointing pass degree to define her life or stop her from doing whatever she wanted. I always assumed she was the kind of person to get a double first. Although on reflection I suspect she was simply too busy living to get a first. The strongest impression I got from the books was that she lived. She didn’t let bereavement, ill health or infertility stop her. She lived right up until she died and for that I really admire her. I’d like to have met her.

She wrote and held down a full time job. Her target was 800-1600 words a day to achieve 5000 a week and I thought with organisation that’s actually more than achievable. I suddenly thought I too could manage that. Maybe if I set an achievable target like 800 words I could finish my novel and still sleep!

I also discovered she loved a G&T and adored public libraries because they mean everyone has access to books. Maybe she’s a long lost relative. If we’d both been in a girlsown novel I’d have adopted her as a brevet aunt immediately. Like all the best girlsown heroines she had many brevet nieces, nephews, grandchildren etc.

In fact there are lots of aspects in Binchy’s books that link to my favourite genre. She writes about competent, capable women in charge of their own destiny which is of course what the girlsown novel does. Binchy also focuses on the theme of doing what is right rather than what is easy another perennial girlsown theme. There is also the ethos so well put much later by JK Rowling about “If you want to know what a man’s like, take a good look at how he treats his inferiors and not his equals.” (Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire). Binchy shows this repeatedly throughout her novels. She writes about communities of women and their friendships. There is the same sense of the good (eventually) being rewarded and that sooner or later the bad will either suffer for their sins or they will realise they were wrong and make amends.

Of course I now feel like a reread. Should it be The Copper Beech (my comfort read on that long lonely train ride north in the dark), Tara Road or Light a Penny Candle – her first book, my first Binchy and also a link with my late adored Great Aunt for my copy of Light A Penny Candle was on her bookcase until she died. Now it is on my mine.

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