Nationality: Irish. Born: Dublin, 28 May 1940. Education: Holy Child Convent, Killiney, County Dublin; University College, Dublin, B.A. in education. Family: Married Gordon Snell in 1977. Career: History and French teacher, Pembroke School, Dublin, 1961-68. Since 1968 columnist, Irish Times, Dublin. Agent: Christine Green, 2 Barbon Close, London WC1N 3JX, England.
Light a Penny Candle. London, Century, 1982; New York, Viking, 1983.
Echoes. London, Century, 1985; New York, Viking, 1986.
Firefly Summer. London, Century, 1987; New York, Delacorte Press, 1988.
Circle of Friends. London, Century, 1990; New York, DelacortePress, 1991.
The Copper Beach. London, Orion, 1992; New York, DelacortePress, 1993.
The Glass Lake. London, Orion, 1994; New York, Delacorte Press, 1995.
Evening Class. New York, Delacorte Press, 1996.
Tara Road. New York, Delacorte Press, 1996.
Central Line. London, Quartet, 1978.
Victoria Line. London, Quartet, 1980.
Dublin 4. Dublin, Ward River Press, 1982; London, Century, 1983.
London Transports (includes Central Line and Victoria Line ).London, Century, 1983; New York, Dell, 1986.
The Lilac Bus. Dublin, Ward River Press, 1984; London, Century, 1986; New York, Delacorte Press, 1992.
Silver Wedding. London, Century, 1988; New York, Delacorte Press, 1989.
Dublin People. Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1993.
This Year It Will Be Different and Other Stories: A Christmas Treasury. New York, Delacorte Press, 1996.
The Return Journey. New York, Delacorte Press, 1996.
End of Term (produced Dublin, 1976).
Half Promised Land (produced Dublin, 1979).
Deeply Regretted By—, 1976; Echoes, from her own novel, 1988; The Lilac Bus, from her own story, 1991.
My First Book. Dublin, Irish Times, 1978.
Maeve's Diary. Dublin, Irish Times, 1979.
Dear Maeve: Writings from the "Irish Times." Dublin, PoolbegPress, 1995.
Aches and Pains, illustrated by Wendy Shea. New York, DelacortePress, 2000. Contributor,
Ladies' Night at Finbar's Hotel, edited by DermotBolger. New York, Harcourt, 2000.*
Maeve Binchy comments:
I write novels and stories set within my own experience of time and place, but they are not autobiographical. They mainly touch on the emotions of women and the aspirations and hopes of young Irishwomen growing up in the relatively closed society of Ireland in the 1950s and 1960s.* * *
Maeve Binchy's best-selling novels set in mid-century Ireland alternate in form between works that focus on one woman or a pair of friends and collections of interlocking stories organized in a posy or grand chain. This was a form she developed early in The Lilac Bus, a collection on a group of passengers who travel home from Dublin every weekend, and repeats in The Copper Beach and Silver Wedding. Binchy's work is marked by her understanding of the social and economic structure of small Irish county towns—the grid of shopkeepers, doctors, lawyers, and hotel keepers who serve and order the community under the omnipresent supervision of the church.
Binchy's work, though marketed as romances, by no means fits that category precisely. Binchy, a longstanding columnist for The Irish Times, presents a realistic picture of the lives of women ordered within the rigidities of Catholic orthodoxy that forbid divorce and abortion. In her work, women's survival is predicated on the creation of powerful, though informal, networks of alliance and friendships that survive the vicissitudes of pregnancy, forced marriage, and alcoholism.
Such sociological accuracy does not support the illusions of romance. Although Benny, the large, only daughter of over-protective shopkeepers, in Circle of Friends, does win the love of the handsome soccer hero of the university, she painfully discovers his insubstantiality. The romance pattern of other novels is complicated by Binchy's decision to pursue her heroines' lives after the altar. In Echoes, the heroine's triumphant marriage to the doctor's son is succeeded by a first year of domestic unhappiness, postpartum depression, and despair. In Light a Penny Candle, the heroine, safely married, in a quarrel pushes her husband down the stairs and kills him. In both novels, the promise of a safe haven in marriage is complicated by Binchy's clear insight into the painful restrictions of domesticity.
Although women's friendships, formed often at eight or ten, last through adolescent love, courtship, marriage, abortion, domestic violence, and encompass even murder, systems of political, religious, and social authority remain controlled by men. Binchy's heroines struggle against, but do not entirely triumph over these circumstances. Binchy is too aware of particular constraints on Irish women's lives to allow easy rewards. In Echoes the conventional Bildungsroman features an intelligent heroine Clare, aged ten, who enters an essay competition. We await the triumphant rise of the sweetshop owner's daughter. Yet the necessary boundaries around Clare's triumphs are suggested by the echoing story of the teacher who encourages her. Angela O'Hara was once a successful student. She, like Clare, won a scholarship, yet was inexorably pulled back to Castlebay by the domestic responsibilities for an ailing mother that devolve on an unmarried daughter in an Irish family. Add to that boundary of success for an intellectual woman, the unavailability of contraception, and Binchy has created a life for her heroine more realistically limited than the popular romance usually provides.
Light a Penny Candle traces the story of two women whose friendship began when Elizabeth arrived in a small Irish town as a wartime evacuee. The loyalty of the childhood friendship of Aisling and Elizabeth is deepened through the vicissitudes of feminine experience—an abortion in London, a lover who will never marry, an alcoholic husband, and an unconsummated marriage. The pattern of their lives is shaped by the men they marry, until, in a frightening, though not fully confronted moment, the Englishwoman, Elizabeth, pushes her husband down the stairs and kills him accidentally. The silence of her best friend over the manslaughter she has witnessed demonstrates the depth of female bonding. In Light a Penny Candle, Binchy suggests that this violent accident may be nurtured by the stifling restraints of bourgeois marriage. Elizabeth's mother dies in an insane asylum after a violent attack on her husband. Her mother's murder of her lover is the secret that isolates Leo from her friends in The Copper Beach.
Firefly Summer, combining the two forms, centers on the successful marriage of Kate and John Ryan, a marriage that survives the appalling, almost casual, accident that cripples Kate for life, and links that story with the varied responses in the village to the building of a luxury hotel in a Georgian mansion burned in the Troubles. Binchy is particularly clear about the restraints on economic change, the wariness of envy, the precautions against feuds, the aggression that flares in petty vandalism. These are the ties that restrict initiative, yet smooth social friction. The central characters survive, their lives shadowed by great losses. Binchy's willingness to acknowledge in her novels a sense of a world without purpose—"It was never meant to be like this. Pointless tragedy, and confusion everywhere"—creates a dense picture of Irish life in the 1950s and 1960s.
The most captivating figure, if not the firmly established protagonist, of Evening Class is Nora O'Donoghue, known to her students as Signora. Despite her somewhat questionable past as the lover of a married Sicilian, Aidan Dunne invites her to help make his program of adult education classes—hers is "Introduction to Italian"—a success. Those who fall under her spell refuse to judge Signora, as is the case (needless to say) with Binchy herself. Ria Lynch of Tara Road is on the other end of the affair triangle, finding herself abandoned by her successful developer husband in favor of his young pregnant lover. This sense of loss provides the occasion for a temporary trade of houses with Marilyn Vine, an American whose son has just died, and in the end each woman helps the other find meaning in her misfortune.
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