The "Queen Mum of literature", Maeve Binchy, goes on breaking records four months after her death. Her new novel, A Week in Winter, has just been published posthumously and has already become the most pre-ordered book ever. To be clear: that's more pre-orders than J K Rowling's The Casual Vacancy, or any of the Harry Potters, or even Pippa Middleton's hotly awaited party planning book, Celebrate. Binchy was polishing the final draft of the novel, about a fictional Irish seaside town, when she died in July, and it has now been published by Orion (£18.99).
Binchy was born in May 1940, the eldest child of four, to William Binchy, a solicitor, and Maureen, a nurse. She grew up in Dalkey, a suburb of Dublin, and went to school at the Holy Child convent in Killiney. When she was 21, she became a teacher of French, Latin and history. It was when she spent a few weeks on a kibbutz in Israel that the Irish Independent began publishing her warm and funny letters home. As a result, Binchy was offered a job on the Irish Times, where she remained a columnist for 32 years.
Her first novel, Light a Penny Candle, received a record advance for 1983: £52,000. Unlike many record advances, this one actually made back its money for the publisher, Century, selling millions of copies around the world. Five publishers had previously turned down the book. Depending on where you are reading this, you can probably hear them still kicking themselves.
As a spectacularly successful writer of romantic fiction, Binchy was no dupe when it came to unsatisfactory love affairs in other people's novels. She was not a fan of the "romance" between Max and Mrs de Winter in Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca, for instance, and once opined that the sequel should begin: "Last night I dreamed I went to see my solicitor and began the whole business of getting shot of Max."
Binchy was the author of 16 novels, four short-story collections, a play and a novella, which between them sold between 45 and 50 million copies around the world, and has been translated into 37 languages. Tara Road, Circle of Friends and How About You have also been adapted into films. She has outsold Irish writers such as James Joyce, Oscar Wilde, Edna O'Brien and W B Yeats, and she came third in the 2000 World Book Day poll of Britain's favourite authors. On her death, she received tributes from writers including Jilly Cooper, Marian Keyes and Ian Rankin. Hundreds of mourners, including authors and politicians, turned up at her funeral in August.
Binchy was known for her "quiet feminism". She once explained: "I don't have ugly ducklings turning into swans in my stories. I have ugly ducklings turning into confident ducks."
Binchy insisted on paying her dues in Ireland, even though, as an "artist", her literary earnings could have been tax free. That's a nice idea, isn't it, internet book retailers?
Shortly after her death, the Merriman Summer School in Lisdoonvarna, Co Clare, to which Binchy was a frequent visitor, announced a short story competition in her honour. Appropriately, Lisdoonvarna is home to one of the world's most famous matchmaking festivals, which attracts 40,000 dewy eyed romantics to a month-long event run by the local matchmaker, Willie Daly.Reuse content