The last word in soap-opera morality

Scarlet Feather by Maeve Binchy (Orion, £16.99)
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The Independent Culture

This is the last Maeve Binchy novel we shall see: the author has had enough of the publicity round and is retiring. At the same time, Rosamunde Pilcher has declared that her current novel is her last. Together, the departures suggest an abdication of the old guard of popular fiction in favour of "chick lit" - sassy, cynical books by marketable bright young things. Old values may be passing away. It will be a loss to the publishers, for whom Binchy and Pilcher are bestsellers. But will the demise of such books be a loss to literature?

This is the last Maeve Binchy novel we shall see: the author has had enough of the publicity round and is retiring. At the same time, Rosamunde Pilcher has declared that her current novel is her last. Together, the departures suggest an abdication of the old guard of popular fiction in favour of "chick lit" - sassy, cynical books by marketable bright young things. Old values may be passing away. It will be a loss to the publishers, for whom Binchy and Pilcher are bestsellers. But will the demise of such books be a loss to literature?

The main character in Binchy's new book, Cathy Scarlet, contemplates at one point the paintings on her walls. They have all been painted by people whom she has known, some of them unfortunates helped by her husband, a lawyer always on the side of the underdog. We are told that Cathy "didn't care whether they were great art or rubbish", because of their human stories. In the case of Maeve Binchy's novels, whether they are great art or rubbish may also be beside the point. What they have is sincerity.

Scarlet Feather is the story of a year in the life of a catering company set up by Cathy and her friend Tom Feather. These two are determined and hard-working. They put all their time and energy into other people's mouths. We are led to feel that they deserve to succeed for their sheer industry and resourcefulness.

Meanwhile, Cathy's husband, Neil, is in a position, through his work, to change the lives of the exploited, the refugees, the socially disadvantaged. He is their unwavering champion. But he fails to recognise the needs of those closest to him. Charity, for him, begins at the homeless. So we come to think that Neil does not deserve Cathy and her canapés.

What the stories of these characters and their many associates add up to principally is a lesson in niceness. They teach us how to be a good son or daughter, how to look after children properly, how to treat guests well. And they suggest that, in the long run, that may be more important than changing the world on a wider scale. They also suggest that when you choose a partner, you should make absolutely sure that he or she cares equally about what you care about most.

This is, too, a book about class. Neil's family is rich and self-important. Cathy is the daughter of his mother's housekeeper. Cathy's mother-in-law, Hannah Mitchell, is horrified by their marriage. But we discover that Cathy's family is the more noble. Her father spends all his time in the betting-shop, and her mother scrubs floors for a living, but when a pair of neglected and difficult Mitchell children (Hannah's nephew and niece) need somewhere to live, the Mitchells wash their hands, and Cathy and her parents open their hearts and homes.

Maeve Binchy's greatest strength is in creating conversations through which the characters reveal their dominant traits: Cathy's pluck, her frightful mother-in-law's superciliousness, her mother's humility, Neil's zeal for justice, Tom's good-heartedness. We understand, as well, in the exchanges between the characters, the hurtful misunderstandings and the malevolent intentions and the gaps between what is said and what is felt.

We are left contemplating moral issues. Is a woman who has her heart broken young, and her capacity to have children destroyed, justified later in living partly off a series of rich lovers? Does birth mean worth? What kind of good deeds make good people? What sort of lies are justified?

The 500 pages of this book provide us with an awful lot of detail about menus, music and decor for all sorts of dos, from weddings to lunching ladies. Somehow, they do that without imparting any new information about how to cook anything, or even offering any good ideas for parties. We are swept along, though, by curiosity about the fate of the characters, as we are in soap opera.

But this is soap opera that cares about decency. And with Maeve Binchy gone, there won't be many writers left telling us how much manners matter.

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