Maeve Binchy: Best-selling novelist whose work displayed an empathetic understanding of the human condition

 

The author Maeve Binchy was for 30 years the queen of Irish popular fiction, collecting a series of major awards for the 16 novels which sold 40 million copies all over the world. Yet part of the reason why the Irish prime minister Enda Kenny yesterday described her as "a national treasure" was the outsize personality which came across powerfully not just in her writing but in her broadcasts and personal appearances.

Her novels, columns and other works struck a chord with readers, especially women, but her conversation lent an extra dimension to her appeal. One interviewer wrote of her: "A wonderful thing happens when Maeve Binchy opens her mouth to talk. Out rushes a torrent of wit, wry observation and endless self-deprecating humour."

A reporter described a sell-out appearance by her in front of more than a thousand people in Dublin: "Most of the time the chairman just let her run. And run, and run, and run. What a performance it was. Anecdote after anecdote flowed from her – perfectly pitched, perfectly timed, perfectly embroidered. The audience was practically levitating with pleasure."

Binchy attributed much of her success in print to her facility with the spoken as well as the written word. "I don't think I have a style," she once said. "It's really quite simple – just write as you talk and write about what you know. Once I realised that, then I was home and dry and I never had any more problems. The way I write, it's always words tumbling over each other."

It was a deceptively simple description of her art, for beneath the compelling fluency of her books lay huge application and, above all, a prodigious intelligence. She was slightly – but only very slightly – defensive about the fact that her work was not regarded as top-flight literature, once describing herself as an airport author. But a short time spent in her company was enough to reveal a formidable intellect.

She wrote her first novel at the age of 43, an event which instantly transformed her from journalist to wealthy best-selling author. Born in 1940, she had an almost lyrical middle-class childhood in the picturesque village of Dalkey just south of Dublin. "My memory of my home was that it was very happy, and that there was more fun and life there than anywhere else," she recalled.

Although not religious in later life, she had a schoolgirl's faith, later writing: "I was the big bossy older sister, full of enthusiasms, mad fantasies, desperate urges to be famous and anxious to be a saint – a settled sort of saint, not one who might have to suffer or die for her faith."

Although she was, she said, "fat and hopeless at games", she shone at school and went on to take a degree at University College in Dublin. She went into teaching but, realising it was not for her, took to travelling, working in kibbutzim in Israel and at children's camps in the United States.

The letters she wrote home led her directly into journalism. As she told it: "My parents were so impressed with these eager letters from abroad they got them typed and sent them to a newspaper, and that's how I became a writer."

Joining the Irish Times, she wrote on a variety of issues before becoming its women's editor, though her progress in journalism was not matched by luck with men. "I loved the wrong fellows," she reminisced. "I would go into a room and the most unsuitable man in that room I would find and cleave to."

In the late 1970s she moved to the paper's London office for reasons of romance rather than journalism, after identifying the gentlemanly English writer and broadcaster, Gordon Snell, as the right man for her. "I fancied Gordon," she cheerfully confessed, "and so I followed him ruthlessly and predatorially across the sea to England."

In addition to her day job she tried at her hand at short stories, publishing several collections before deciding to attempt a full-length novel, Light a Penny Candle. She went about the task with her trademark tenacity, working with the equally tenacious Chris Green, an agent she affectionately christened "The Stormtrooper."

The arrangement was that each Monday morning she would deliver 5,000 words by taxi across London to the Stormtrooper, who would march into publishing offices, brandishing them and insisting that an unknown Irishwoman would be the next big thing.

It worked. Publishers got into a bidding war which brought Binchy a staggering advance of £50,000. Then more money kept rolling in. She would take a phone call in the tiny office we shared in the Irish Times and say wonderingly, "That's the Australian rights. Another five thousand."

She stayed on with the Irish Times for a while but eventually became a full-time novelist, she and Gordon moving back to a small house in Dalkey. Upstairs they set up an office where they would work together, starting in the early morning before relaxing at lunchtime.

She once said: "We sit beside each other when we write. It suits us. It's like a conscience." They were amazingly disciplined, their office beautifully laid out and organised.

More books followed, together with yet more money and great celebrity in Ireland and elsewhere. She became involved in charity work, as well as very privately dispensing some of her fortune to friends and others in need. She was also generous with her time in advising other writers (including myself) on improving their work, and wrote pieces outlining many of her techniques.

"I've never worried about money," she once said. "I didn't worry about it when I didn't have it, and now that I have almost too much of it, I don't worry about it. So I actually think I'm the right person to have money."

She established a certain rhythm which involved producing a book and then travelling round the world with Gordon to make promotional appearances, which she adored, in places such as Canada and Australia.

She thought of herself as a very fortunate woman, first in finding Gordon and later in finding celebrity and wealth. She wished they had had a family, saying, "I couldn't have children, so that's the bad side. But compared to everything else I have, it's not all that terribly bad. I count my winners rather than my losers. Happiness is knowing and appreciating what you've got. I am very, very, very grateful for what to me is dead easy."

There was love in her books, but she concentrated on relationships rather than erotica: there was no steamy sex, and never a bodice was ripped in her pages. Her books could in fact be described as the polar opposite of today's Fifty Shades of Grey.

Many of her readers thought of her material as being effortlessly produced, but of course it was never as "dead easy" as she maintained. She had no literary pretensions, and from the literary stratosphere often came a whiff of condescension. "Reading a Maeve Binchy novel is as cozy and comforting as climbing into a warm bed on a cold night," wrote an American reviewer. "Bad things happen to her people and sad things, too, but in Binchy's hands these become lessons learned and wisdom gained."

Many reviewers found much merit in her work. Her approach was once described in the Daily Mail: "There are no grand concepts or literary pyrotechnics yet her dramas of broken relationships, deceit, disappointment, lack of love, and ill-run homes matter very much." An Irish Times reviewer thought that "with her agenda focused firmly on entertainment, she displays a strongly empathic and intuitive understanding of the human condition."

Binchy shrugged off criticism: "I don't resent the way people are sniffy about popular writers. I just figure they're having a bad hair day. If you touch people and if people seem to feel the story and characters are real to them, that's my reward. That's all I want. It may not seem a very high aim, but I think it's a fine one."

In the last decade her health deteriorated as she experienced problems with arthritis, her hip and her heart. A 2005 portrait of her by Maeve McCarthy is on display in the National Gallery of Ireland.

The Man Booker prize winner, Anne Enright, said of her: "Reading Maeve was like being with a good friend –wise, generous, funny and full-hearted, she was the best of good company on the page and off it."

The Irish prime minister Enda Kenny, meanwhile, said yesterday: "Today we have lost a national treasure. She is a huge loss wherever stories of love, hope, generosity and possibility are read and cherished. Today as a nation we are thankful for and proud of her."

Binchy, who died after a short illness, is survived by her husband, Gordon Snell.

Maeve Binchy, novelist and journalist: born Dalkey, Co Dublin, Ireland 28 May 1940; married 1977 Gordon Snell; died Dublin 30 July 2012.

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