Maeve Binchy: The Biography
“LIGHT A PENNY CANDLE took a year to write but what immediately made it all worthwhile was the publishers’ response. They were bowled over by it…..” Maeve Binchy (1940-2012) found her feet as an author by writing about what she knew: the heart and soul of Irish womanhood. She slogged in the trenches of journalism until she realized her unique capacity to write engrossing novels about ordinary people --- “ordinary” as in complex, sometimes lonely and capable of joy.
English biographer Piers Dudgeon (his previous subjects include Barbara Taylor Bradford, J.M. Barrie and the du Mauriers) has captured something of the emotive power of Binchy’s creative talents in an engaging chronology that begins when, as a teenager, Binchy “lights a penny candle” in church as a prayer of hope for her “matric” --- the graduation that will lead her to university, out of her boring little hometown of Dalkey, and into the heady ambience of Dublin.
"Dudgeon has cleverly woven the plots and people of Binchy’s books into her life story, drawing his own parallels between her stories and herself. "
A plump, intellectual young woman whose parents had aspirations for their children to excel through higher education, Binchy had a fair share of grit. In her early 20s, she and a schoolmate went to work in an Israeli kibbutz, where she famously renounced her Catholicism when she found the site of the Last Supper to be a mere, dark cave. But that experience seems to have awakened her muse. She became a journalist for The Irish Times and found true love with fellow writer Gordon Snell.
The first of Binchy’s 16 novels was written when she was in her early 40s; she quickly became an adored Irish writer, which is not a small distinction. Her success allowed her, at a certain point, to take on the enjoyable and enviable role of “a novelist who was expected to deliver new works on a regular basis.” American readers bought her, and she was given a huge boost by the support of Oprah Winfrey. Known for her sometimes acerbic wit, she displayed both her modesty and business acumen by describing her works as “airport books.”
Dudgeon has cleverly woven the plots and people of Binchy’s books into her life story, drawing his own parallels between her stories and herself. The invisible character in much of her fiction was Ireland: “In TARA ROAD the lives of her characters become an analogy for what is happening to Ireland in modern times…as for Ria, so for Ireland, all the old certainties have disappeared…”
Dudgeon’s admiration for his subject is obvious, as is his wish to convey something of the broad scope of Binchy’s intellect, interests and remarkable ability to find grand symbols in small events.
Reviewed by Barbara Bamberger Scott on July 25, 2014