Why Amanda Craig should be ashamed

Maeve Binchy, sadly missed by your humble scribe, who has several of her lovely, warm-hearted books on her own shelf.

Dear Amanda Craig:

A few days ago, I heard (via Jezebel) that you decided to pick on a recently deceased (and much better known and loved) sister novelist.

I was a bit surprised to hear that Maeve Binchy, whom I’ve been reading with pleasure since the late 1980s, had no children; seeing as she hailed from oh-so-Catholic Ireland, where childbearing is all but compulsory for women (unless you’re a nun, or the Blessed Virgin Mary sees fit to spare you the blessings), it was a little unexpected. Not the usual course of an Irish woman’s life, but not something that anybody had the right to judge her on, either. But you went and judged her for it anyway.

And worse, you decided to do it when Maeve Binchy’s body was barely cold, and she was no longer able to defend herself against the sly, unspoken insinuations that she was selfish and privileged, because look at the life she chose to lead!

Of course, you completely missed the irony of that, as evidenced here:

All working mothers are familiar with the double toll of raising a child while earning a living, and when you consider that only a handful of published authors can survive economically purely by writing, there is the added stress of trying to write creatively while doing another job too. Some do as P.D. James, a mother of two, did, rising at 5am to write for an hour before going to the office. Most create their books in what Helen Simpson calls “the interstices of our lives”.

This is news? FYI, Amanda, all women writers do this — mothers and nulliparae alike. I, who am child-free by happy choice, do this. (In fact, I’m writing this very entry that way, right now!) As did Madeleine L’Engle and Ursula K. Le Guin, both of whom wrote excellently and with great intellectual clarity in spite of the constant demands of children and husbands on their time and brain cells. And the same is also true, significantly, of all my unchilded favorites from university English Lit (the Brontë sisters, George Eliot, Virginia Woolf, et al). ALL WOMEN AUTHORS DO THIS, BECAUSE THE WORLD EXPECTS WOMEN TO FIT THEIR LIVES AROUND OTHERS. WOMEN ARE NEVER ALLOWED TO BE KNOWN ONLY FOR THEIR BRAINCHILDREN, AS MEN ARE. (Sorry for shouting, but it had to be said at full volume.)

And that’s not the only irony I see. How about this?

All novelists who have had children are acutely aware that the very best of our sex — Jane Austen, George Eliot, the Brontës, Virginia Woolf ­— were childless. We all worry about doing two things badly rather than one thing well. Some novelist mothers, such as Antonia White, have been denounced as monsters of indifference by their children. I myself have a stern rule about not being interrupted when writing unless a child has broken a leg — but it isn’t, of course, obeyed. Even if you wanted to, you can’t ignore screams of pain, rage and misery.

Amanda, what makes you think that women writers without children are somehow magically spared those things? Do you seriously think children are the only impediments and distractions a woman writer could have? Take a closer look at the childless authors you mentioned, and you will see how wrong you are.

Jane Austen seems to be characterized most often, thanks to the assiduous efforts of her family (who burned all her letters) as “good quiet Jane”. If there is any truth in this description, it would allude to the fact that she was a dutiful daughter, and any other aspect of her was hushed up once she was in her grave. And her brother George was mentally ill, disabled, and prone to fits; that much (or little) is known about her life, as is the fact that both she and her only sister, Cassandra, remained unmarried. What hidden world of private anguish lies behind that meagre, yet poignant set of facts? Surely something that makes the light-hearted satirical tone of Austen’s novels seem far less frivolous in retrospect.

The Brontë sisters had to cope with the drunken shamblings of their brother Branwell, the “genius” of the family (by their father’s lights), who sadly fell far short of his sisters from whom nothing artistic was expected (because they were girls, naturally). Charlotte Brontë, after penning such masterpieces as Jane Eyre and Villette, married in her thirties and died pregnant. She was known in life as “the motherly friend and guardian of her younger sisters”, whom she helped to raise after their mother died. Her sister Emily, of Wuthering Heights fame, died of tuberculosis, as did their sister Anne (who was also a novelist), and two other sisters who died in childhood; Charlotte had to write an introduction to the posthumously published second edition of the novel on Emily’s behalf. Do you think that was not a misery for her? Do you think there was no pain or rage in the Haworth parsonage where the sisters grew up in the shadow of their lionized brother, who despite a reasonable talent for painting died an “opium eater”? If you do, Amanda, you sorely lack in the best quality of any writer, namely imagination. (Never to speak of the most basic human trait in the writer’s toolbox, empathy.)

As for George Eliot, she had to take a masculine pen name (the first name courtesy of her unhappily married lover of 20-odd years, George Henry Lewes), in order to be taken seriously as an author. She was not conventionally pretty, and so not expected to have much in the way of marriage prospects. She got a good education instead, only to have to interrupt it at 16, when her mother died and she was needed at home. She kept house for her father until he died; she was then 30 years old. Another dutiful daughter, in other words. When she began to question her religious faith, he had threatened to throw her out of the house. She backed off and went on attending church, doubtless very much against her private wishes. She led a conventional life until she could afford to break free even a little bit. Again: What private anguish attended her through all this and the arch-Victorian social disapproval she reaped once her novels had made her famous?

And Virginia Woolf? Well, she was sexually molested by her own half-brother. Another dutiful daughter, violated. And her own family, prominent in intellectual circles (her father was Sir Leslie Stephen), knew but did not help her. She married fellow writer Leonard Woolf, but remained childless for fairly obvious reasons, and her depression eventually led to her suicide by drowning. She put stones in her pockets before she walked into the River Ouse, not meaning to walk out alive. (Even in death she evinces the expected feminine selflessness; her suicide note to Leonard is a study in it.) But none of this stopped her writing, with great insight and an innovative stream-of-consicousness prose stlye, a number of convincing characters, including her most famous, Clarissa Dallowaya mother.

All these women suffered immeasurably. They, too, wrote in the interstices of those nasty, brutish (and, too often, short) lives. They sacrificed themselves for others, and paid terrible prices on both hands. They got scant respect as writers, and as women. They managed to make great literature, better than that of many men, even when denied an education equal to their brothers’. And yet you, Amanda Craig, would have us believe that they were somehow lesser writers — not only lesser than you, but lesser than men, fathers or not — just because they were not mothers?

There is not an English professor alive who would dare to insinuate that a single one of these distinguished female authors somehow lacked depth and insight simply because she failed to squeeze out a sprog or two (or a dozen). Motherhood = Grand Insight Into the Human Condition? The very premise is laughable. And yet you went there, no doubt thinking yourself very bold and innovative to say this:

Maeve Binchy’s warmth and interest in other people included their families, but I can’t help but feel that her detailed portraits of ordinary life might not have been so predicated on the relationships between men and women had she had a child. “We’re nothing if we’re not loved,” she said in an interview. “When you meet somebody who is more important to you than yourself, that has to be the most important thing in life, really.”

No matter what your experience of adult love, there is nothing as strong as the bond between a mother and a child. One reason why so many contemporary women writers have focused on this is that it is new territory, precisely because the great female writers of the past had not experienced it.

[…]

Yet putting yourself last is one of the best things that can happen to a writer. I make no moral claims for motherhood ­— which can bring out the worst in a person, in the form of vicarious rivalry, bitchiness, envy and even mental illness — but going through the ring of fire does change you and bring about a deeper understanding of human nature.

Binchy, whose first novel was about a 20-year friendship between two women, didn’t need the experience of motherhood to write about love and friendship in a way that charmed millions. But she might have dug deeper, charming less but enlightening more, had she done so.

Well, Amanda Craig, aren’t you the smug one? You think “going through the ring of fire” really is what’s needed to have “a deeper understanding of human nature”? Plug your ears, kiddies, Auntie Bina is going to shout again: MEN DON’T GIVE BIRTH, AND YET NO ONE QUESTIONS EVEN A CHILDLESS MALE WRITER’S CLAIM TO GREATNESS. NO ONE DARES TO INSINUATE THAT A MAN COULD BE LESS OF A WRITER JUST BECAUSE HE NEVER DONATED A SPERM.

And no, Amanda, what you’re saying here is neither new nor unique, nor even insightful. One of my favorite writers is Ursula Le Guin, who happens to be successful in no fewer than three fiction genres, as well as having written a respectable number of books of poetry and nonfiction. She is also a mother of three, a grandmother now, and an award winner several times over, in several fields. She does not claim special insights owing to motherhood (although I do trust her personal knowledge of the subject, as evidenced by Takver’s birth scene in The Dispossessed). And she once wrote under the pseudonym “Mom de Plume” for a short-lived satire mag, as though to throw a barb at all the men who claim mothers can’t write, let alone much or well. Ursula K. Le Guin, writing in the “interstices” of marriage and motherhood, has more than two dozen books to her credit, all of them ranging in quality from very good to superlative. There are countless male authors who wish they could write like her, and many more who bitch about not having the time. So, Amanda, what were you saying again?

Oh yeah, you were slagging Maeve Binchy. The recently departed lady who can no longer defend herself. The one whose robust and heart-warming oeuvre lacks insight, in your eyes, just because she didn’t have children. Well, Amanda, the joke’s on you:

Of course I wanted children. Bright, gorgeous, loving children. I could almost see them. But it was not to be and 30 years ago things were very different.

Fertility drugs were not as developed and adoption was impossible after the age of 40.

So my husband and I went through the sad, disappointed bit and then decided to count the blessings that we already had and ‘get on with it’.

There would be no bleating about it being unfair, no wailing to friends about what wonderful parents we would have made.

In fact we made such a good job of it that many people believed that we were childless by choice.

That was Maeve Binchy, childless woman and woefully deficient authoress, in her own words. Imagine: she didn’t have children because she couldn’t get pregnant! And she wanted them more than anything. Without a trace of self-pity, Maeve Binchy picked herself up and went on, and became a second mother to many of her friends’ children. And she did all this in the interstices of her writing, which gives no hint that she was lacking for a goddamned thing.

This is why I said I was surprised to hear that she had no children. Because some of Maeve Binchy’s most poignant and beautifully realized characters are mothers, or women who would have been mothers if the winds of fate had blown differently, or mothers who’ve lost their children. Kit Hegarty, in Circle of Friends, loses her only son in a motorcycle accident on the day he was to start university; suddenly childless, she must make do by becoming, as Binchy herself did, a surrogate mother to other people’s almost-adult children. Reading that, you ache for her.

And I could cite so many other Binchy mothers (and almost-mothers) who make me want to cry my childless heart out in sympathy, too. Too many to mention here. But surely those women are just flukes, and not the products of a childless woman’s insight, empathy and imagination.

Maeve Binchy may not be George Eliot, and her books may never be ranked up there with those of the Brontës on university English curricula. Her prose style could never rival Virginia Woolf’s, but her capacity for thought and feeling runs deep. And it’s for those reasons that she was popular, and will be remembered for the emotional and intellectual pleasure her books continue to give, even now that she is gone.

And this English major (and child-free, and therefore deficient writer) will gladly attest that she reads and re-reads Binchy with the same pleasure and interest she felt when reading Middlemarch, Villette, and Wuthering Heights, and everything Virginia Woolf and Ursula K. Le Guin ever wrote.

I somehow doubt that anyone will ever say the same for Amanda Craig.

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5 Responses to Why Amanda Craig should be ashamed

  1. richmx2 says:

    Amanda who? Never heard of her. I know we sell a lot of Maeve Binchy, even here in Mexico. Of course, Ms. whats-her-name could have easily have written that James Baldwin might have been written with more depth if he was white, or that Gore Vidal might have written better if he was straight, or…

    I’ve never liked the idea of pigeon-holing authors (Gay writers, African-American writers, Canadian women writers, Childless Irish woman writers, etc.). Good writers are good writers: their life-experiences (or lack thereof) might be ingredients, but the art (and the magic) is in what they make of it in creating a fictional world. I’ve only read dribs and drabs of Binchy. Not being Irish… nor female… doesn’t detract from my ability as a reader to be carried along by her work, and that’s all that matters.

    Of course, maybe we can come up with a category for Amanda… Inconsequential writers.

  2. Ellen Brickley says:

    I really enjoyed this piece, an excellent rebuttal for a terribly prejudiced article.

    However, the line about how having children is compulsary in Catholic Ireland should have been in the past tense. I’m 28, childless by choice, have no friends or family who practice Catholicsm actively, and have never received any negative comments about my childlessness (and I’m very open about it). Certainly when Maeve Binchy was trying to conceive, there would have been incredibly strong social and religious pressures to have a family (although as an awoved atheist, I hope Maeve didn’t give the latter too much thought), but things have changed dramatically and the sterotype of Holy Catholic Ireland is – thankfully – now just a stereotype. It is an immense relief!

    • Ellen Brickley says:

      I really shoud have mentioned in my comment that I am Irish and have lived in Ireland all my life. . . I hope it was implied but I feel quite silly re-reading it!

      • Sabina Becker says:

        Not a problem, I understand completely. And yes, you’re right, things were definitely different then, and no doubt a woman like her would have been looked on very suspiciously in those days. Times have changed, and I’m glad — her books were full of the ways in which Ireland changed between the 1950s and today. Repression and a lack of birth control used to be terrible problems, and the only remedy would have been to go over to England (to get away from the one, and to obtain the other — or a safe abortion if it was already too late.) There are probably still plenty of old Holy Joes, but thankfully they’re fast becoming a minority. Thanks for stopping by, BTW!

  3. Ellen Brickley says:

    It is still the case that Irish women have to go to England for abortions – some estimates suggest an average of 19 women per day. It’s referred to, with grim humour, as an Irish solution to an Irish problem – pretend it isn’t there and export it. . .

    We’ve still come a very long way, though, and in spite of my griping, I’m grateful that we have constant contraception awareness ad campaigns, acceptance of childfree people, divorce, and lots of other things we couldn’t have dreamt of thirty years ago!

    I’m very glad I stopped by, I was dying to read a good rebuttal of Amanda Craig’s article and I thoroughly enjoyed this one and the other posts I’ve been reading 🙂 Glad to have found your blog!

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