Sun 5 Aug 2012
Someone in my Twitter feed (follow @quackingalone) passed along a link to a UK Telegraph article entitled “If Maeve Binchy had been a mother.” Ms Binchy, a renowned author, passed away on July 30th in her beloved Dublin, Ireland at the age of 72. She gave birth to 16 books, including her first and best known, “Light A Penny Candle,” and 2 others (“Circle of Friends” and “Tara Road”) that were made into movies. She neither birthed nor adopted children and she died childless.
The author of the Telegraph article, Amanda Craig, ponders how Ms. Binchy’s childless state affected her writing.
Yet the debate about whether motherhood and writing are compatible is still an issue discussed by magazines such as Mslexia, a specialist publication for female authors, and at almost any gathering of women writers. Do you miss out on something essential about the human condition if you eschew childbearing? Or is the pram in the hall, as Cyril Connolly said, the enemy of promise?
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”.
The article suggests that “there is no practical difference between a man and a woman writer when the latter has not had children.” The piece quotes novelist Candia McWilliam as claiming that “every baby costs four books” and it notes that the “toll isn’t only the physical one, of broken nights and infections passed on from playground to parents; it’s also intellectual as you strive to get your little darlings through their exams.”
The author, Ms. Craig, believes that “the very best” female writers include Jane Austen, George Eliot, the Brontës, Virginia Woolf and they were all childless, like Ms. Binchy. And she thinks that the process of giving birth and rearing a child is a fundamental change for a woman:
Yet that same pain, rage and misery is also hugely enriching. It starts with your own, for even with pain relief, the shock of giving birth changes you for ever. The feelings of intense vulnerability (your own and, more importantly, your child’s), passionate love, joy, bewilderment and exhaustion are unlike anything else. Had Austen, for instance, had a child I wonder whether her focus on romantic love would have survived; childless Anne Elliot’s saintliness as an aunt in Persuasion would certainly have been mitigated by very different feelings.
Ms. Craig feels that the emotional advantage of mothers in having lived feelings that childless women can only imagine are mitigated by other advantages that mothers only reach after their little ones are grown and gone:
Undoubtedly, though, what a childless writer does have is more time and energy. Even if you are truly, madly, deeply in love with your children, there are times when you envy those for whom the school holidays are not a total drain. Somehow, we are never the ones who get to work in Hawthornden Castle, the luxurious writers’ retreat which offers a month of working time uninterrupted by cooking, cleaning or child care. It’s no coincidence that women with children begin to win serious literary prizes once they are over 50.
The author concludes that Ms. Binchy “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.”
I’ve been thinking about this piece. My first reaction was outrage — how dare a fellow author suggest that Ms. Binchy’s career was hampered or hindered by her not having children! As I ponder the piece more, I see that the writer is really suggesting that perhaps Ms. Binchy’s life was lessened by her not having birthed, adopted or reared a child. Ms. Craig seems to feel that Ms. Binchy’s writing would have been more emotionally astute had she experienced motherhood.
Certainly, I agree that motherhood is an experience that changes a woman in a fundamental way that can not be explained. I went through this recently with a colleague at work who was childless into her 40′s and gave birth a little over 2 months ago. I kept trying to tell her that her whole world would alter but she couldn’t understand that until she had lived it. Now, I think, she gets what I meant exactly.
But how any of this plays into our writing is unknown and the prejudices of the author show through some of her premises. For example, Ms. Craig wonders if Jane Austin’s focus on romantic love would have survived had Ms. Austin been a mother. Well, I’m a mother, and the focus on my writing has always been romantic love. I was a mother long before I became an author, and I still see romantic love as being a fascinating and bottomless well from which to draw. I don’t think stories that touch on women’s journeys through life or motherhood are limited, but neither do I think that a motherless life limits an author’s perspective.
Those who have and don’t have children take different paths, but I don’t think one or the other makes you a better or worse writer, more or less likely to win literary glory or more or less likely to set world records for appearances on the bestselling lists. Writing is always a journey into the unknown and how well or how poorly the journey goes is measured by only one scale that matters — do readers enjoy the books.
By that scale, Ms. Binchy’s career and literary legacy was a resounding success and many lives are richer for having taken the journeys she created.
As for me, I turn 50 in a few weeks and shall await the “serious literary prizes” Ms. Craig mentions — or not. I doubt that the work of an over-the-top romance novelist will ever win accolades from the ivory tower set, but I have no problem with that. The only award that matters to me is that readers enjoy my work.
I never knew Ms. Binchy who called herself “an airport writer.” She resisted being called a “romance novelist” while I wave the term as proudly as any medieval knight ever waved a banner. I’d still be willing to bet that the reader’s enjoyment was the only award that mattered to her as well.