Well, this is a lovely and moving tribute to a much-loved writer who’s passed away.
Among the obituaries for the much-loved Irish novelist Maeve Binchy, few omitted to mention that she was childless. Once, that was the norm for successful women writers. These days, when even lesbian authors such as the Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy and Emma Donoghue, writer of the Booker-nominated Room, have children, it is sufficiently rare to be remarked upon.
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?
As STFU, Parents said on Facebook, Amanda Craig has mommy-jacked Maeve Binchy’s obituary.
Is the effect of having children on one’s time for creativity a legitimate topic for discussion? Certainly. But Craig is not advancing that discussion. Instead, she’s using the occasion of Binchy’s death to take digs at writers who are women without children. Not only do such writers luxuriate in free time (as much time as men, she notes, which raises the question of why men with children have as much time as men without), but their writing betrays a lack of understanding of human emotion. Because — say it with me now — you just can’t really understand what it is to love until you become a mother.
I have often wondered whether the Orange Prize should be renamed the Navel Orange Prize, given the difference in time and energy available to women writers before and after motherhood. If any lingering prejudice against the female sex can be assumed to have vanished, which is debatable, there is no practical difference between a man and a woman writer when the latter has not had children.
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.
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.
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.
As someone in the comments to this story noted, there are two people involved in the mother-child bond, and some of them grow up to be childless female writers. So to say that childless female writers have never experienced this bond is overstating things.
There is a reason that the great female writers of the past had not experienced motherhood: because they really, truly did have to choose between writing and being a mother. Women had little autonomy unless they had their own money.
Of course, the idea that women aren’t full human beings unless they’re mothers is not a new one. Woolf, Austen, et al.? They all experienced being viewed as less-than-fully human. Let’s look at the example that Craig gives for Austen’s shallow understanding of the human condition:
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.
Austen had the opportunity to observe families up close as a dependent single woman, and indeed wrote about them. But given that marriage and family were central to a woman’s societal acceptance and security in her milieu, and that making a bad choice in partner could be disastrous, was it really so unusual that she would focus on the process of finding that partner? Craig glosses over the sharpness of Austen’s observations about the pursuit of marriage and the stakes involved for women of little means. Her writing is not all hearts and flowers, after all. Her characters make mistakes, judge poorly, but eventually figure out that character is important, as well as money.
Also, she seems to be oblivious to the fact that the whole point of Anne Elliot’s saintliness as an aunt was that she had no other role in society, haven given up on finding a husband, so she was at the family’s disposal (and, though Craig does not credit this, she loved her nephews). She also found acceptance within her in-laws’ family that her own family refused to provide her because as an unmarried daughter who was not needed to serve as the lady of the house, she was unwanted. Even among the Uppercross family, she was surplus, and was acutely aware of that fact. Sort of like Austen herself. Had Austen been a married woman with children, would she have been able to present Anne’s dilemma so sympathetically?
Women without children can see and feel human life just as acutely and can imagine the feelings of parents convincingly.
How very generous of you. Craig goes on to compare Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall with A.S. Byatt’s Possession on the subject of writing about the loss of a child. Mantel can not have children due to endometriosis; Byatt’s child was killed in an accident at the age of 11. Byatt, says Craig, “goes much deeper into the emotions of it all, the tigerish nature of maternal love, presumably because she could draw on her own life.” Leaving aside the fact that Mantel was focusing on a father’s love rather than a mother’s, it is no guarantee that feeling deeply or having experienced something necessarily provides a writer with the ability to convey those emotions on the page. Moreover, Mantel writes historical fiction. Why no criticism of her ability to write about Tudor England, not having experienced it directly?
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.
Remember, gals: you are unable to feel unless you’ve birthed a child.