One of the very few works of chicklit – for want of a better word – that I have returned to time and time again is The Glass Lake by Maeve Binchy. Maeve Binchy has never, per se, been my favourite writer but that book spoke to me for several reasons; I felt greater empathy with most of the characters, they seemed to come far better to life to me.
There is one jarring scene in the book though, where Kit McMahon’s father is meeting his friend Peter for a drink. Peter has left the house in a temper because his wife is fighting with his two daughters for whatever trivial reason. He doesn’t want to deal with it because triviality is not what he is about at that point in time. Peter is the local doctor and that day, Peter has attended the death of a baby in one of the more rural locations around Lough Glass, the town where much of the book is set. The family of the mother have let him know that it is for the best that the child has died for he didn’t have any father, you see. The book is set in 1950s Ireland. Peter rails against this because the child could have lived, could have grown up happily in the care of his mother in the hills. There was no need for this child to die.
This baby, its mother, its family are tangential to the primary plot of the novel, almost unimportant in certain respects. Binchy could have chosen any sort of a bad day for Peter to have. He is a doctor in 1950s Ireland. TB kills people. Farm accidents kill people. Road accidents kill people. Polio is still a problem in the country. Instead, very deftly, Binchy includes a fatherless child of an unmarried mother, abandoned, if you like, by the father of that child. And the death of the child is preferable to his survival because he didn’t have a father. We know nothing about them; we don’t even know their names. They occupy at most a few lines in a novel of around, oh, seven hundred pages as far as I remember.
But the baby is not tangential to life in 1950s Ireland. He is a searing commentary on social attitudes in Ireland during that time. And, in certain respects, the mother of the child, no doubt a young woman, and almost certainly somewhat naive, had a lucky escape. She did not wind up where a lot of poor young women wound up. I don’t use the word poor in its sense as unfortunate (although it does fit), but in its sense as less well of economically. It is not the unmarried mothers from the well of families who wound up in the Mother and Baby Homes or the Magdalene Laundries for extended. £100 bought you out of staying in at least one of the Mother and Child homes for a year to work your costs off. And the healthy babies were adopted or fostered anyway.
I’ve always found that tableau of Peter, going for a drink with his friend to try and work through the idea that a child might be better off dead than loved by his mother and not finding the relief of talking it over because that just isn’t the night for it to be particularly jarring.
While the primary plot of the book focuses on a girl who does not actually wind up pregnant at any stage during the novel, the question of pregnancy before marriage is very much otherwise present in the book, and touched on in different ways. The town has the memory of a girl who reputedly drowned herself because she was pregnant. The primary character’s mother is believed by Peter to have drowned herself because she was pregnant also. When his own daughter winds up pregnant, he is only glad that things have changed enough that she does not drown herself. And it is not the only book in which Maeve Binchy deals with the question of pregnancy. Circle of Friends focuses on the issue too with respect to the fate of Nan. Pregnant. Father of child abandoning her. The edge of respectability such that her mother will not take on the child and pretend it is hers, a wonderful miracle and late pregnancy, wasn’t God so good to them to grant them another child with Nan already so grown up. In the book, Nan reviews her options dispassionately to the extent that she knows none of them are options at all in 1950s Ireland.
We need to make sure we don’t go back to that way of seeing things.
I’m mindful that much of what I have written here lately is less than uplifting. I want it to be different and I have some personal projects to deal with which might, if I am lucky, be more uplifting.