The Bedazzling Ms Bainbridge
It’s been a long time since a book has left me in such a mess as this. I cannot shake it from my head, and feel really saddened. Although I’ve long been a fan of Beryl Bainbridge, the Liverpudlian writer whose messy, boozy life was a world apart from her brilliant, wrenching books, I had not read her historical novels.
A reader on Amazon points out:
‘It’s fair to say that Bainbridge isn’t feted as much in her home city as other Scouse writers such as Willy Russell, Alan Bleasdale, Carla Lane, Roger McGough, Helen Forrester, Kevin Sampson or Jimmy McGovern. Odd, given that Liverpudlians generally take pride in their city’s cultural heritage (we even celebrate that Charles Dickens gave public readings in St George’s Hall) and especially because Bainbridge was shortlisted for the Booker prize five times, more than any other author before or since.’
So, she wasn’t exactly supermarket shelf material, and you can quickly see why. She has a cool eye that surprises by the angle from which it observes. Most of her novels see the world through a tangle of human relationships that can only resolve themselves but cutting threads and causing damage.
In ‘An Awfully Big Adventure’, a production of Peter Pan comes apart at the seams because of a sexual act with horrifying consequences. The titular adventure is Barry’s description of death. In the first novel that I read, ‘The Bottle Factory Outing’, there’s a death on a firm’s picnic that is by turns hilarious and tragic. In ‘Young Adolf’, the youthful Hitler gets a job as a bellboy at a Liverpool Hotel. Ms Bainbridge’s mode is to enlighten through the humorous macabre.
But with ‘Master Georgie’ she surpasses her already high standards. It is a short novel, but densely structured, so that to unpack it all you should read it twice. Furthermore, it benefits from a little knowledge of the Crimean war, the disastrous tragedy that unfurled among cholera-ridden soldiers while self-serving generals played power games with each other.
Although short, the novel comes from multiple viewpoints, and none of the speakers are identified although you quickly realise who they are. It takes a while to rearrange all the puzzle pieces and fit them together, but the more you look at what first appears to be a simple tale the more brilliant and complex it becomes. The handsome doctor and amateur photographer George Hardy is worshipped by practical Myrtle, the orphan who has lived in his family from childhood. She follows behind him, barely noticed, as he takes his pictures and takes care of his patients, never really seeing her.
But Myrtle and the rest of the family go with him to the Crimea without a second thought, because as the head of the family he inspires leadership. They imagine their new lives will be lived in pretty little cottages, and find themselves slowly robbed and starved of the most basic human provisions, shoved here and there by clueless leaders. Symbols abound; Punch & Judy, photography, a tiger skin, misconstrued intentions, furtive sex, loyalty, the mystery of love. The final line is so devastating that I walked around with the book clutched to me for an hour after finishing.
Bainbridge wrote about infidelity, anger, selfishness and finding joy in unlikely places. Her sentences constantly surprise, not for effect but because this is how she sees the world. Nearly all her novel are very short, but contain more than book four times the size. Her talent was recognised, but the Booker judges, ever blind, did not in her lifetime and gutlessly gave her a posthumous award. In her consistent failure to win the Booker, Bainbridge reflects in real life the fate of her fictional characters, who are sidelined, shunned, ignored, dismissed.
She said about her manuscript of ‘A Weekend with Claude’, ‘I honestly don’t think it is a publishable proposition … [it] doesn’t really begin to be a novel … I think publishers would also object to there being no chapter divisions, the multitude of mis-spellings, and the fact that a great many words can only exist in your own imagination. Thinking about it dispassionately, and forgetting that we are friends, I cannot help feeling that the book doesn’t have much to say at all. My greatest quarrel, however, is with the quality of the writing, which lacks the imagery and force necessary to lift it out of the rut.’
She was a chaotic, blunt-spoken woman with a chaotic love life, two suicide attempts, twenty novels (one was rewritten) and a love of Liverpool pubs, and she wrote not like an angel but a demon. I’m not sure the circumstances will ever allow for anyone like her again.