The Voice Behind The Prose

Reading & Writing

I finally understand what I like about her most.

She was cruelly funny. Cynical. Erudite. Surreal. Succinct. A blunt-spoken woman with a chaotic love life, two suicide attempts, twenty novels and a love of Liverpool pubs, and she wrote less like an angel than a demon.

There were plenty of attempts to nail down Beryl Bainbridge’s writing style in her lifetime. The author was one of the grandes dames of the UK’s literary scene whose novels landed her five shortlistings for the Man Booker prize (and the label of perennial Booker bridesmaid – it’s outrageous that she did not win for ‘The Birthday Boys’). 

Bainbridge isn’t feted as much in her home city as other more populist Scouse writers such as Willy Russell, Alan Bleasdale, Carla Lane, Roger McGough, Helen Forrester, Kevin Sampson or Jimmy McGovern. As far as I’m concerned she was above all of them.

After reading her last few hard-to-find books I think I understand what it is I like about her most, and this is a point that may cause some argument. It seems to me that she saw clearly and wrote without gender, and this set her prose free. I can detect only a neutral voice behind her words, but this doesn’t make her dispassionate. Powerful emotions are always there, understated but devastating in their effect.

Some authors never vanish behind the words. Will Self, Brett Easton Ellis and Martin Amis spring to mind, poking through the prose at you, in the same way that familiar actors simultaneously exist as themselves and their characters. There are authors who fail to see their male gaze falling upon their female characters or simply don’t care (Hemingway and Mailer, dear God), and female authors whose male characters do far too much emotional soul searching. What I look for is the clearness of water that lets you see down to the shining pebbles on a stream bed. On balance I find this more in female authors like Hilary Mantel, who cuts to the heart and dissects it.

Thanks to author appearances on social media (forced onto us by the reduced availability of book PR) readers are used to knowing a lot about the voices behind the prose. This turns us into publishing mouthpieces, so it’s a shock to read Bainbridge talking about her manuscript of ‘A Weekend with Claude’ this way:

‘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, 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.’

I suspect her honesty was utterly beyond her control. These days, when authors are compromised by the demands of publishing demographics, it’s a rare quality to possess, especially if you want to make a living.

13 comments on “The Voice Behind The Prose”

  1. brooke says:

    You’re right; Bainbridge is neutral, lucid, clear eyed. There’s surface simpicity in her stories, but much complexity behind each, both in feeling and language crafting.
    I get your point with the cameleon. Bainbridge reflects her characters and their worlds so that you feel she is living the same experience. And lord knows she lead a colorful life. But I would have chosen a cephalopod, specifically an octopus, as her totem animal. Horizontal eyes with highly refined vision able to see through murk. A distributed brain for wide intelligence gathering about the environment. Ability to use intelligence to become thet environment. Sorry I ramble.

  2. SteveB says:

    I remember reading her books when I was young, they tended to be terribly depressing! Sweet William springs to mund.

  3. Helen Martin says:

    I have a question about the desirability of writers being separate from their own sexuality. I can even read some Hemingway without regretting the absence of a proper female voice. I’m not sure but a strongly male voice gives me a chance to experience a male viewpoint. You do have to be aware of the missing voice, though. I’m reading Jack London’s “The Adventures of Capt. David Grief” and am so vividly aware of the almost total lack of a Polynesian voice as well as a total lack of female characters even. The Polynesians are nothing more than wallpaper to add colour to the scene. I can enjoy the adventure, the schooners, the coral atolls, and all even though I regret the lack of the thoughts of the people. London without intending it tells exactly how the Islands were stolen from the people who lived on them. A writer writes from the soul s/he has within. I’m going to think about this.

  4. Andrew Holme says:

    One of my reading projects during lockdown has been The Poldark novels. I remember reading a few back in the Seventies when the original TV series was on. They were a great favourite of my Mum’s. I’ve just finished ‘Black Moon’, and the one paragraph description of the 18 year old Morwenna’s wedding night to a vicar that she is forced to marry, moved me to tears. Would it have been better written by a female author? Probably. However Winston Graham does write incredibly varied female characters unlike most male authors. He had a go. Having said that, can a white person write about a black person’s experiences? Can a male writer comment on the birth process? I’ve known severe pain, can I compare it? If we pigeonhole writers by race, gender and creed and expect them to only write about their own experiences within their own parameters, can this be satisfying? The funniest book about the male psyche was written by Sue Townsend, and one of the best books written about women is ‘Mothering Sunday’ by Graham Swift. I like both…

  5. Re the recent comments on J B Priestley’s English Journey (1934), interesting that Beryl Bainbridge wrote a new version in 1984 fifty years on revisiting the same towns. Some wonderful writing in this book – a paragraph on a
    ‘statue of Queen Victoria being tempted to hitch up her stone skirts and join us in the terrible streets’ comes to mind
    intact after 35 years. Brilliant.

    Also, Young Adolf is a gem of a novel and cries out for filming some day

  6. Peter Dixon says:

    As Viv Stanshall of The Bonzo’s so rightly put it: “Can blue men sing the whites or are they hypocrites?”

  7. mike says:

    Peter, that was spooky! That track was just playing on my mp3 when I read your comment.

  8. Ian Luck says:

    Peter – have you read the Viv Stanshall biography ‘Ginger Geezer’? It’s superb. Very funny most of the way, but gets rather dark towards the end. It shows, as do the books about Spike Milligan, that the line between genius and insanity, and sobriety and being completely hammered, is very thin indeed.
    Badly written signs were a fascination to Viv – there was one at a seaside resort that he would specifically take people to see, as it amused him so much, and remained unchanged for years. In it’s unpunctuated glory, it read:

    SPADES
    BALLS
    SAUSAGES
    TEAS

    I laughed at this, and my brother found it hilarious. The four words have a curious kind of euphony together – and only as written.

  9. Agree that Ginger Geezer is a wonderful read until the halfway mark when it becomes bleak and depressing.

    Excellent documentary on Stanshall on YouTube : search for The Canyons of his Mind Vivian Stanshall.
    As with watching Sunderland this season, it’s better to go home at half-time.

  10. Peter Dixon says:

    I’ve got a rare copy of the Sir Henry at Rawlinson End book as well as the LP.
    (Look out for that loose floorboard!” he whispered.

    My favourite sign on a hardware shop was:
    NUT
    SCREWS
    WASHER,
    BOLTS

  11. mike says:

    I used to go and see The Bonzos Sunday lunchtime and a midweek evening at the Deuragon Arms.
    Absolutely brilliant.
    I still have the image of Legs Larry Smith and Vivian tap dancing across the tables firmly fixed in my mind.
    They let off an explosion once that was huge, the pub filled with smoke and we were all sent outside until it cleared.
    I wanted them to play at my wedding but we couldn’t afford £40.00.
    Probably the biggest disappointment of my life

  12. Ian Luck says:

    Roger Ruskin Spear had a solo project which had a name that, on hearing it, made me very happy, and glad that joyful silliness was not dead: ‘Roger Ruskin Spear’s Giant Orchestral Wardrobe’.

  13. Dawn Andrews says:

    Bainbridge can say more with the spaces between than any other prose writer, read Master Georgie again last week and it was like there is another book beside the one you’re reading, she spoke of codes and it really is like that. Winter Garden is one of my favorites. The three legged dog made another appearance in that!

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