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.

7 comments on “The Bedazzling Ms Bainbridge”

  1. Brooke says:

    Bainbridge–yes! The circumstances will ensure more like her. The world is full of people, sidelined shunned, ignored and dismissed…writers (especially non US, non European) who can speak to/for these experiences emerge. Unfortunately readers cannot expect the publishing/literary prize industry to bring them forward.

  2. Helen Martin says:

    Doubly unfortunately, Brooke, because if the publishing/literary prize people don’t push then the books will die a-borning. I remember “Young Adolf” being reviewed here but not the others. My library has 13 titles, including all the ones mentioned here and readers appear to have appreciated her work since the reviews average at 4-4.5/5. I’m returning books tomorrow so I’ll try Master Georgie.

  3. Brooke says:

    That’s why we love libraries and librarians, Helen. Our library system also has Bainbridge titles in stock and manages to find and keep really good writers on the shelves.

  4. Wayne Mook says:

    She’s an author I’ve never git round to reading, where would you suggest I start.


  5. Helen Martin says:

    I didn’t get to the library and now we’ve had a fall of snow with more scheduled for the rest of the week, so I’m left with some bits and pieces and MS Bainbridge will have to wait. Certainly glad I can renew borrowings on-line.

  6. Brooke says:

    @Wayne M. Without knowing your taste in fiction, it’s hard to make a suggestion. I like “personality” fiction, i.e. exploration of a character’s life, especially in difficult times. That’s why I liked A Quiet Life and The Dressmaker (one masculine perspective/one female). I really haven’t dipped into BB’s “historical” novels, e.g. the one about Hitler.
    Suggestion if you have kindle app, download samples and see what turns you on. Or the old fashioned way, i.e. library or bookstore, take several novels, find a comfortable seat and sample.
    Happy reading.

  7. Wayne Mook says:

    Thanks Brooke, I was at the library weekend & intend to go more, the excuse is to take my daughter, although she has a lot of books at home, as do I and my wife, but I do need to get walking more, so it gives me an excuse to stretch the legs at weekend too. I think I’ll take the library route, I even bought a book Poverty Safari. It mentions what happened at Grenfell Tower, our blocks still have not been re-clad, the last date was November, we are still waiting. I guess as the poor end of Trafford, a well to do tory area in the main,we are not high on the list of priorities. (The council is hung but that is more to do with a University scheme which wasn’t all it purported to be, which the then ruling Conservatives tried to bring in surreptitiously.)

    As you may have guessed git should have read got.


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