Review published on November 2, 2015.
Our abbreviation, ALW, signifies A Life’s Work, not to be confused with Retrospective – although both are our reviewers’ considerations of a substantial body of work. However, for the former the author, sadly, is no longer with us whereas for the latter we hope to add further books as the author continues to write.
We begin with the much-loved Beryl Bainbridge’s oeuvre:
To be shortlisted for a literary prize must be quite special. Twice – exciting? But five times – and not to win? How galling must that have been? Such was Beryl Bainbridge’s experience with the [Man] Booker award.
No author has ever been shortlisted as many times for the prize. She herself had said on Desert Island Discs in 2008, ‘There was only one time that I cared, I think about the fourth time, when I began to kid myself that I would win; everybody said so, all the bets and everything. And that was quite a bit of a shock.’
However, by way of reparation – in the year following her death – the Man Booker organisers set up The Man Booker Best of Beryl, inviting the public to consider which of her shortlisted titles most deserved the prize. These shortlisted books comprised The Dressmaker (1973); The Bottle Factory Outing (1974); An Awfully Big Adventure (1990); Every Man for Himself (1996) and Master Georgie (1998) – and the voting was conducted via the Man Booker website.
It proved a close-run thing but it was Master Georgie which won the honour, just pipping Every Man for Himself to the post.
AN AWFULLY BIG ADVENTURE by Beryl Bainbridge, Abacus
Beryl Bainbridge entraps the reader into looking for Stella’s mother as one might search for a murderer in a detective novel by searching through the characters within a hotel, repertory company, and theatre. Each scene suggests a post-war atmosphere of want, neglect and war damage and the theatre provides not only an escape from reality for the audience but also for the actors, who merely move from one character to another when removing their make-up. Stella’s parallel of Tinker Bell is highlighted by her flitting a torchlight over a curtain in much the same way Bainbridge flits Stella through her young, already shattered, life. A balance of pathos and humour ends the story but then we are drawn back to the end of chapter one and invited to watch the story with a different audience.
EVERY MAN FOR HIMSELF by Beryl Bainbridge, Abacus
We join a small group of the privileged first class passengers on the inaugural voyage of the ‘Titantic’. Our narrator is Morgan, a 22-year-old, unlucky in love with a dubious reason for leaving New York. We follow him and his companions for the four days leading up to the disaster.
Often, fictionalised accounts of the ‘Titantic’ disaster have a tendency to lean towards clichéd and romantic notions but this novella does none of that. There were many times throughout that I almost forgot the ship was the ‘Titanic’, I was so engrossed in the mini-dramas of Morgan and his companions.
Bainbridge mixes fictional characters with actual victims of the disaster, lending a gritty realism to her work. She has clearly researched the engineering and structure of the vessel as well as the passengers, which gives credence to her writing and makes the story believable. There is much to discuss about this beautifully and skilfully written book. I highly recommend it.
INJURY TIME by Beryl Bainbridge, Abacus
Edward, aware that his mistress, Binny, is deprived of certain everyday intimacies that his wife enjoys, decides to make her feel more involved in his life. He asks her to host a small dinner party for a couple of his (discreet) friends. There are some initial tensions: the friends are late, and he must leave by 10.30 in order to get home, but gradually things start to feel somewhat more relaxed. However, the arrival, firstly of a drunken friend of Binny’s, and then of a group of decidedly forceful ‘gate- crashers’, certainly puts paid to all of Edward’s carefully-laid plans: it seems increasingly unlikely that he will make it home on time.
Injury Time was full of Bainbridge’s wonderfully drawn characters, and her acute observations of relationships and social situations. No matter how eccentric a character or situation may seem, she makes them all too horribly credible and recognisable. Although she often exposes people’s frailties and snobberies in an almost cruelly forensic way, I never feel that she is being gratuitously cruel. She captures the sheer crassness of certain social interactions in a hilariously funny way; at times I found myself cringing, whilst almost aching with laughter! Although written in 1977, nothing feels dated about her observations; surely the hallmark of a true classic. Reading groups will find lots to discuss.
YOUNG ADOLF by Beryl Bainbridge, Abacus
This was a very interesting book showing Adolf Hitler’s relationship with his brother. I was gripped from the very beginning. The book is set in 1912, when a jobless Adolf has come to Liverpool from Vienna to stay with his brother Alois and his family.
This books shows how difficult it can be for members of a broken family to get along and how in the end they can help each other and make the best of the situation they are in. It also shows the confusion felt by Adolf about being in a new place and how he feels from being homeless, to having a home, be it a sofa, from his brother.
This book was very well written; as I read, I could sense how the characters were feeling and how they were affected by the world around them.
As a personal read this book was amazing and, having read very little of Beryl Bainbridge in the past, reading this book has definitely encouraged me to read more of her books. As a reading group read I felt that it had a lot of points which could spark a very interesting conversation so I will definitely be putting it forward as a reading group choice for 2012.
DID YOU KNOW?: Her ex-husband
Although she later regretted throwing out Austin Davies, after discovering an affair, he did not disappear from her life. He bought a house in Albert Street in Camden Town, where he occupied the basement and paid Beryl £7 a week rent. Later, he remarried and settled in New Zealand.
THE BIRTHDAY BOYS by Beryl Bainbridge, Abacus
Bainbridge’s fictional account of Scott’s ill-fated Terra nova expedition brings alive the harsh cold, desolation and hopelessness faced by the explorers in their quest to be the first men to reach the South pole.
Written in chronological order from the perspective of the five men chosen make the final trek to the South pole with Scott, I found the novel to be a bit of a slow starter, but as the ‘real’ adventure started and conditions got tough, I was gripped, even though I knew the outcome would not be positive for the men.
Originally hailed as a hero, after his ‘Discovery’ expedition, Scott’s leadership of the Terra nova was later put under scrutiny and this book neither condemns nor justifies Scott’s decisions, which ultimately led to the five men’s deaths. Bainbridge imagines and vividly brings to life the challenges faced, from the guilt felt by men leaving behind their families, financial worries, personality clashes, and the challenges in the frozen and isolated Antarctic. I felt it really captured what it might have been like to be on an expedition in the early 1900’s.
I found the book hard to get in to at first, but once the adventure got underway I felt I was in there on the journey with the men, and despite knowing that the expedition would ultimately end in tragedy, I really wanted to know what happened. I felt a bit bewildered at the end as there was no introduction or historical note to explain who survived, and what we know actually happened, but overall I thought it was a well-written book. As an introduction to Beryl Bainbridge I wouldn’t recommend it, but as an introduction to Antarctic exploration, I’d say go right ahead!
DID YOU KNOW?: Her mother-in-law
‘She came with the excuse that she wanted to borrow photographs. When I saw the gun I took a swipe at her hand – we’ve all watched a lot of TV – and the bullets hit the ceiling.’ On another occasion she ‘pulled a knife out of her bag, so my poor children, instead of having a granny who went to her bag for sweets, would hit the floor every time she rummaged.’
MASTER GEORGIE by Beryl Bainbridge, Abacus
This novel takes you on a journey full of rich character, incident and colour. The story is narrated by three of his devoted followers, so you see ‘Master Georgie’ from differing viewpoints, which makes for an interesting and at times quirky read.
The Crimea is depicted so well, you can smell, taste and see all the horror and misery of war. This part is not a particularly nice read (the various insects mentioned are just too vivid for words) but something about it captured me and I wished the book had been longer, to find out more about Master Georgie, Myrtle, Dr Potter and Pompey Jones. Ms Bainbridge could quite easily have written a sequel!
If you’re a fan you will love this and if you’re not, well try it anyway. This is classy, award-winning writing at its very best.
DID YOU KNOW?: Short books?
If anyone called her books slight, she would quote Voltaire’s apology when he wrote a long letter: ‘I didn’t have time to make it shorter’.
THE BOTTLE FACTORY OUTING by Beryl Bainbridge, Abacus
This is quite a remarkable novel. Graham Greene described it as ‘An outrageously funny and horrifying novel’ and I agree. It is also a story of startling originality and very clever structure. Set in a bleak and impoverished 1973, Brenda and Freda share a bedsit after a chance meeting at the butchers. Although they are young and not unattractive, they are both, in their different ways, lonely social misfits, who take jobs at a local Italian bottling plant in the hope it will enrich their lives as well as bringing in some money. Big, bold, blonde Freda, given to daydreams of a romantic and child-filled future life, persuades the owner to fund a workers’ outing to a stately home. Stick-thin, subdued Brenda, who has escaped a bizarre marriage on a remote Yorkshire farm, merely dreams of being left alone in peace. Passions run high on the chilly October Sunday of the outing and unsurprisingly, things do not go as planned, with disastrous consequences.
Despite the atmosphere of impending doom and real sadness, Beryl Bainbridge draws her characters and events in such a way that I found myself frequently laughing aloud, especially at the splendidly pathetic, Brenda. Dark, bleak, haunting, but laugh-out-loud funny: try it!
THE DRESSMAKER by Beryl Bainbridge, Abacus
Set in wartime Liverpool, this novel is about Rita, a shy young woman who has led a sheltered life raised by her two aunts. Rita falls for the charm of an American GI and falls in love with the prospect of life as a soldier’s wife yet her aunts remain sceptical of her romance.
The detailed descriptions of the domestic setting including the odd shrine of furniture in the sitting room creates a mild sense of unease for the reader, just as in a gothic novel; you wait for the sinister twist.
I enjoyed this novel and found it easy to read. There are many layers to the story and the characters continued to grow on me. Written almost 40 years ago it does feel a bit dated but as it is flawlessly written and opens a window to a different era it is worth sticking with until the end.
ACCORDING TO QUEENEY by Beryl Bainbridge, Abacus
This is a fictionalised account of Dr Samuel Johnson and his relationship with his friend’s wife, Hester Thrale as seen through the eyes of her daughter Queeney.
Taking place over a number of years from middle-aged Johnson’s first meeting with the Thrales, until his death in 1784, the chapters alternate with various letters written by the adult Queeney.
It’s alive with characters; real people in all their flawed glory. We are privy to a number of characters’ thoughts and Bainbridge moves seamlessly from one to another thus creating a deep sense of the real Johnson and 18th-century society.
Although I enjoyed it, I’m not sure how well it would stand as a book club – its strength is in depiction of character rather than a gripping plot.
This was not quite a life of Dr Johnson, more an observation of how he lived in the later years or so of his life. It brilliantly evoked the fragility of life in Georgian England but had no characters I felt anything for. Dr Johnson and his rich benefactress Mrs Thrale, who seemed to be constantly pregnant, have a complex relationship but as it is viewed through the eyes of Mrs Thrale’s clever daughter Queeney we only get a sketchbook picture of their lives.
Johnson’s erratic mental and physical health are conveyed to the reader as is his own strange household. He has his own room in the Thrales house and seems to have been on good terms with both Thrales in spite of his crush on Mrs Thrale.
I found this a disappointing book as it was disjointed and difficult to follow and while it would provoke a good deal of discussion in a reading group I would not recommend it as a good personal read.
Personal read 1*
DID YOU KNOW?: Other employment
From the 1990s, Bainbridge also served as a theatre critic for the monthly magazine The Oldie. Her reviews rarely contained negative content, and were usually published after the play had closed.
AN ENGLISH JOURNEY: The Road To Milton Keynes by Beryl Bainbridge
In 1983, accompanied by a film crew of seven, Beryl Bainbridge travelled across England, repeating the journey made fifty years earlier by J B Priestley. English Journeychronicles her progress, beginning in Southampton and ending two months later in Milton Keynes, via the cathedral cities of Salisbury and Norwich and larger cities such as Birmingham and Manchester.
Beryl Bainbridge’s diary entries concentrate on these places and the characters who inhabit them. With wit and nostalgia for the England of Priestley’s era she presents the cities in minute detail. Her hatred for the motorways, shopping malls and tower blocks of 1980s England are interwoven with memories of her parents, her early stage career and her ambivalence towards her home town, Liverpool.
Twenty-eight years on from the book’s publication, I felt a strong sense of nostalgia for the country the author describes, the country of my own childhood. Gone in recent years are long-established British institutions such as Wedgewood and Woolworths. Cadbury’s is now American-owned, and the coal-mines closed. The factories visited for the programme have in all likelihood passed through the fully-automated stages predicted and have been transplanted to other countries.
I wonder if Beryl Bainbridge ever envisaged that English Journey would chronicle her vision of England just as Priestley’s own once did, as it is a country which seems far removed from the one in which we live now.
As both a personal and group read, there is much to relive, reminisce about and regret inEnglish Journey.