Study Guide

Beryl Bainbridge

Beryl Bainbridge Essay - Bainbridge, Beryl (Vol. 5)

Bainbridge, Beryl (Vol. 5)

Bainbridge, Beryl 1933–

Ms Bainbridge, an English novelist, evokes in her fiction the world of Liverpool's working class with what has been called melancholy realism. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 21-22.)

[In The Dressmaker (published in America as The Secret Glass), Beryl Bainbridge has evoked] with ruthless realism the darkest days of 1944—and, a million miles away from heroics, [adumbrated] in one grim little tale the cataclysm that war created in working-class society….

To have disinterred so many nasty things in the woodshed and yet evoked a workaday image of Liverpudlian optimism and resilience, in so few claustrophobic pages, is a remarkable achievement. Miss Bainbridge's imagination pushes her towards nightmare, and her eye for detail is macabre; but because she writes with taut, matter-of-fact simplicity this seems as authentic as any contemporary image the camera has preserved of that mercifully vanished past. (p. 1101)

"Bad Old Days," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd., 1973; reproduced by permission), September 28, 1973, p. 1101.

Bainbridge's books are melancholy, provincial landscapes in which violence, like a thunderstorm, always threatens, sometimes strikes. Her characters—usually transients between the working and middle classes—wander in and out, grouping and regrouping themselves in an effort to find the most psychologically restful position. For ["The Secret Glass"], she will inevitably be compared with Jean Rhys, Muriel Spark and Iris Murdoch. But her particular sort of understatement, painstaking yet laconic, is very much her own. (pp. 75-6)

Bainbridge is a master of detail and atmosphere, superb at conveying the doggedness of Liverpool life: the oppressive slag heaps, the bomb site that was once Blacker's general store, the dinners of Spam fritters and stewed tomatoes, the young women in public lavatories rubbing sand on their legs to simulate silk stockings. "The Secret Glass" is first-rate as both a psychological and a suspense novel. We often forget how closely woven the two are—how busy life seems before a catastrophe, how mysteriously quiet during it, and how ruthlessly normal afterward. (p. 76)

Margo Jefferson, "Violence Under Glass," in Newsweek (copyright 1974 by Newsweek, Inc.; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), August 12, 1974, pp. 75-6.

Admirers of Beryl Bainbridge's "Harriet Said"… will not find that novel's gothic tension in … "The Secret Glass." [The latter] has another kind of interest; it will attract readers not for its suspense-entertainment but for its sharp character study and unrelenting Naturalism….

Gone is the eeriness, the gratuitous corruption of "Harriet Said," in which the "innocents" seeking thrills in a lonely landscape brought disaster on a man and his wife. In this book, people are too poor (except for the resented Americans) and too worried about respectability to pursue the eerie or gratuitous thrill. The Lancashire of the earlier novel, with its lonely beach and firelight scenes,… is now sobered with Realism: it is 1944, tankers are in the harbor and coal is too dear to be wasted on roaring fires illuminating sexual curiosities to be spied by bored young girls.

In "The Secret Glass"… all the deadliness, the wickedness, and even the villain (such as she is) can be tracked to the same dreary source: the narrowness of the working class ethic combined with the hatred felt toward the exotic, affluent Yanks ("pressing young girls up against the wall, mouth to mouth as if eating them") with their jeeps and supplies of cigarettes and nylons and their great dogs on metal chains.

What Miss Bainbridge has written this time is an exposure, both grim and nostalgic, of a type of existence so joyless it turns pathological….

The author is painstaking in her evocation of era and perceptive about the world of manners in working-class Liverpool. She has much to tell us about those pressure cookers of family life and limited means. And she creates memorable portraits of her people….

Against such details of a cramped and deadly existence, the murder at the end of the novel seems like a last-minute frill tacked onto a straitjacket. And when Nellie, sewing a shroud for the victim, excuses the act by saying, "We haven't had much of a life…. We haven't done much in the way of proving we're alive," I'm afraid I hear the author trying to justify her sensational denouement by calling sociology to her aid. The "motives" and the events leading up to the murder are too hastily jerry-built into the second half of an otherwise leisurely and careful book. But Beryl Bainbridge, in "The Secret Glass," has the eye and the language of a serious novelist. She can breathe enough life into her people for us to want to read her next time without a murder. (p. 4)

Gail Godwin, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1974 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), September 15, 1974.

Beryl Bainbridge's tenure on her world is indisputable. But it's a small, dry place, fenced off like a compound behind barbed wire and vigilantly patrolled by the novelist, who knows rather too well how to keep all her characters within bounds. The Bottle Factory Outing is as near to a perfect novel as I've read for a long time. It has both the simplicity and the savagery of one of the nastier folk ballads, along with the ballad's restricted range and the linguistic certainty which comes from working with a foreshortened vocabulary as if it were an eight-note scale….

Miss Bainbridge's prose style is so exactly attuned to the dislocated mental world of her characters that the novelist is able to pass herself off more as an eavesdropper than as an artificer. It is a kind of writing in which world and word are utterly of a piece. (p. 82)

Living in this prose is like suffering from an optical deficiency which causes everything less than six feet away to be magnified, frighteningly sharp, and everything beyond that to congeal into an impenetrable grey fuzz….

It's a style which accepts the extraordinary as normal. A kettle boils. Someone gets strangled. The lavatory cistern breaks down. There are neither causes for events, nor any particular expectations; things just happen….

But to achieve this accuracy, control and perfect pitch, Miss Bainbridge has had to play Procrustes. One might say that her characters are simply the sort of people who are untroubled by thoughts, who lack any sense of their own cultural depth and identity, and who are capable of only the most vestigial feelings, and leave it at that. Or one might accuse Miss Bainbridge of depriving them of the right to think and feel in order to construct a world simple enough to be contained by that pure, lucid but underprivileged prose. A great deal in The Bottle Factory Outing can only excite unqualified admiration; but there is, finally and nigglingly, something about it which is as self-enclosed and remote as a monastic cell. (p. 83)

Jonathan Raban, in Encounter (© 1975 by Encounter Ltd.), February, 1975.

The Bottle Factory Outing, like [Bainbridge's] earlier books, centers on a pair of women (adolescents in Harriet Said) opposite in nature, living in strained, tenuous yet complementary unity. They share life's daily intimacies and larger goals, but their means and styles are grossly dissimilar. Like pairs of magnets endlessly rotated, they attract and repel each other in turn. One is thoughtful, withdrawn, ascetic, the other sensual, blowsy and overweight. One is irritatingly reasonable, the other outlandishly romantic. Freda, like Rita before her in The Secret Glass, has the imaginative power to invent an elaborate love affair when in fact reality has given her precious little to build on…. The immense creative will that informs these wild imaginings makes Freda awesome rather than pathetic. But whatever the actual or dreamed erotic entanglements, the essential bond is between the female pair. From this strife-ridden, often destructive yet powerful relationship flows the energy of the story….

This is a wry comic novel of poses and play-acting, the essentials of all comedy. One will remember the characters in extreme gestures of self-parody, like commedia dell-arte standbys—the courteous, compliant Latin lover, the red-faced brawling Irish truck driver. And the outing's climax, a bus ride through a safari park (British version of our jungle habitats) is a deftly written travesty: the lions and tigers are oddly dormant, while a dead body waits in the back seat of the parked car. Daily reality seems to be a ludicrous game all agree to play, while far beneath the surface the obscure rumblings of life and death continue, careless and inescapable.

To my mind Bainbridge is not writing thrillers or pseudo-thrillers, as some critics have suggested. Rather she is writing quests. So far, she is asking far more questions than she answers; in our dogmatic age of assertion, this is refreshing. (p. 27)

Lynne Sharon Schwartz, in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1975 by The New Republic, Inc.), May 24, 1975.

Ms. Bainbridge writes so deftly [in The Bottle Factory Outing] about the disasters befalling a pair of witless wenches on a mismanaged company picnic that one can very nearly forgive her black comedy for being no more than a very dirty gray. (p. 95)

Phoebe Adams, in The Atlantic Monthly (copyright © 1975 by The Atlantic Monthly Company, Boston, Mass.; reprinted with permission), June, 1975.