Study Guide

Beryl Bainbridge

Beryl Bainbridge Essay - Bainbridge, Beryl (Vol. 8)

Bainbridge, Beryl (Vol. 8)

Bainbridge, Beryl 1933–

An English novelist whose fabric is working-class life in Liverpool, Bainbridge is noted for her telling portrayals of family life among the have-nots. A masterful delineator of character, she is said by Katha Pollit to be "never less than sharply and savagely ironic." (See also CLC, Vols. 4, 5, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 21-24, rev. ed.)

The Bottle Factory Outing … is one of those fictions which depend for their success on balancing comedy and horror, and on adjusting every movement to maintain the delicate weighting which contains the outbreak of tragedy within the nervous, cheerful frame. When the trick works, as it does here, the double-vision effect is unsettling and gnawing, disturbing. Miss Bainbridge by now must be reckoned a thoroughly original, even formidable, writer with a great skill for suggesting acres of complicated matter within a few paragraphs; but despite her undeniable talent, this book seems to me disappointingly thin….

[The] odd inconsequence of this book seems to me to derive from a lack of emotional urgency—required, in a book of this sort, to give point to the jumpy fun. (p. 627)

Peter Straub, in New Statesman (© 1974 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), November 1, 1974.

Miss Bainbridge is bearing up very well; she sets her face resolutely towards the sad and the seedy, the squalid and the sloppy, and yet she never aspires to cheap sentiment….

Miss Bainbridge writes a dry and uncomplicated prose which spares her characters nothing; other people's aspirations are always comic, and Miss Bainbridge [in The Bottle Factory Outing] is so much the outsider as to be almost omniscient. Italians are very passionate and cannot help but be amusing, too, what with the "Aye, aye, aye" and "No, no, no," the broken syntax and the rolling eyeballs. All good comedy, of course, eventually breaks its own spell and there is a sour and haunted strain through the book…. The removal of the ultra-heroine disturbs the narrative somewhat, and … the prose becomes a little damper and a little more forced; the final sequences of the book are devoted to a who-didn't-do-it line which finally runs dry when the comedy turns into a fable. Freda's death is the final incongruity, and when she is all over there is nowhere else for the book to go. (p. 573)

Peter Ackroyd, in The Spectator (© 1974 by The Spectator; reprinted by permission of The Spectator), November 2, 1974.

Miss Bainbridge keeps her sense of comedy throughout ["The Bottle Factory Outing"]. Comedy concerns itself with knowing how to live and makes its jokes out of people who don't know how. She is curious to see how her characters, all sensible and all full of good will, can botch their best efforts with such consistency. One reason is that each is blinded by a private and mistaken view of everybody else. Amenities perfected by the Late Stone Age, such as eating, defecation, conversation and sex, are all insurmountable problems in this novel. And when the rhythms of industry can better accommodate the ritual of burial than any rhythm available to Miss Bainbridge's characters, we have a complete picture of people from whom every advantage has escaped, leaving them to reinvent a culture, and to wring their hands.

Loss of culture is comic; loss of civilization is tragic. Miss Bainbridge has her comic eye on cultural confusion. She makes us see that it goes deeper than we think and touches more widely than we had imagined. The most appalling muddles can still be laughed at, and laughter is a kind of understanding. (p. 7)

Guy Davenport, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1975 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), June 8, 1975.

[The Bottle Factory Outing is an] absorbing social comedy, if also an implacably grim one. Miss Bainbridge … is a masterful plotter of schemes in which lust, avarice, and cruelty win the day every time over the nobler impulses of humankind. Her talent is for grounding these schemes in entirely credible characters, a talent notably evident in this tale of two female misfits whose emotional lives revolve entirely around their fellow employees in a bottle factory…. For the most part,… and this is a factor typical of the novel's strengths, the men and women behave strictly according to the social rules of their tradition, ethnic codes for whose details Miss Bainbridge has a keen eye. The denouement is a monstrous act in which all the characters have a share of responsibility. Kindly as they all are, each one sees his part through. That they do is a final judgment on them and one altogether typical of the merciless vision that rules this novel. (p. 30)

Dorothy Rabinowitz, in Saturday Review (© 1975 by Saturday Review/World, Inc.; reprinted with permission), July 26, 1975.

[In Beryl Bainbridge's world] all is solipsism, a world which may or may not exist, characters who may be invented by other characters, even feelings which succeed other feelings so rapidly as to cause the reader to doubt that they were ever felt at all. Ann, a single girl living in Hampstead, is the only reality in Sweet William. (p. 70)

Sweet William is more subdued and less bizarre than The Bottle Factory Outing, but the same slightly loony sensibility is at work, and there is a similar atmosphere. It's a world of twilight, peopled by indistinct figures who don't quite connect, communicating in words which can't be taken at face value. Ann's feelings are always on the surface; she is volatile, emotionally unstable, lacking a cultural framework, without a history. She is an instinctive existentialist: everything has to be invented and experienced for the first time. Words often fail her; language and syntax are imprecise; the big Truth isn't there. But the little truths sometimes slip through…. (p. 71)

James Price, in Encounter (© 1976 by Encounter Ltd.), February, 1976.

[Bainbridge's talent] is an odd and in a muted way fantastic talent, as is perhaps necessary in modern English writers who manage to escape the rather stifling conditions of normal contemporary competence. Her book that best demonstrates it is The Dressmaker, in which an illiterate GI is murdered by a dedicatedly deprived old lady in a small Liverpool house; she stabbed him in the neck with her scissors, "she was that annoyed." But the pathetic slaughter with which Bainbridge likes to end her stories is little more than the gesture with which the disgust heaped up in the course of accumulating lacerating details, the pain of all the accurately depressing dialogue, is swept off the page. Though they are sometimes funny, and often very compassionate, Bainbridge's novels cannot really bear themselves.

Deprived and exploited women are probably her main interest, their minds and bodies drained, like their environments, of value….

The Dressmaker has a horrible accuracy of place and period—Liverpool, 1944—that authenticates its fable, and gives it a central place in Bainbridge's rapidly developing oeuvre. The Bottle Factory Outing is wilder and funnier. The hopeless aspiration to love and a brilliant future is more cruelly put down, and this time it is the game, deprived heroine herself who has to be disposed of, her corpse huddled away so that, representing anyway only a lack, she would not on removal be missed. The latest novel, Sweet William, though very effective, is a shade less impressive than the earlier work, partly because the mess is still there at the end….

Nostalgia would not be the right word for Bainbridge's attachment to the past; she is always looking back at something from which it was imperative to escape. But our lives are distorted like the feet of Chinese women, forever, and all Bainbridge's women are evidence of whatever it was that ruined England and made it absurdly small. (p. 42)

Frank Kermode, in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; copyright © 1976 NYREV, Inc.), July 15, 1976.

Although Beryl Bainbridge has emerged in recent years as one of the most interesting and dependable of contemporary British writers, her work has not really caught on over here…. (p. 1020)

Certainly, [she] works in a somewhat minor mode. Her fictional world is a grey, dank, and closed place. Her characters, usually discontented, lonely, and discarded working-class women, are rather limited beings, seemingly incapable of growth or change. Yet because of the care and control Miss Bainbridge exercises over her material, and because of the originality of her approach, she often seems to transcend that material. Though she develops her dark, claustrophobic little stories slowly and softly, the atmosphere she creates is unsettling, often threatening. She is to a large extent a realist, and her characters tend to be rather prosaic, but still there is something slightly off-center and crazy about her particular world. We frequently find ourselves laughing in the dark.

Sweet William, her latest novel, is certainly the least dark and bizarre of her books, far brighter and more open than either Harriet Said or The Secret Glass. In fact, with each new book Miss Bainbridge appears to be moving further away from her shadowy realm. One notices a change in her style as well. Her delivery has become increasingly precise and concise. Her pace has quickened. She now treats her pathetic women in a much more overtly comic manner. Miss Bainbridge has been most successful in The Bottle Factory Outing, in which she retained the dark qualities of her earlier books but managed to relate her story more crisply and comically than ever before. We find that same crispness and wit in Sweet William, but the characteristic menace is gone, and we do miss it. (pp. 1020-21)

Still and all, Miss Bainbridge relates her tale with such spirit and includes so many nice little comic touches and observations along the way that she succeeds in holding our interest and entertaining us as well….

Sweet William is a delightfully written book, and when it concludes we find we are affected by it more than we had anticipated. Yet it is perhaps too easy at times and too inconsequential, lacking that unsettling vision of Miss Bainbridge's earlier books. Though her ease is to be admired, one hopes that in her next book she will couple it with a return to the shadows. (p. 1021)

Ronald De Feo, "Out from the Shadows," in National Review (© National Review, Inc., 1976; 150 East 35th St., New York, N.Y. 10016), September 17, 1976, pp. 1020-21.

A Quiet Life might equally well have been named with another phrase which occurs near the end of the novel: 'A Close Family'. The family concerned—and if the surname is ever mentioned, I missed it—is indeed close: stiflingly, murderously close. Their house is effectively reduced to its kitchen by a combination of poverty (the cost of heating) and the mother's compulsive cleanliness. (p. 22)

Though at first glance A Quiet Life seems as uneventful as the title suggests, there is tremendous subterranean life. With surgical delicacy and saintly humour, Beryl Bainbridge exposes the web of repression in which this family is caught. It would be impossible here to give an account of the complex power relations among the four protagonists; but in the last analysis, all of them—even 'free' Madge—are victims rather than manipulators….

This is a subtle, moving, witty book. Its only real fault is that it reaches a dramatic climax, a convulsion of the web under extreme tension, which seems superfluous within the logic of the novel. It's the old problem of the ending: the classic pattern of crescendo and brief diminuendo is inappropriate to a lot of contemporary work, but still devilishly hard to avoid. The rest of the book is perhaps more accurate as an adolescent's perception: many overlapping rhythms, with unpredictable concentrations and relaxations, the larger pattern of events visible only in hints and glimpses. In its deft and unemphatic way, A Quiet Life is a tragic, comic, study of what has been called 'the psychosocial interior of the family'. (pp. 22-3)

Nick Totton, in The Spectator (© 1976 by The Spectator; reprinted by permission of The Spectator), October 9, 1976.