Study Guide

Beryl Bainbridge

Beryl Bainbridge Essay - Bainbridge, Beryl (Vol. 4)

Bainbridge, Beryl (Vol. 4)

Bainbridge, Beryl 1933–

Ms Bainbridge is a British novelist. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 21-22.)

This spare and lethal piece [The Dressmaker] must be one of the best novels of 1973. Within the most astringent limits Miss Bainbridge has created a sense of powerful emotions, has given a most tremendous sense of time and place. The writing is lithe, economical and muscular….

At no time does one get a sense that the writer has 'researched' and 'placed' her period and local colour. Pop songs, references, details of fashion, attitudes to the war and the Americans are natural and unforced. Miss Bainbridge, incidentally, uses a simple device that forces the reader to start again at the beginning immediately the last page is finished … and this is, if a touch artful, the most chilling touch of all.

Roger Baker, "'The Dressmaker,'" in Books and Bookmen, January, 1974, p. 71.

Perhaps because she writes of mean people in drab places, perhaps because her plot devices are at times so deceptively sensational that her fiction is confused with crime stories—whatever the reason, Beryl Bainbridge has been scandalously neglected. On the evidence of The Secret Glass, she is an author of extraordinary power whose touch is at once steel-hard and delicate. Indeed, she is a more remarkable, far more original writer than Lessing or Murdoch or Spark….

[The] plot of this domestic tragedy is less important than Miss Bainbridge's precision, the quiet perfection with which she renders the quality of life in this suppressed, anguished household, and her wit, which has Nellie sitting down to her Singer "like the great organ at the Palladium cinema before the war." When Rita brings the American to tea with her aunts, Margo knows instantly what sort of man he is, and Miss Bainbridge defines the menace of his heartless, animal greed by means of a bleak spareness that only a superbly gifted writer can manipulate with such awesome resonance.

So intense, pure and unsentimental is the feeling Miss Bainbridge draws from these lives of proud desperation, of pleasureless obedience to unquestioned imperatives of convention, that a great stillness comes over the reader. As we follow Nellie and Margo and Rita and Ira to their catastrophic climax, our involvement in their experience—through the novelist's brilliant shaping—becomes an act of uncluttered concentration and total assent. Judgment is there—it must be there—yet it is tempered at every point by Miss Bainbridge's knowledge and humor, her affection and pity, her unique and wholly arresting talent.

Pearl K. Bell, "The Overblown and the Overlooked," in The New Leader, September 2, 1974, pp. 17-18.

Not a confirmed thriller reader, I am not a very reliable judge of the genre, but I suspect that neither [Harriet Said nor The Secret Glass] is successful in that vein. They do not manage to keep the serious novel and the entertainment both going at once. To me they are psychological novels trapped in another genre, emotional evocations forced toward violent endings that are not implicit in the situations. The "abnormality" of Bainbridge's characters is released not by the final act of horror but by the characters' becoming briefly the center of attention.

The best of Bainbridge lies in the interior of her characters, the most important of which is the same girl who keeps recurring in different disguises. The bookish middle-class little girl of Harriet Said is the naive Rita in the working-class setting of The Secret Glass, and either or both might have grown up to be the Maggie of A Weekend with Claud, a physically and emotionally untidy young woman vibrating constantly on the edge of possibility….

[The] sense of inevitable loss—the "isolation" that … pervades the books … is far more disquieting than the conventional violent endings. More important—artistically, at least—is Bainbridge's sure sense of the conflict in her characters between self-knowledge and self-deception, between the person and the role, between the situation and its idealization. Neither of these novels is finally satisfying, but if both of them testify to a strong talent at work—and I think they do—it is because their central figures are uncertain creatures, part fact and part fancy, into whose shoes any of us could step.

Gerald Weales, "Acts of Horror," in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1974 by The New Republic, Inc.), September 28, 1974, p. 27.