Bainbridge, Beryl 1933–
Bainbridge is an English novelist, playwright, and essayist. Her fictional world is a drab, claustrophobic one, peopled by unhappy, unlucky denizens of the lower middle class. The dreariness of subject and setting is, however, relieved by her satiric wit and spirited dialogue. (See also CLC, Vols. 4, 5, 8, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 21-24, rev. ed.)
Muting her technique to match her subject, [in "A Quiet Life" Beryl Bainbridge] works with the sly precision of a trap. Early on she plants a foreboding that something explosive is stirring beneath the surface of her characters' lives. They are a family of four living on the west coast of Britain shortly after World War II. There are still undetected mines in the woods and father wears his air raid warden's uniform for doing odd jobs. The obsolete gear draws ironic attention to the difficulties of parrying crossfire on the domestic front.
Events are seen through the eyes of Alan, the high-strung 17-year-old son, whose defense against unwelcome news is a refusal to hear. "I don't want to know," he says. "Shut up." "I'm not listening."
But secrets trickle out. Because the reader knows only what Alan knows, learning things in driblets, he shares the boy's sense of shock….
These are quiet lives and she portrays them without narrative pyrotechnics. Tragedy comes in subdued guise and brings no sense of release. What happens is that Alan's father dies of a heart attack brought on partly by marital jealousy, partly by his family's indifference and, most immediately, by Alan's exasperated lapse into candor to tell him that mother has no lover and only leaves the house at night to sit in the station waiting room. "'She can't stand being in the same room with you,' cries Alan…. 'You make her flesh...
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Binny [protagonist of Injury Time] …, mother of three, husbandless, in her mid-forties, is not the first Beryl Bainbridge heroine to be afflicted with an indignant sense that her life is not under control—her own or anyone else's. At times indignation rises to terror though more often it's bad temper; except when drink or, less often, a moment's offguard tenderness releases her, she is usually trembling, alert to some imminent slight or outrage. She can't go shopping without seeing or suspecting nastiness of one kind or another. (p. 57)
We know by now the deadly striking power of the Bainbridge sentence, the exactness of her social horror show. This is as good as ever: the jokes are funny in the 'I could have died' style. Indeed, 'I could have died' lurks inside each of the overburdened, slightly malfunctioning frames she has given her middle-aged characters. I'm not entirely carried away, though, by the move towards plot—or perhaps it is a device for turning a novella, just, into a novel. Binny, Edward and their friends are thrust into real adventure, risk and violence: 'I could have died' begins to look like an outside threat, as a group of gunmen invade the house, pursued by the police. Of course it gives her a chance to have some satirical fun about television sociologists' attitudes to criminals, and her local effects are as sharp as one could wish. A rape evokes one large tear from the left eye, a rather distant sense of responsibility and 'she wasn't even young enough … to feel sorry for herself'. It's believable, if not what women are currently supposed to come up with. But the fact is criminals do remain ineffectual stereotypes and although they inconvenience their victims they don't advance very far into the reader's imagination: they are clearly a device, and a device that is going nowhere. And so the book loses momentum. (p. 58)
Claire Tomalin, "Trite Finish," in The New Review (© The New Review Ltd., 11 Greek Street, London WIV 5LE), November, 1977, pp. 57-8.
[It's] from Harriet said …, the first to be written, back in the Fifties, and eventually published … in 1972, that the Bainbridge oeuvre as we know it today begins.
Six almost slim volumes … of a surprising uniformity…. In the Seventies Miss Bainbridge seems to be repeating what Mrs Spark was doing in the Sixties, giving us one brief, beautifully turned book after the other.
This year the product is entitled Injury Time, which immediately demonstrated the authoress's feeling for the mood of the day, her perfect ear for its idiom: a term derived from the twentieth century's chosen religion, football, here very effectively and outrageously applied to the middle age of human beings of the western urbanised, upper-lower-middle-class, bruised-but-still-battling-on variety, whom Miss Bainbridge has made it her speciality to portray….
Perhaps Binny and her Edward epitomise Western society itself, but however that may be, here Miss Bainbridge, again sensing exactly what's wanted, has them and their dinner-party guests taken hostage in Binny's house by a gang of bank-robbers who are being chased by the police. What topic more topical? I wrote 'however that may be', but it occurs to me that this makes it all the more likely still that this dilapidated, illicit, ill-assorted, ever-warring, internecine couple, Binny and Edward, does, whether the author intended it or not, symbolise All Europe Now. Or, at very least, a bewildered Britannia and John Bull.
Miss Bainbridge would be the last novelist in London to be portentous or to appear for one moment to be coming along with a message and writing a series of novels on a Grand Theme. Yet the more I read her the more I suspect that the grip her work has taken on us, the ease with which she has won us, the enthusiasm with which the critics (most of them) greet her work,—the more I suspect that this is not merely due to her being an exquisite entertainer—a star performer, in fact, who can get away with anything, Grand Guignol included, a deliciously preposterous humorist and a very, very clever writer, but also to the powerful...
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The limited point of view of a character can be a tiresome device, especially when it is used ironically by an author who clearly knows better than the character we are limited to. The character we are stuck with in another new English novel, Beryl Bainbridge's A Quiet Life, is a boring adolescent boy, a conformist to the absurdly genteel standards of his family, while the more interesting character, his rebellious younger sister, is off somewhere on the beach most of the time…. My feeling reading this book was that I wanted to get out of there, out of that house where the parents quarrel all the time, out of that boy's point of view…. This book might have been more interesting if it had been done in the first person, Faulkner-style, in the fumbling words of a repressed adolescent; as it is we get the author's knowing third-person prose. (pp. 610-11)
Gilberto Perez, in The Hudson Review (copyright © 1977 by The Hudson Review, Inc.; reprinted by permission), Vol. XXX, No. 4, Winter, 1977–78.
Beryl Bainbridge's A Quiet Life [is a success]. The quintessential family novel, its tiny world is confined to Mother, Father, and daughter Madge. It is son Alan through whose flawed vision we see the rest of the family. Madge, by an obscure miracle of valor and will, has managed to rescue a small part of honesty, feeling, and humor from the tight prison of the childhood which Alan recalls in his memoir of a dreary, postwar Lancashire seaside town. Poverty and dishonor are both personal—the result of Father's unsound business practices—and the general lot of the country at large. The family is locked inside its middle-class gentilities; yearning for better things, for romance, new hats, social status, money, a bit of fun, a bit of love, its members jangle hilariously against each others' suspicions and expectations. The father is frantic with a passion of jealousy for the mother, who escapes it, and at the same time keeps it alive as the only romance in view, by reading novels in secret at the railway station…. When Mother and Father accompany Alan and his girl-friend Janet for a walk,
[Mother] took Father's arm at first, leaving Alan and Janet to walk behind, but she was moved by a show of daffodils…. She stepped backwards, neatly severing the two of them asunder and clung to Janet's arm, pointing at the yellow flowers stiffly bordering the patch of lawn.
"Look at them," she cried. "Oooh, look at that hydrangea." Haltingly they proceeded down the lane towards the railway crossing. "Winter's dying," she proclaimed, tilting her bright face to the sky and stumbling in her high-heeled shoes.
The lyric mixture of Freud and histrionics which structures the passage pervades the whole novel, a satirical, understated memento of the pathetic poetry of the characters' attempts to escape the obsessions which govern them. In its cool look backward, A Quiet Life informs the cause of feminism…. Madge can embrace her freedom, as she could embrace her brief, illicit passion for a German prisoner-of-war, only outside the confines of respectability and therefore outside the confines of the novel. In their eccentricities the characters are touching; in their childlike behavior, their isolation, their pain. (pp. 262-63)
Edith Milton, in The Yale Review (© 1977 by Yale University; reprinted by permission of the editors), Winter, 1978.
Beryl Bainbridge writes horror-comics. She is ruthlessly funny about drab, even squalid, lives which are interrupted and changed for ever by some unexpected event—a violent death, an unsuitable love affair, or, as in Injury Time, a kidnapping. Her dramas are played on an untidy, cluttered stage where dishes are piled high in the sink, where ashtrays or, more likely, saucers, are overflowing, and where neither vacuum cleaner nor carpet sweeper can be relied on to work properly. Her male characters are often bombastic, ineffectual and insensitive. Her women tend to be zany, easily deceived and sluttish: they are capable of making perceptive, imaginative comments about love, marriage, old age and death, but they...
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Macbeth's was perhaps the most memorable, but from the time of Hrothgar's, which lasted several nights, to the time of Gatsby's, which went on till dawn, the disastrous dinner party has been as much a cliché of dramatic and narrative literature as it is an unfortunate fact of social life. I suppose the fictional violation of our most amiable ritual serves to emphasize the horrors of less amiable impulses, as the son is served up in a ragout, the warming-cover lifted to reveal the severed head or the pet budgerigar.
More frequently still, disaster at the table is merely funny, a forceful image of our ineptness as social beings…. We know, before it appears, the destination of the banana cream pie....
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