Beryl Bainbridge 1933-
(Full name Beryl Margaret Bainbridge) English novelist, short story writer, nonfiction writer, and screenplay writer.
The following entry presents an overview of Bainbridge's career through 1999. For further information on her life and works, see CLC, Volumes 4, 5, 8, 10, 14, 18, 22, and 62.
English author Beryl Bainbridge is best known for creating spare, morbidly humorous fiction that examines the bizarre, often violent, turns of events that reflect the tenuous, menacing quality of modern life. Drawing upon her stormy upbringing in working-class Liverpool, Bainbridge was initially known as a writer of thrillers that chronicled ordinary lives in postwar England, as in Harriet Said (1972) and The Bottle Factory Outing (1974). In subsequent novels, however, she has reenacted historical events—the Polar expedition of Robert Falcon Scott in The Birthday Boys (1991) and the sinking of the Titanic in Every Man for Himself (1996)—to great effect and critical acclaim.
Bainbridge was born in Liverpool in 1933, the daughter of Winifred Baines and Richard Bainbridge, a salesman. Her childhood was decidedly unhappy; her class-conscious mother was discontented with her working-class husband, who was moody, dictatorial, and bad-tempered, and the couple often clashed. Bainbridge began dancing at age six and worked steadily as a child performer. When at age 14 she was expelled from school for drawing a rude picture, her parents sent her to ballet school. However, she ran away to London the next year. After several years of acting, including appearances on stage, television, and radio, she returned to Liverpool and married artist Austin Davies in 1954. While pregnant with the first of her three children, Bainbridge began work on her first novel, Harriet Said. This book was completed in 1958, but editors were so appalled by its gruesome plot and amoral child characters that Bainbridge could not find a publisher for it until more than a decade later. Bainbridge put the book aside and continued to write, publishing A Weekend with Claud (1967) and Another Part of the Wood (1968). After her divorce from Davies in 1959, Bainbridge held various jobs, including a stint in a wine bottling company, which inspired The Bottle Factory Outing. In 1970 Bainbridge began working as clerk for publishers Duckworth & Company, where fiction editor Anna Haycraft befriended her and published Harriet Said in 1972. The following year, Bainbridge received a Booker Prize nomination for The Dressmaker (1973; published in America as The Secret Glass, 1974), based on the paternal aunts she knew as a child in Liverpool. Bainbridge subsequently earned Booker Prize nominations for three additional works: The Bottle Factory Outing, An Awfully Big Adventure (1989), and Every Man for Himself (1996). Bainbridge has also written several television scripts, among them adaptations of her novels Sweet William (1975) and A Quiet Life (1976). In 1983 she traveled with a television crew throughout industrial England, recording her observations in the nonfiction work English Journey (1984). In 1986 Bainbridge began writing a quirky weekly column for the London newspaper Evening Standard; these columns were subsequently collected in Something Happened Yesterday (1993). Bainbridge continues to live and write in London.
Bainbridge draws upon her maladjusted family and working-class upbringing as inspiration for much of her work. Portraits of disappointed, temperamental, manipulative men based on her father recur in her stories. Elaborate plotting, alternating points of view, and bizarre humor also characterize her fiction, in which the central dramatic device almost always involves a death or violent act. Bainbridge based Harriet Said on a news story about two Australian girls who murdered the mother of one of them. The unnamed thirteen-year-old narrator, in league with her manipulative friend Harriet, chronicles how the two girls ensnare their married neighbor Mr. Biggs in a carefully planned seduction and proceed to frame him for the murder of his wife. The book's complex narrative structure begins with the aftermath of the central crime. The narrator then recounts the events leading to the climax and neatly ends the story where it started. Bainbridge experimented with stream-of-consciousness techniques in A Weekend with Claud, a departure from her usual spare style. A photograph serves as the unifying motif of the novel, prompting Claud—the first of Bainbridge's manipulative, predatory male characters—to recall his relationship with a woman named Maggie. The book recounts Maggie's disappointing interactions with Claud and three other men in her life. Another Part of the Wood concerns Joseph, a selfish, insensitive man who brings his mistress, his son Roland, and some friends to a cabin for a weekend, setting off events that lead to Roland's death. Bainbridge considered both A Weekend with Claud and Another Part of the Wood artistic failures. As a result she revised and re-issued them in 1981 and 1979, respectively. In The Dressmaker, Bainbridge fully realized the minimalist writing style for which she is known. As in Harriet Said, the book begins and ends with the cover-up of the same murder. Seventeen-year-old Rita lives with her aunts Margo and Nellie, who are inspired by Bainbridge's own Liverpool relatives. Bainbridge creates an unnerving portrait of Rita, Margo, and Nellie's lonely, colorless lives during World War II. Rita falls in love with an American G.I. named Ira, with whom Margo also becomes involved. When Nellie finds Margo and Ira together, she stabs Ira, causing him to fall down the stairs to his death. In The Bottle Factory Outing, central characters Brenda and her friend Rita experience misadventures while planning an outing with their co-workers at the bottle factory. Bainbridge explores their desperate self-deceptions in a grotesque comedy of errors resulting in Freda's death and Brenda's discovery of her body. A typical bizarre Bainbridge plot twist has Brenda pickling Freda's body and sending it to sea in a barrel in order to minimize trouble for everyone. In A Quiet Life, Bainbridge's most autobiographical novel, the central characters Alan and his sister Madge are reunited as adults. Bainbridge uses Alan and Madge to explore the alternate reality that people create which enables them to endure their lives; Alan and Madge revisit events of their childhood, but Alan has reconstructed his story in order to cope with his past. Young Adolf (1978) was Bainbridge's first work of historical fiction. Based on an unproven account that Adolf Hitler traveled to England in his youth to visit his brother and sister-in-law, who actually lived in Liverpool around 1910, the novel chronicles a series of comic incidents that influence Hitler's later life.
An Awfully Big Adventure follows the experiences of a teenager named Stella, who serves as an apprentice at a Liverpool theater during the production of Peter Pan. In her innocence, paralleling that of Peter Pan, Stella triggers comic misunderstandings and misalliances in the theater company. Bainbridge's based her next novel, The Birthday Boys, on Sir Robert Falcon Scott's failed attempt to be the first man to reach the South Pole in 1910. In a framework constructed from alternating journal entries by each of the expedition's five members, Bainbridge explores Scott's delusional self-confidence during the ill-conceived trek and the crew's relationships among each other and with Scott. The title derives from the crew members' childish insistence on holding birthday celebrations in the middle of the Antarctic. Bainbridge presents each man as a representative of different facets of British society and of human personality, as they begin the expedition with high expectations and gradually freeze to death in the bleak Antarctic landscape. Every Man for Himself takes place on the Titanic as Morgan, a wealthy young American, travels on the doomed ship with several friends. Morgan interacts with characters such as the sinister Scurra; the beautiful and unattainable Wallis; and the earnest Adele. The rich on the Titanic show their true colors when the ship begins to go down, coinciding with Morgan's learning the truth about his life and parentage. Master Georgie (1998), another novel based on historical events, begins in England in 1846 and ends during the Crimean War in 1854. The story revolves around young George Hardy, described in alternating narratives by Myrtle, a Liverpool orphan rescued by and taken to live with the upper-class Hardy family; Dr. Potter, a geologist married to George's sister; and Pompey Jones, a street child who is befriended by Myrtle and George. Bainbridge once again uses the motif of a photograph to structure the novel, presenting each chapter as a photographic scene that relates to George and Pompey's interest in photography. Each character is inexorably linked to the selfish, careless George, and each relates a facet of George's character and his impact on themselves and the world as they journey toward disaster in the war.
Bainbridge is recognized as an accomplished raconteur of middle- and lower-middle class postwar English life and death. More recently she has won distinction for her reinterpretations of historical events, particularly in The Birthday Boys and Every Man for Himself, both of which received critical approbation. Her talent for intricate plotting, true-to-life dialogue, convincing characters, and ability to convey volumes of meaning in a single sentence has earned her strong praise from critics, inspiring comparisons to Franz Kafka, Harold Pinter, and Iris Murdock. Many reviewers consider her macabre humor and startling, violent plot twists refreshingly original. However, for other readers such devices render her books implausible and predictable, as her predilection for shocking endings has become a regular feature of her work. Some commentators have also expressed dissatisfaction with Bainbridge's overly lifelike characters, considered realistically flawed to the point of being wholly unlikable and unattractive. In addition, Bainbridge's extreme detachment from the implications of her narrative has been cited as problematic. Her tendency to refrain from judging characters that commit repugnant criminal acts, or showing the consequences of their actions, is often felt to detract from the impact of her novels. Yet, despite such criticism, Bainbridge is well regarded as an innovative and gifted writer whose explorations of the dark side of the human psyche represent an important contribution to contemporary literature. Though Bainbridge is still more popular in Britain than in the United States, some critics have begun to lobby for greater recognition and serious reevaluation of her work.
A Weekend with Claud [revised edition, 1981] (novel) 1967
Another Part of the Wood [revised edition, 1979] (novel) 1968
Harriet Said (novel) 1972
The Dressmaker [also published as The Secret Glass, 1974] (novel) 1973
The Bottle Factory Outing (novel) 1974
Sweet William (novel) 1975
A Quiet Life (novel) 1976
Injury Time (novel) 1977
Young Adolf (novel) 1978
Winter Garden (novel) 1980
English Journey, or the Road to Milton Keynes (nonfiction) 1984...
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SOURCE: “An Unsentimental Journey,” in Washington Post Book World, September 23, 1984, pp. 11, 13.
[In the following excerpted review, Thubron contrasts Bainbridge's English Journey with J. B. Priestley's 1933 book of the same title.]
In the autumn of 1933 the British novelist and playwright J. B. Priestley undertook a celebrated expedition through his own country, which resulted in his English Journey. At a time when most literary travelers were wandering the Mediterranean or were still describing an England of hedgerow land and cathedral close, Priestley confronted the country head-on. With no more than a glance at Salisbury and the Cotswolds, he...
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SOURCE: “Beryl Bainbridge: The New Psychopathia,” in The Hidden Script: Writing and the Unconscious, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1985, pp. 59-77.
[In the following essay, Punter examines the presentation of psychological trauma in Bainbridge's novels and the struggles among her characters, particularly those who are female, to deal with both familial and cultural forces of alienation, deprivation, abuse, and rejection.]
Beryl Bainbridge has acted Krafft-Ebing in response to the self-aware Freudianism of many of her fellow-writers; where Lessing, Carter, Barth, have paraded analysis, she has presented herself during the 1970s as a meticulous chronicler of...
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SOURCE: A review of Watson's Apology, in Los Angeles Times Book Review, January 12, 1986, p. 3.
[In the following review, Forscey offers favorable assessment of Watson's Apology.]
Beryl Bainbridge's 11th novel is a grim pleasure, but then so is life, and it is from life (and its documentation) that Watson's Apology is lifted.
On a Sunday afternoon in October, 1871, an elderly and respected clergyman scholar, the Rev. J. S. Watson, brutally murdered his wife Anne by cracking open her skull with a horse pistol. What British writer wouldn't find tempting material in the trial proceedings, newspaper accounts and an untidy packet of old love...
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SOURCE: “England, Our England,” in Spectator, August 22, 1987, pp. 28-9.
[In the following excerpted review, Ingrams offers positive assessment of Forever England.]
Last year I took on the task of compiling an anthology about England, since when I have been delving around among my books looking for bits and pieces that might merit inclusion. There are basically two categories. One is the writing of foreign observers like Henry James who see the country from the point of view of a tourist to whom everything is fresh and strange. The other is that of the English themselves—more rewarding from the anthologist's point of view because in writing about England they...
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SOURCE: “The Death of Tinkerbell,” in New Statesman and Society, January 5, 1990, pp. 38-9.
[In the following review, Gerrard offers tempered assessment of An Awfully Big Adventure.]
This is Beryl Bainbridge's first adult novel for five years, and initially it seems as if a sweet whiff of her writing for children curls round the edges of its chilly humour. The title harks back to jolly yarns and to Peter Pan's brave hopes; the setting is the raffish fifties society of weekly rep in Liverpool, where everyone is smeared with greasepaint and called “ducky”; the central character Stella—no star but assistant stage manager—is an aspiring actress who extracts...
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SOURCE: “With Poison Pen in Hand,” in Women's Review of Books, Vol. VIII, Nos. 10-11, July, 1991, p. 37.
[In the following review, Prose defends Bainbridge's work against demeaning critics and offers praise for An Awfully Big Adventure.]
Traditionally, the back of the book jacket is the venue for quotes from past reviews and blurbs conveying fevered, near-hysterical praise. Yet some of the praise accompanying the British novelist Beryl Bainbridge's new book, An Awfully Big Adventure, strikes one as curiously diminutive and puzzlingly restrained. New York Times Book Review calls Bainbridge “a dazzling miniaturist” while the Times Literary...
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SOURCE: “Briefly Noted,” in Belles Lettres, Vol. 7, No. 1, Fall, 1991, p. 54.
[In the following review, Schaumburger offers praise for An Awfully Big Adventure.]
If you can imagine a coming-of-age novel set in post-war Liverpool that trespasses on the macabre and metaphysical terrain of Penelope Fitzgerald and Muriel Spark, with a bow to Alfred Hitchcock and Graham Greene, then you will have some notion of Beryl Bainbridge's latest novel An Awfully Big Adventure. Despite these influences, it is still a unique work, wry and disturbing in its own way. The plot centers around the experiences of an insecure, unflinching young woman who never fails to give the...
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SOURCE: “In Scott's Footsteps,” in Times Literary Supplement, December 20, 1991, p. 24.
[In the following review, Spufford offers favorable evaluation of The Birthday Boys.]
My grandmother was born in March 1911, the month in which this novel starts. Its famous events, then, are still in one sense within the reach of living memory. While Beryl Bainbridge's “birthday boys”—“Taff” Evans, “Bill” Wilson, “Con” Scott, “Birdie” Bowers and “Titus” Oates—were ragging each other in the polar snows, and stepping out the stately dance of class divisions, and dying, my grandmother's parents ran a small Turkish Delight factory in the West Country....
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SOURCE: A review of The Birthday Boys, in New Scientist, April 11, 1992, p. 43.
[In the following review, Cross offers tempered assessment of The Birthday Boys.]
Well into the 1960s, my schoolmasters solemnly taught that Amundsen—he merited neither rank nor Christian name—beat Captain Robert Falcon Scott to the South Pole only by the most dastardly trickery.
Luckily, no era set itself up for debunking quite as much as the final decades of the British Empire. By the 1970s, the line “I am just going outside and may be some time,” had launched a thousand comic sketches. In 1979, Roland Huntford's Scott and Amundsen (later...
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SOURCE: “Introduction: Background,” in Ironic Formula in the Novels of Beryl Bainbridge, Acta Universitatis Gothoburgensis, 1993, pp. 1-8.
[In the following excerpt, Wennö discusses Bainbridge's critical underestimation and argues that her novels, though regarded as conventional narratives, actually embody sophisticated distancing techniques that call into question the illusions and constructions of literary realism.]
Little scholarly work has been done on the novels of Beryl Bainbridge despite their wide publication and readership. Apart from a few articles in literary journals1 and a discerning interpretative...
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SOURCE: “In a Cold Climate,” in Washington Post Book World, April 10, 1994, p. 7.
[In the following review, Drabelle offers favorable assessment of The Birthday Boys.]
Fifteen years ago an iconoclast struck what may be the most telling blow to an English reputation since Lytton Strachey took aim at his Eminent Victorians. The aggressor was journalist Roland Huntford. The target was Robert Falcon Scott, Scott of the Antarctic, the very incarnation of English heroism in a lost cause, whose last written words—scribbled feebly in 1912 as he and his two surviving comrades lay tentbound and starving after coming in second to the South Pole expedition led by the...
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SOURCE: “Antarctic Antics,” in New York Times Book Review, April 17, 1994, p. 15.
[In the following review, Krist offers favorable assessment of The Birthday Boys.]
“All Englishmen are virtuous,” wrote George Orwell in his novel Burmese Days—“when they are dead.” And certainly death does seem to have a remarkable effect on the moral character, regardless of the corpse's nationality. No sooner is a body cold in the ground than the eulogies begin, obscuring the psychological complexities of the living person beneath a layer of sonorous pieties. This kind of posthumous revisionism is especially pronounced in the case of soldiers, politicians,...
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SOURCE: “Sculpture of Courage,” in Chicago Tribune, June 9, 1994, p. 5.
[In the following review, Schaffer offers positive assessment of The Birthday Boys.]
Nothing punishes like the cold. If you doubt this, remember how miserable you felt just a few months ago when winter seemed endless.
Not surprisingly, some modern fiction writers have found that they can map the terrain of the human soul more accurately at horribly low temperatures, when body and mind move in slow motion.
English author Beryl Bainbridge does this skillfully in The Birthday Boys, a fictional account of Robert Falcon Scott's disastrous expedition to the...
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SOURCE: “A Writer's Dreams of Darkest Antarctica,” in Wall Street Journal, July 13, 1994, p. A12.
[In the following review, Gamerman offers praise for The Birthday Boys.]
The Antarctica of Beryl Bainbridge's novel The Birthday Boys is a land of “ice not really blue at all but shot through with spangled points of rosy light,” a land of cold so intense it can shatter a man's teeth into crumbs.
In fact, Ms. Bainbridge's novel about Robert Falcon Scott's doomed 1910 expedition to the South Pole is so convincingly icy, you might think she packed her parka and went there herself. But she confined her polar explorations to London....
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SOURCE: “Polar Adventure,” in Los Angeles Times Book Review, August 7, 1994, pp. 10, 15.
[In the following review, Freeman offers favorable assessment of The Birthday Boys.]
The Birthday Boys, a new novel by the English author Beryl Bainbridge, is an imagined account of Capt. Robert Falcon Scott's expedition to the South Pole in 1912, told in the voices of Scott and four men who followed him to their deaths. In each account a birthday is celebrated, or mentioned—thus the title. It's an ironic touch by a novelist noted for her droll humor. A darker, more tragic story couldn't be masquerading under a more jovial veneer.
I read The...
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SOURCE: “Awfully Small Adventures,” in Times Literary Supplement, January 6, 1995, p. 20.
[In the following review, Clark offers tempered evaluation of Bainbridge's Collected Stories.]
Beryl Bainbridge is a prolific and highly accomplished writer, not simply in terms of the volume of her output—she has fourteen novels and five television plays to her credit—but also because of the range of ideas it displays. She seems capable of pressing her distinctive style into the service of the most inspired of plot structures, but is not entirely keen on the short story as a vehicle for her ingenuity. We know this because in a piece in this collection, entitled “How I...
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SOURCE: “Before the Deluge,” in New Statesman, September 13, 1996, p. 46.
[In the following review, Cooke offers favorable assessment of Every Man for Himself.]
“Though not vain, I'm aware that my outward appearance raises expectations.” Thus 22-year-old Morgan, narrator of Beryl Bainbridge's novel: a gilded youth aspiring to significance, a romantic, hopeless with girls, a Wooster looking for a Jeeves. His uncle owns the shipping line shortly to launch the miracle of the age, the unsinkable Titanic.
On 8 August 1912 Morgan travels to Southampton to join his chums for the maiden voyage. Melchett and Van Hopper complain they wasted three...
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SOURCE: “It Was Sad When That Great Ship Went Down,” in Spectator, September 14, 1996, p. 35.
[In the following review, Gardam offers positive assessment of Every Man for Himself.]
Beryl Bainbridge's first novel in five years is a short, taut piece of historical fiction, an account of the classic tragedy of the sinking in 1912 of the ‘unsinkable’ Titanic on her maiden voyage to America.
Every novel, of course, unless it is pure fable or allegory, is a historical novel. There is no present moment. Describe a current fashion or event—the gold ring in the navel, the heart-disease of Mr Yeltsin—and at once it is in the past. We need the...
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SOURCE: “It Was Sad,” in New Yorker, October 14, 1996, pp. 94-98.
[In the following excerpted review, Updike discusses the Titanic disaster and Bainbridge's fictional recreation of the tragedy in Every Man for Himself.]
The R.M.S. (Royal Mail Steamer) Titanic, whose sinking, more than eighty-four years ago, made the biggest news splash of the new century, still generates headlines. The discovery of the wreck, in 1985, three hundred and seventy miles southeast of Newfoundland and two and a half miles below the surface of the Atlantic, by a team of scientists from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and the Institut Français de Recherche pour...
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SOURCE: “Titanic Resurfaces in Yet Another Novel,” in Chicago Tribune, November 22, 1996, p. 3.
[In the following review, Heller offers positive assessment of Every Man for Himself.]
The most famous shipwreck of our century has launched its own literary genre. Walter Lord, who penned the 1955 best seller A Night to Remember, “recently remarked, without much exaggeration, that a new book about the Titanic disaster is published every week,” writes Steven Biel in Down With the Old Canoe, a cultural history of the disaster published a few weeks ago.
Sure enough, this week's Titanic volume is British novelist...
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SOURCE: “Ship of Fools,” in Los Angeles Times Book Review, November 24, 1996, p. 6.
[In the following review, Heeger posts a positive assessment of Every Man for Himself.]
Its very name described its lordliness on the sea. So vast its passengers got lost on it, so strong it was thought invincible, the Titanic remains one of the most compelling images of prideful folly in modern maritime history. Who doesn't know the story of its maiden voyage and midnight meeting with an iceberg, chandeliers blazing, orchestra tootling out ragtime? Two hours later, mortally wounded, the great double-hulled wonder heeled over and sank, sucking 1,500 people to watery graves....
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SOURCE: “History As You Have Never Seen It Before,” in New Statesman, May 1, 1998, p. 59.
[In the following review, Saunders offers praise for Master Georgie.]
Some well-established novelists, garlanded with praise and blunted by success, become tired or lazy, or allow their once zeitgeisty voices to date. Not Beryl Bainbridge, who gets better and better. Master Georgie completes a trilogy of remarkable historical novels, following The Birthday Boys and Every Man For Himself.
The novels themselves have no links, except that they revisit events overburdened with legend—Scott's last expedition, the sinking of the...
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SOURCE: “Worth Reading Twice,” in Commonweal, November 6, 1998, p. 26.
[In the following review, Murtaugh offers favorable evaluation of Master Georgie.]
Beryl Bainbridge's Master Georgie pursues the interests and, to some extent, the methods of her two previous historical novels, The Birthday Boys (1995) and Every Man for Himself (1996). Those two novels dealt with memorable events of 1912: the fatal expedition to the South Pole led by Robert Falcon Scott and the sinking of the Titanic. These disasters were celebrated in England for their displays of chivalry in extremis, the attractive, manly imprudence and amateurism which, to...
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SOURCE: “Expiration Dates,” in New York Times Book Review, November 29, 1998, p. 5.
[In the following review, Prose gives positive evaluation of Master Georgie.]
Beryl Bainbridge's novels are like elegant teacups that contain a strong dark, possibly sinister but remarkable brew. Models of compression, they show us how much (character, plot, subplot, psychology, wit and depth) can be poured into a thin, deceptively delicate vessel. For over 30 years, her best books—from Harriet Said and The Bottle Factory Outing to An Awfully Big Adventure—have resisted the tide that has caused so much modern fiction to bobble, inflated and bloated, in...
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SOURCE: “A Unique and Haunting Vision of Wartime Chaos and Death,” in Chicago Tribune, December 7, 1998, p. 3.
[In the following review, Gallagher offers favorable assessment of Master Georgie.]
In this short, melancholy tale, British novelist Beryl Bainbridge all but reinvents the historical genre. Gone are moments of derring-do; gone, too, any notions of simple, linear plot. In their place, Bainbridge delivers a fitful, episodic story of death, disease and unfulfilled longing.
The Master Georgie of her title is George Hardy, a surgeon and amateur photographer in England during the 1840s and '50s. He is assigned to the British army during its...
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SOURCE: “Pictures From an Expedition,” in Women's Review of Books, Vol. XVI, No. 4, January, 1999, pp. 5-6.
[In the following review, Pool offers tempered praise for Master Georgie, citing shortcomings in the novel's contrived events and characterizations.]
In her two previous novels, The Birthday Boys and Every Man for Himself, Beryl Bainbridge took her fiction in a new direction, creating a distinctive kind of historical novel. Like all of her books, these were slender works, not so much small as concentrated: it has always seemed to me that a Bainbridge sentence carries twice the information of the ordinary variety, and she practices a...
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SOURCE: “Yes, There'll Always Be An England, or Two,” in New York Times, August 5, 1999, p. E10.
[In the following review of Forever England, Lehmann-Haupt finds weakness in Bainbridge's generalizations, though interest in her autobiographic reminiscences.]
Considering the differences between the North and the South in the United States, one might find it hard to believe that in relatively compact England similar disparities are thought to hold true. Yet that is the subject of Beryl Bainbridge's quirky new book, Forever England. As the author explains in her preface, the book is based on a television series “which, in an attempt to examine the roots...
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