Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Beryl Bainbridge’s novel A Quiet Life begins with middle-aged Alan waiting for his sister Madge to meet him to discuss their mother’s recent death and to take their mother’s ring. Madge refuses this momento of her mother, and Alan slips into a dramatic flashback of his adolescence, which makes up the bulk of the novel.

Alan’s flashback, which takes up eight chapters, portrays his selective memory about his family. Although he reveals the painful slights and emotional injuries incurred and endured by the four family members, there seems to be an unconscious suspension of the deeper realities at home. Perhaps an element of self-pity enters into the picture; Alan’s memories are believable, however, and readers can sense that his inability to dig deeper into his past shields him from greater misery.

The novel’s title—A Quiet Life—seems to be ironic in that the family’s situation does not allow for quietude. In fact, Alan’s home life is disquieting. His memories of his seventeenth year begin with random vignettes of his day-to-day life: He recalls his mother’s constant rearranging of the furniture, the family’s typical tea-time crises, and his sister Madge’s lies about her time away from home. When his maternal grandparents and his paternal aunt arrive for a family gathering, Alan’s flashback becomes more focused. The family’s behaviors exhibited with these extended family members allow the reader to...

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A Quiet Life Context

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

A Quiet Life is a departure from the majority of Bainbridge’s work in that she features a male voice as its central consciousness. Seventeen-year-old Alan observes his emotionally damaged family and recognizes his younger sister Madge as the pivotal family member in this domestic novel. Perhaps by means of this device Bainbridge forces a more hard-edged portrayal of this young woman, tinged with certain elements of sibling rivalry.

The novel grapples with a woman’s sense of worth, her sense of emotional entrapment in a hopelessly dysfunctional setting. Both Madge and her mother initiate escapes, yet each contributes to the damaging climate in the home. Bainbridge does not let them off the hook; they are not drawn as heroic, but as realistic and flawed characters.

In many respects, A Quiet Life continues a tradition in modern literature written by English women that portrays twentieth century angst. Bainbridge captures much of the despair of cramped lives and dependence that characterizes Shelagh Delaney’s play A Taste of Honey (1959) and Jeanette Winterson’s novel Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit (1985). A notable contemporary American counterpart to Bainbridge is Anne Taylor; both authors create characters from families in which the grotesque and seriocomic are the norms.

A Quiet Life Bibliography

(Great Characters in Literature)

Bannon, Barbara A. “Beryl Bainbridge.” Publishers Weekly 209 (March 15, 1976): 6-7. In this interview, Bainbridge discusses her family and her writing process. She states that she is attracted to the Victorian period because “women knew where they were then.” Her theatrical background is noted, and her developing talent as a painter is mentioned.

Perez, Gilberto. “Narrative Voices.” The Hudson Review 30 (Winter, 1977-1978): 610-620. This review of several novels addresses A Quiet Life in passing, complaining that Alan is boring and that the limited point of view is unsuitable, holding that the first person would be more effective stylistically. The reviewer says that Madge is the more intriguing character.

Pickering, Jean. “Drabble, Byatt, Dunn, and Bainbridge: Their Lives and Their Books.” Albion 11 (1979): 197. This abstract of a paper presented at a scholarly conference describes the similarities of the four contemporary women writers. The short report notes the favorable publishing market in England for women’s fiction. In interviews, the four authors explain how they have had to juggle their careers and family lives, and they note that, as contemporaries living in London, they share a supportive literary environment.

Punter, David. “Beryl Bainbridge: The New Psychopathia.” In The Hidden Script: Writing and the Unconscious. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1985. Bainbridge’s novels are explained as “fables of psychosis” and her characters are described as stunted and bizarre. A theme of rebellion runs throughout Bainbridge’s novels, yet in A Quiet Life Alan’s rebellion results in regression and cautious claustrophobia. Alan and Madge’s relationship is worrisome to Alan throughout his adolescence and in his middle age because he senses that she has a story to tell about him and that it is potentially damaging.

Wenno, Elisabeth. Ironic Formula in the Novles of Beryl Bainbridge. Goteborg, Sweden: Acta Universitatis Gothoburgensis, 1993. Bainbridge’s fiction exhibits a “realistic simplicity” that relies on irony, the effect of which is ambiguity. These textual dimensions underscore the author’s “ethical stance.” Wenno’s study includes an extensive bibliography of newspaper reviews of Bainbridge’s novels in addition to many interviews with Bainbridge and introductory articles about her.