Beryl Bainbridge

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Beryl Margaret Bainbridge wrote about a working-class world whose inhabitants are colorless and ineffectual. She was the daughter of Richard Bainbridge, a salesman, and his wife, Winifred. Although her father achieved a measure of success, he never forgot his working-class roots. He believed that, despite the illusions of the pleasures of home and family, working people are alone; when they die, nothing is left but a few tattered possessions, and even the places where they were born, their rented flats, and their factories, are eventually swept away by the rich.

With interruptions, Bainbridge attended the Merchant Taylor’s School in Great Crosby, England, between 1943 and 1956. She became an actress and appeared in the Liverpool Playhouse, London’s West End theaters, and repertory theaters in Windsor and Salisbury. She worked in television as host for the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) series English Journey in 1983 and Forever England in 1986. She also wrote and read stories for a children’s radio program in Manchester. In 1954, Bainbridge married an artist, Austin Davies, with whom she had three children before their divorce. She called herself a socialist, a “lapsed Catholic,” and “something of a recluse.” She eventually settled in Camden Town, London.

Bainbridge’s novels are populated with the lonely, unlucky, and discontented. They look for respectability and acceptance but often end in desperation. While the story of the elderly Jewish woman Shebah is told and retold in A Weekend with Claud, the characters betray one another and drift apart rather than find solace in community. The young boy Roland, one of the few vital characters in Another Part of the Wood, dies of a tranquilizer overdose, alone and forgotten. In Sweet William, Ann, a single girl living in Hampstead, interacts with other characters so bland and nondescript that they are hardly discernible.

The characters constantly face alienation and can find no way to escape it. At the end of Harriet Said, the girl who has been seduced by the czar is surprised that he has some affection for her. To the girl, his was a meaningless act of little emotion or consequence. Freda and Brenda in The Bottle Factory Outing live together in a threadbare flat, sleeping in a double bed with a row of books between them to cut them off from each other. In A Quiet Life, Alan’s mother leaves the family’s flat each evening and sits in a train station because her husband repulses her. After twenty years of marriage, Watson, the emotionless headmaster in Watson’s Apology, decides to leave his wife.

These novels also reflect a comic irony that at times can be inhumanly savage. Freda, who tries to seduce Vittorio and is murdered in The Bottle Factory Outing, is propped up in the back seat of a car while her roommate and other coworkers drive through the Windsor Safari Park on the company picnic. The roommate, Brenda, is in shock and chooses not to report the crime, even as the dead Freda is stuffed and pickled in spirits in an old wine barrel to be thrown overboard at sea. All is accepted as normal. After Ira is stabbed in the neck with a pair of scissors in The Dressmaker because Nellie is “annoyed” with him, she uses the same pair of scissors to help sew his shroud because it is “the least she can do.” The Quiet Life is a novel of great domestic anger and frustration, but when Alan’s father dies of a heart attack caused by this domestic pressure, Alan relates the event matter-of-factly. In Injury Time , Binny...

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and the robbers who have barricaded themselves in her apartment play an imaginary game of Ping-Pong before the window to convince the police outside that all is normal. There are no rules for the Ping-Pong game, or for the lives of the characters. Television, Binny comments, is more real than their lives.

In Young Adolf, Bainbridge portrays the young Hitler visiting relatives in Liverpool. He has no clothes except those on his back, and he suffers indignity after indignity. In Winter Garden, Ashburner, a boring, conservative lawyer, tells his wife that he is going to Scotland. Instead, he travels with his mistress to Moscow and loses her soon after they arrive. All of this is told so plainly that the horror and comedy scream at the reader.

Bainbridge was at her best describing the trivial and commonplace surrounding her characters. Wet and rusty toilets work sporadically if at all. Shins are painfully skinned on unknown objects in dark hallways. Rubenesque ladies are hot and breathless as they cram themselves into the back seats of cars. Half-smoked cigars are brought home to be cherished and slowly savored. These fictions are set in worn flats, old bottle factories, and huts in the woods that are uniformly described in flat monotone. Not much happens in the worlds of Bainbridge’s characters, except those fleeting moments of horror that are best forgotten. An exception is According to Queeney, a fascinating re-creation of the friendship between Samuel Johnson and Hester Thrale seen through the eyes of the latter’s daughter, who provides a crisp, unsentimental portrayal of this eighteenth century liaison and a sidelight not available in James Boswell’s classic biography of Johnson.

Bainbridge was a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and in 1986 received an honorary doctorate from the University of Liverpool. She was nominated for the Booker Prize for The Dressmaker in 1973 and for The Bottle Factory Outing in 1974. She received the Guardian Fiction Award for the latter, and in 1977 the Whitbread Award for Injury Time. She was once described as “one of the half-dozen most inventive and interesting novelists working in Britain.”

Bainbridge died in London on July 2, 2010.


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Beryl Margaret Bainbridge was born on November 21, 1933, in Liverpool, England, during the Great Depression. Her parents were Richard and Winifred Bainbridge, and she had an older brother. Her family moved to the town of Formby when she was still a baby. She was raised and educated in Formby. Although she was encouraged to read and write by her parents, she did not enjoy a happy home life. The stresses and strains of her early years inspired several of her books. The young Bainbridge, who wrote her first book when she was only ten years old, often used writing as a way to escape from the troubles in her home. At the age of thirteen, she produced a manuscript that would be published as the novel Filthy Lucre in 1986.

At the age of sixteen, after her expulsion from school two years earlier, Bainbridge joined the Liverpool Playhouse Company as an assistant stage manager. Many of her experiences at the theater (where she stayed until 1952) are evident in her 1989 novel, An Awfully Big Adventure.

Bainbridge married Austin Davies, an artist, in 1954. After five years and two children, however, the marriage ended in divorce. Soon after, she married the author Alan Sharp, with whom she had a daughter; that marriage, too, did not last. Bainbridge once again turned to writing as a means of escape and to provide support for herself and her children. For inspiration, she used stories from newspapers and drew from her own past.

Harriet Said, completed in 1958 but not published until 1972, was the first novel Bainbridge published as an adult. She quickly followed this novel with A Weekend with Claud, first published in 1967 and revised and republished as A Weekend with Claude in 1981. (She often revised and republished her earlier works.)

Throughout the late 1960’s and 1970’s, Bainbridge continued to use personal experience as inspiration for her writing. In 1978, she tried alternative history in her novel Young Adolf, the story of a fictional journey to Liverpool by Adolf Hitler as a teenager. Bainbridge also wrote about the life of wife murderer John Selby Watson in her 1984 novel Watson’s Apology. She did not abandon her autobiographical material during this period, however. An Awfully Big Adventure returned Bainbridge to her Liverpool roots and to her days as a young actor and stage manager.

The death of Bainbridge’s longtime editor, Colin Haycraft, in 1994 coincided with Bainbridge’s increasing turn toward historical fiction. She re-created events such as Robert Falcon Scott’s race to the South Pole in The Birthday Boys, the sinking of the Titanic in Every Man for Himself, and the Crimean War in Master Georgie.

Bainbridge also was a familiar figure on British television during the 1980’s and 1990’s. She wrote the scripts for several documentaries, including English Journey. In this program, Bainbridge led viewers in the steps of English writer J. B. Priestley as he traveled throughout his native country in 1934.

In the early twenty-first century, Bainbridge continued her ongoing fascination with the re-creation of the past in fiction. Her novel According to Queeney examined the relationship of eighteenth century writer and curmudgeon Samuel Johnson with Hester Lynch Thrale, a diarist and the wife of a prosperous beer merchant.