Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1250
Beryl Bainbridge’s novels run the gamut from thinly veiled autobiographical fiction to the strange and macabre world of murder and madness. For this reason, it is sometimes difficult for critics to provide a clear overview of her work. Nevertheless, for all their variety, Bainbridge’s works do share certain characteristic stylistic...
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- Critical Essays
Beryl Bainbridge’s novels run the gamut from thinly veiled autobiographical fiction to the strange and macabre world of murder and madness. For this reason, it is sometimes difficult for critics to provide a clear overview of her work. Nevertheless, for all their variety, Bainbridge’s works do share certain characteristic stylistic and thematic concerns.
All of the novels carry a strong sense of place, created through the use of specific and minute details. Several of Bainbridge’s books, for example, are set in postwar Liverpool. Bainbridge knows this setting well because she was a teenager in Liverpool during these same years. The depiction of working-class Liverpool is heartbreaking in its accuracy; bombed-out, gritty, and cold, Liverpool and its residents struggled through the late 1940’s and 1950’s to regain their footing. Her work is not restricted to Liverpool, however. Bainbridge is equally on target with her descriptions of the Antarctic in The Birthday Boys, the bridge of the Titanic in Every Man for Himself, and eighteenth century England in According to Queeney.
What is particularly striking is that Bainbridge’s strong and accurate evocation of place is accompanied by her ability to push the edges of narrative reliability. That is, she makes certain in her work that her reader can never be sure that the narrative voice of the novel speaks the truth. For Bainbridge, it seems, there really is no one truth, but rather competing voices, pushing individual perceptions of truth toward the reader.
Many of Bainbridge’s books provide dark humor, something that produces unease in readers. She juxtaposes death and tragedy with scenes that provoke laughter. In An Awfully Big Adventure, the main character drops the flashlight that represents Tinker Bell in a production of Peter Pan; the consternation of the children in the audience is terrible, yet funny. At the same time, one of the main characters is committing suicide offstage.
Bainbridge’s characters also tend toward the quirky, eccentric, and pathological. Rarely in her novels do readers encounter truly sympathetic characters, but her characters are rich in their complexity. Like real people, they exhibit both good and bad judgment as well as compassion and coldheartedness. Complicated and complex, Bainbridge’s characters are often not likable, but they are always interesting.
The Bottle Factory Outing
The Bottle Factory Outing, which earned for Bainbridge her first Booker Prize nomination as well as the Guardian Fiction Award in 1974, is a story of two women, Brenda and Freda, who work in a bottle factory. Bainbridge used her own experiences for this novel, having worked briefly in a bottle factory when she was younger. Although the events of the novel are purely fiction, the details are based on an actual factory environment.
Brenda is quiet, nervous, and altogether unremarkable, while Freda is bossy and manipulative. When Freda develops an attraction for one of her fellow workers, she organizes a picnic as an opportunity to spend time with the object of her affection. However, at the picnic, Freda is murdered. While Bainbridge does not typically write murder mysteries, the bizarre death of her main character is the kind of unexpected plot twist that Bainbridge’s readers have come to expect. The novel also illustrates Bainbridge’s ironic bent: Freda expects the picnic to be a sunny, warm, happy event, full of life and love; what she gets is drunkenness and death. In addition, the comic description of Freda’s coworkers disposing of her body is at odds with the horror of murder. The tendency toward black humor permeates many of Bainbridge’s later novels.
An Awfully Big Adventure
In An Awfully Big Adventure, Bainbridge once again draws on the details of her own life for her setting and plot. This novel is the story of a young Liverpool woman in post-World War II England, a time and place of unyielding deprivation and hopelessness. Stella, abandoned by her mother at birth, is being raised by her aunt and uncle, who encourage her to take a job as an assistant stage manager in a local theater company. The company provides a rich opportunity for Bainbridge to develop the quirky characters so typical of her novels.
The company is preparing to present Peter Pan, and the juxtaposition of a children’s play with the sometimes sordid and often darkly humorous plot turns underscores Bainbridge’s talent for the ironic. Further, the novel demonstrates the way that historic decisions have present consequences, an ongoing concern in Bainbridge’s work. At one point in the novel, Stella’s mother has a brief affair with an older actor, resulting in Stella’s birth. The plot of An Awfully Big Adventure winds its way through sixteen years until Stella finds herself confronting the consequences of her mother’s decisions.
In addition, Stella’s choices throughout the novel, including her penchant for speaking uncomfortable truths, lead to tragic consequences for the other members of the theater company. While many readers will find events in An Awfully Big Adventure comic, others may be uncomfortable with the close association of the humorous with emotional trauma and death.
The Birthday Boys
The 1910-1912 expedition of British explorer Robert Falcon Scott and his team provides the fodder for The Birthday Boys. Divided into five parts with five different narrators, the novel tells the story of Scott’s ill-fated race to reach the South Pole. The irony of the Scott expedition makes it the perfect setting for the novel. Scott’s men did indeed reach the South Pole, but they found that Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen had beat them to it. Scott and his team—Petty Officer Edgar Evans, Dr. Edward Wilson, Lieutenant Henry Robertson Bowers, and Captain Lawrence Edward Oates—died on the return trip, making the expedition virtually meaningless. Bainbridge’s ability to re-create historical settings and her thematic concern for the irony of life make the expedition remarkable in its irony.
Using Scott’s journals as well as the memoirs of one survivor of the expedition as her source material, Bainbridge is able to creatively imagine lives for the other men who died. By telling the story from so many perspectives and by her frequent use of flashbacks and reminiscences, the story of the Scott expedition grows increasingly contested and unreliable. The competing voices of the five narrators attest to the complexity of historical re-creation in fiction. With beautiful imagery and complete control of her subject, however, Bainbridge provides a strange yet compelling story that offers another way to examine the troubling journey.
Every Man for Himself
The sinking of the passenger steamship Titanic remains one of the most iconic events of the twentieth century. Just before midnight on April 14, 1912, the supposedly unsinkable Titanic hit an iceberg in the North Atlantic and sank within three hours, leading to a great loss of life. Bainbridge opens the story with the ship sinking and then flashes back to the previous four days of the journey. The flashback technique is one that Bainbridge uses in virtually all of her novels.
Bainbridge’s inspiration for writing the novel came from the clear irony of the ship’s construction. She uses the overconfidence of the ship’s manufacturers and owners, and contrasts that overconfidence with the suffering and pain experienced by those on the sinking ship. In addition, Bainbridge had an ongoing thematic interest in the ways that the British class system continued to sustain itself even in extreme circumstances, including during the sinking of the Titanic; that interest shows itself in the novel as well.