Beryl Bainbridge

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Bainbridge, Beryl (Vol. 5)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Bainbridge, Beryl 1933–

Ms Bainbridge, an English novelist, evokes in her fiction the world of Liverpool's working class with what has been called melancholy realism. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 21-22.)

[In The Dressmaker (published in America as The Secret Glass), Beryl Bainbridge has evoked] with ruthless realism the darkest days of 1944—and, a million miles away from heroics, [adumbrated] in one grim little tale the cataclysm that war created in working-class society….

To have disinterred so many nasty things in the woodshed and yet evoked a workaday image of Liverpudlian optimism and resilience, in so few claustrophobic pages, is a remarkable achievement. Miss Bainbridge's imagination pushes her towards nightmare, and her eye for detail is macabre; but because she writes with taut, matter-of-fact simplicity this seems as authentic as any contemporary image the camera has preserved of that mercifully vanished past. (p. 1101)

"Bad Old Days," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd., 1973; reproduced by permission), September 28, 1973, p. 1101.

Bainbridge's books are melancholy, provincial landscapes in which violence, like a thunderstorm, always threatens, sometimes strikes. Her characters—usually transients between the working and middle classes—wander in and out, grouping and regrouping themselves in an effort to find the most psychologically restful position. For ["The Secret Glass"], she will inevitably be compared with Jean Rhys, Muriel Spark and Iris Murdoch. But her particular sort of understatement, painstaking yet laconic, is very much her own. (pp. 75-6)

Bainbridge is a master of detail and atmosphere, superb at conveying the doggedness of Liverpool life: the oppressive slag heaps, the bomb site that was once Blacker's general store, the dinners of Spam fritters and stewed tomatoes, the young women in public lavatories rubbing sand on their legs to simulate silk stockings. "The Secret Glass" is first-rate as both a psychological and a suspense novel. We often forget how closely woven the two are—how busy life seems before a catastrophe, how mysteriously quiet during it, and how ruthlessly normal afterward. (p. 76)

Margo Jefferson, "Violence Under Glass," in Newsweek (copyright 1974 by Newsweek, Inc.; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), August 12, 1974, pp. 75-6.

Admirers of Beryl Bainbridge's "Harriet Said"… will not find that novel's gothic tension in … "The Secret Glass." [The latter] has another kind of interest; it will attract readers not for its suspense-entertainment but for its sharp character study and unrelenting Naturalism….

Gone is the eeriness, the gratuitous corruption of "Harriet Said," in which the "innocents" seeking thrills in a lonely landscape brought disaster on a man and his wife. In this book, people are too poor (except for the resented Americans) and too worried about respectability to pursue the eerie or gratuitous thrill. The Lancashire of the earlier novel, with its lonely beach and firelight scenes,… is now sobered with Realism: it is 1944, tankers are in the harbor and coal is too dear to be wasted on roaring fires illuminating sexual curiosities to be spied by bored young girls.

In "The Secret Glass"… all the deadliness, the wickedness, and even the villain (such as she is) can be tracked to the same dreary source: the narrowness of the working class ethic combined with the hatred felt toward the exotic, affluent Yanks ("pressing young girls up against the wall, mouth to mouth as if eating them") with their jeeps and supplies of cigarettes and nylons and their great dogs on metal chains.

What Miss Bainbridge has written this time is an exposure, both grim and nostalgic, of a type of existence so joyless it turns pathological….

The author is painstaking in her evocation of era and perceptive about the world of manners in working-class Liverpool. She has much to tell us about those pressure cookers of family life and limited means. And she creates...

(The entire section is 1,519 words.)