Beryl Bainbridge

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Bainbridge, Beryl 1933–

Bainbridge is an English novelist, playwright, and essayist. Her fictional world is a drab, claustrophobic one, peopled by unhappy, unlucky denizens of the lower middle class. The dreariness of subject and setting is, however, relieved by her satiric wit and spirited dialogue. (See also CLC, Vols. 4, 5, 8, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 21-24, rev. ed.)

Julia O'Faolain

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Muting her technique to match her subject, [in "A Quiet Life" Beryl Bainbridge] works with the sly precision of a trap. Early on she plants a foreboding that something explosive is stirring beneath the surface of her characters' lives. They are a family of four living on the west coast of Britain shortly after World War II. There are still undetected mines in the woods and father wears his air raid warden's uniform for doing odd jobs. The obsolete gear draws ironic attention to the difficulties of parrying crossfire on the domestic front.

Events are seen through the eyes of Alan, the high-strung 17-year-old son, whose defense against unwelcome news is a refusal to hear. "I don't want to know," he says. "Shut up." "I'm not listening."

But secrets trickle out. Because the reader knows only what Alan knows, learning things in driblets, he shares the boy's sense of shock….

These are quiet lives and she portrays them without narrative pyrotechnics. Tragedy comes in subdued guise and brings no sense of release. What happens is that Alan's father dies of a heart attack brought on partly by marital jealousy, partly by his family's indifference and, most immediately, by Alan's exasperated lapse into candor to tell him that mother has no lover and only leaves the house at night to sit in the station waiting room. "'She can't stand being in the same room with you,' cries Alan…. 'You make her flesh creep.'"…

Murderers in Mrs. Bainbridge's novels are never brought to book. This time she goes further than before in stripping down the murder-story mechanism until all that is left is the build-up of suspense and suspicion that goads readers to try assigning blame. But censoriousness boomerangs. Responsibility here is too diffuse to be pinned on anyone unless we set up standards by which it would be uncomfortable to live. The author's trap closes as neatly on the reader as it did on Alan. Moral murders like that of his father must be common in quiet lives.

The novel itself is quiet: a feat of concealed craft. It is hard to deal with semi-articulate people without either short-changing them or boring the reader, and it must have been harder still to tell the story through the consciousness of someone as fact-shy as Alan. Mrs. Bainbridge turns the disability into a tool. Alan's flinching apprehension speeds the pace and gives it a life-like rhythm. His strobe-light vision allows sharp focus, flashes of intelligence and believable returns to bewilderment. Clothes define their wearer: trays of paste jewelry for sad, aspiring mother; impenetrable vests for the girl with whom Alan fails to find passion in the woods; the incongruous old A.R.P. uniform for father to die as he lived, a misfit. Twenty-five years later, when Alan has become a replica of his parents, the anarchic Madge, still refusing the bonds of adulthood, turns up in a school coat.

Such devices help Mrs. Bainbridge catch the essential selves of her lower middle-class people, while respecting their reticence. Her ear for speech seems to me perfect. Her 1940's are authentically drab but returning to them in her company is a delight. She is a subtle and protean writer.

Julia O'Faolain, "Getting Away with Murder," in The New York Times Book...

(This entire section contains 561 words.)

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Review(© 1977 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), March 20, 1977, p. 6.

Claire Tomalin

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Binny [protagonist of Injury Time] …, mother of three, husbandless, in her mid-forties, is not the first Beryl Bainbridge heroine to be afflicted with an indignant sense that her life is not under control—her own or anyone else's. At times indignation rises to terror though more often it's bad temper; except when drink or, less often, a moment's offguard tenderness releases her, she is usually trembling, alert to some imminent slight or outrage. She can't go shopping without seeing or suspecting nastiness of one kind or another. (p. 57)

We know by now the deadly striking power of the Bainbridge sentence, the exactness of her social horror show. This is as good as ever: the jokes are funny in the 'I could have died' style. Indeed, 'I could have died' lurks inside each of the overburdened, slightly malfunctioning frames she has given her middle-aged characters. I'm not entirely carried away, though, by the move towards plot—or perhaps it is a device for turning a novella, just, into a novel. Binny, Edward and their friends are thrust into real adventure, risk and violence: 'I could have died' begins to look like an outside threat, as a group of gunmen invade the house, pursued by the police. Of course it gives her a chance to have some satirical fun about television sociologists' attitudes to criminals, and her local effects are as sharp as one could wish. A rape evokes one large tear from the left eye, a rather distant sense of responsibility and 'she wasn't even young enough … to feel sorry for herself'. It's believable, if not what women are currently supposed to come up with. But the fact is criminals do remain ineffectual stereotypes and although they inconvenience their victims they don't advance very far into the reader's imagination: they are clearly a device, and a device that is going nowhere. And so the book loses momentum. (p. 58)

Claire Tomalin, "Trite Finish," in The New Review (© The New Review Ltd., 11 Greek Street, London WIV 5LE), November, 1977, pp. 57-8.

James Brockway

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[It's] from Harriet said …, the first to be written, back in the Fifties, and eventually published … in 1972, that the Bainbridge oeuvre as we know it today begins.

Six almost slim volumes … of a surprising uniformity…. In the Seventies Miss Bainbridge seems to be repeating what Mrs Spark was doing in the Sixties, giving us one brief, beautifully turned book after the other.

This year the product is entitled Injury Time, which immediately demonstrated the authoress's feeling for the mood of the day, her perfect ear for its idiom: a term derived from the twentieth century's chosen religion, football, here very effectively and outrageously applied to the middle age of human beings of the western urbanised, upper-lower-middle-class, bruised-but-still-battling-on variety, whom Miss Bainbridge has made it her speciality to portray….

Perhaps Binny and her Edward epitomise Western society itself, but however that may be, here Miss Bainbridge, again sensing exactly what's wanted, has them and their dinner-party guests taken hostage in Binny's house by a gang of bank-robbers who are being chased by the police. What topic more topical? I wrote 'however that may be', but it occurs to me that this makes it all the more likely still that this dilapidated, illicit, ill-assorted, ever-warring, internecine couple, Binny and Edward, does, whether the author intended it or not, symbolise All Europe Now. Or, at very least, a bewildered Britannia and John Bull.

Miss Bainbridge would be the last novelist in London to be portentous or to appear for one moment to be coming along with a message and writing a series of novels on a Grand Theme. Yet the more I read her the more I suspect that the grip her work has taken on us, the ease with which she has won us, the enthusiasm with which the critics (most of them) greet her work,—the more I suspect that this is not merely due to her being an exquisite entertainer—a star performer, in fact, who can get away with anything, Grand Guignol included, a deliciously preposterous humorist and a very, very clever writer, but also to the powerful subconscious appeal of her subject matter: our present parlous postwar condition.

So far these six novels fall into two groups: Harriet said … (1) The Dressmaker (2) and A Quiet Life (5) are set in a grey and grubby Lancashire in the war and early postwar years, the era of Bainbridge's girlhood; while the other three: The Bottle Factory Outing (3) Sweet William (4) and now Injury Time (6) are set in tatty London in our own tatty time. Yet there are thematic links (the main one: the psychological warfare perpetually proceeding among humans), while the action is always more or less the same: frustration within the confines of lower-class would-be respectability which must sooner or later lead to violent eruption; and the setting too, whether in Lancashire or London: a family, or environment, either bursting at the seams with pent-up emotion or already in ruins, with the characters fighting it out frantically among the rubble. It's a shambles. It's a battlefield.

Here I am reminded once again of Muriel Spark, especially in Bainbridge's London novels, and particularly of the title of an early short piece of Spark's: You Should Have Seen the Mess. Again like Spark, who has often taken press reports (of rapes, murders, kidnappings, swindles) as the framework or departure point of her novels, Bainbridge, in this new novel, makes use of the taking of hostages in their humble homes, but not, of course, for the interest inherent in such a situation but to illustrate, by means of it, her characters' psychology and the absurdity of their reactions. Our absurdity….

[Injury Time] has the ingredients and set-up for a satirical social comedy and, since it is in Bainbridge's hands, for a very knock-about comedy too. There is a very great deal of knocking-about in this oeuvre. Not only do nervous agitated lovers tend to bark their shins on bicycles propped up in narrow hallways, but people have even been known, when not hurling abuse at one another's heads, to switch to throwing stones, while, if need be, assault and battery are taken as far as manslaughter. Frustration must out, so violence is in.

In Injury Time there are a few signs, as in the immoderately praised The Bottle Factory Outing, of invention and ingenuity proceeding beyond the bounds of the likely or credible, signs here and there of strain, but on the whole the story is handled with resource, gusto and a marvellous adroitness. That it ends abruptly merely illustrates that it is not the story and situation which matter to Bainbridge but the opportunity they offer her to display the comic absurdity of her characters and to satirise the society which has produced both them and the situation they find themselves in.

It is in her use of language, however, that Beryl Bainbridge's main strength lies, the hawklike, devastating accuracy with which she swoops down on always the exactly right word. Laugh if you will, but I think she is our 1970s Oscar Wilde. Not so preposterous a comparison, after all, when one considers that he was the beaming satirist of the class which was in power in his time, while she is the poker-faced satirist of the upper-lower-middle-class in power today.

James Brockway, "Penalty Areas," in Books and Bookmen (© copyright James Brockway 1977; reprinted with permission), December, 1977, p. 52.

Gilberto Perez

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The limited point of view of a character can be a tiresome device, especially when it is used ironically by an author who clearly knows better than the character we are limited to. The character we are stuck with in another new English novel, Beryl Bainbridge's A Quiet Life, is a boring adolescent boy, a conformist to the absurdly genteel standards of his family, while the more interesting character, his rebellious younger sister, is off somewhere on the beach most of the time…. My feeling reading this book was that I wanted to get out of there, out of that house where the parents quarrel all the time, out of that boy's point of view…. This book might have been more interesting if it had been done in the first person, Faulkner-style, in the fumbling words of a repressed adolescent; as it is we get the author's knowing third-person prose. (pp. 610-11)

Gilberto Perez, in The Hudson Review (copyright © 1977 by The Hudson Review, Inc.; reprinted by permission), Vol. XXX, No. 4, Winter, 1977–78.

Edith Milton

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Beryl Bainbridge's A Quiet Life [is a success]. The quintessential family novel, its tiny world is confined to Mother, Father, and daughter Madge. It is son Alan through whose flawed vision we see the rest of the family. Madge, by an obscure miracle of valor and will, has managed to rescue a small part of honesty, feeling, and humor from the tight prison of the childhood which Alan recalls in his memoir of a dreary, postwar Lancashire seaside town. Poverty and dishonor are both personal—the result of Father's unsound business practices—and the general lot of the country at large. The family is locked inside its middle-class gentilities; yearning for better things, for romance, new hats, social status, money, a bit of fun, a bit of love, its members jangle hilariously against each others' suspicions and expectations. The father is frantic with a passion of jealousy for the mother, who escapes it, and at the same time keeps it alive as the only romance in view, by reading novels in secret at the railway station…. When Mother and Father accompany Alan and his girl-friend Janet for a walk,

[Mother] took Father's arm at first, leaving Alan and Janet to walk behind, but she was moved by a show of daffodils…. She stepped backwards, neatly severing the two of them asunder and clung to Janet's arm, pointing at the yellow flowers stiffly bordering the patch of lawn.

"Look at them," she cried. "Oooh, look at that hydrangea." Haltingly they proceeded down the lane towards the railway crossing. "Winter's dying," she proclaimed, tilting her bright face to the sky and stumbling in her high-heeled shoes.

The lyric mixture of Freud and histrionics which structures the passage pervades the whole novel, a satirical, understated memento of the pathetic poetry of the characters' attempts to escape the obsessions which govern them. In its cool look backward, A Quiet Life informs the cause of feminism…. Madge can embrace her freedom, as she could embrace her brief, illicit passion for a German prisoner-of-war, only outside the confines of respectability and therefore outside the confines of the novel. In their eccentricities the characters are touching; in their childlike behavior, their isolation, their pain. (pp. 262-63)

Edith Milton, in The Yale Review (© 1977 by Yale University; reprinted by permission of the editors), Winter, 1978.

John Mellors

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Beryl Bainbridge writes horror-comics. She is ruthlessly funny about drab, even squalid, lives which are interrupted and changed for ever by some unexpected event—a violent death, an unsuitable love affair, or, as in Injury Time, a kidnapping. Her dramas are played on an untidy, cluttered stage where dishes are piled high in the sink, where ashtrays or, more likely, saucers, are overflowing, and where neither vacuum cleaner nor carpet sweeper can be relied on to work properly. Her male characters are often bombastic, ineffectual and insensitive. Her women tend to be zany, easily deceived and sluttish: they are capable of making perceptive, imaginative comments about love, marriage, old age and death, but they may well have forgotten to change their underwear for several days and they will almost certainly not have cleaned the oven in the cooker or de-frosted the fridge for months.

Bainbridge is at her most successful, I feel, when she disciplines her inventiveness and does not allow too much to happen. In The Bottle Factory Outing she got carried away. In A Quiet Life she kept her talents under control, and the result was far more credible. Credibility is maintained in Injury Time until just into the second half; after that, weak refereeing by the author lets the game get out of hand. (p. 93)

To be fair, if Injury Time had been Bainbridge's first novel one would have greeted it with enthusiastic acclaim. She is a writer who creates her own special climate. For Binny, 'the world was menacing and full of alarms', and that is Bainbridge's world, too, the world of the menopause when 'all the big issues were over and done with.'… (p. 94)

John Mellors, in London Magazine (© London Magazine 1977), January, 1978.

Edith Milton

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Macbeth's was perhaps the most memorable, but from the time of Hrothgar's, which lasted several nights, to the time of Gatsby's, which went on till dawn, the disastrous dinner party has been as much a cliché of dramatic and narrative literature as it is an unfortunate fact of social life. I suppose the fictional violation of our most amiable ritual serves to emphasize the horrors of less amiable impulses, as the son is served up in a ragout, the warming-cover lifted to reveal the severed head or the pet budgerigar.

More frequently still, disaster at the table is merely funny, a forceful image of our ineptness as social beings…. We know, before it appears, the destination of the banana cream pie. Nor are we surprised, in Beryl Bainbridge's Injury Time, to find the chops overdone and the dessert, in-side a plastic bag, fallen behind the fridge. She has chosen a time-honored vehicle for her comedy.

But she has also chosen a dessert which is not a pie; it is instead, foil wrapped, raisin stuffed apples, as yet unbaked, one of which becomes, in due course, a missile for her protagonist's frustration. He wanted pie. And the image of him heaving an apple across the room like a grenade is one of many examples of the book's fascinating marriage of the two traditions of dining disaster: the Gothic tradition of violence invading an intimate ceremony of comfort and friendship, and the comic tradition of the bumbling hostess and the guests who are not what they pretend to be.

The hostess in this case is Binny, a divorcée on the threshold of menopause, who has persuaded her married lover, Edward, that it is time for him to invite some "close friend" to dinner. Agreeing in principle, but far too conventional to risk even distant friends, Edward asks a business acquaintance whose wife he has never met. Edward, who is a tax accountant, is dismayed by the dishevelment in which Binny lives, her casual housekeeping, her tremulous upbringing of three adolescents, her middle-aged skin, but he tends to pretend that his disapproval is really being felt by someone else….

The scene is familiar enough; halfway between Wycherley and "I Love Lucy." But is played on a stage set for a larger, darker drama, with a backdrop of Northwest London in decay, and, beyond that, rumors of a world disrupted by violence. Television brings the themes and temper of the times into Binny's living room. "Between placing the kettle on the gas and water coming to the boil, whole cities disintegrated, populations burned. A thousand deaths, real and fictional, had been enacted before her eyes." Binny is poorer than Edward and less educated, and her resentment of his exploitation of her, sexual and social, echoes a resentment common to our day. (p. 27)

All day, as she prepares her middle-class, three-course dinner, for which neither her talents nor her world are suited, violence and anarchy hover in the corner of Binny's perception. They are implicit in the eggshells strewn over the hedge, and the neighbors fornicating behind the dustbins; they are explicit in a robbery which goes on quietly as Binny draws money from the bank. Finally they burst full upon her, in the shape of the four desperadoes who, the bank job accomplished, have failed to meet at the appointed rendezvous, and now find themselves regrouping in Binny's kitchen. They arrive, needless to say, already pursued by the police, in the middle of her dinner party, and immediately seize the four diners as hostages.

In their roles of criminals, they are having difficulties of their own which pretty much parallel the difficulties their hostages have playing good citizens…. It is apparently as hard for the thieves to behave with appropriate criminality as it is for their victims to adhere to the spirit of the laws of England. (pp. 27-8)

Younger than their hostages, the criminals play their game by slightly different rules. Ginger, who is shocked by Edward's connubial hypocrisy, takes sex, like cash, the most direct way, without any unnecessary intervention of work, emotion or pleasure. He is the emanation not only of London's decay, but, in spirit, the child of the middle-aged people gathered at Binny's table, the inevitable man of the future. Above all, he is the "wayward young man in westerns and gangster movies and war films," the message of television made flesh.

For clearly the world of Binny and her guests is past, and the game with these desperadoes, the footloose, feckless present, already lost. Still, they try to play on. But what is the game, and what are the rules? Binny compares their lives to a football match, already decided, in which the players, "Short of breath and flecked with mud, trembling in every limb," wait for the final whistle. The rules of marriage, affairs, raising children, keeping house, seem not to have worked. Edward, trained by a life of cricket and tax evasion, plays better than the others, and at one point organizes a ping-pong match at the lighted window of Binny's bedroom, to convince the police watching outside, that inside all is well.

But inside all is not well. There is, to begin with, no ping-pong ball. The match is mere illusion, its purpose so obscure as to escape all sense. The characters, desperate for a modus vivendi, or a modus ludendi, tend to put their trust upon delusions and on what they think other people think of them. Television is believable, but Binny finds reality quite unconvincing. And all of them have forgotten entirely what they really feel, or if, indeed, they ever really felt it….

[It] becomes obvious that there is no game. There are no rules. And there is, in their lives as on the ping-pong table, no ball to play with. The only reality, after all, is the final whistle which blows in the novel's last sentence.

The book ends without resolution, mid-violence, so to speak. It opens with a joke without a punch line, which, still without a punch line, is repeated later. Beryl Bainbridge, a witty and spartan stylist …, has written a very funny, very complex dialogue between life and art; or, more exactly, between life and bad art, bad jokes, the reproduction of the Last Supper on the wall, the repetition of last generation's gangster movies on the tube. "'I keep thinking I'm watching television,'" says Binny. "'There doesn't seem to be much difference.'"

Bainbridge explores what difference there is. The setting, the characters, the situation, like the disastrous meal itself, are almost trite; almost the stuff from which serials are made. She mocks at the same time our lives' drab imitation of fiction, and our fictions' bright imitation of life. Though her impact is that of satire, and though her joke is really very good, her method has the purity of certain photographs, where a closeness of focus, a magnification of detail, turns organic confusion and the ugliness of the familiar into geometry. When the laughter is over, what remains is almost an abstraction, a rather novel view over a well-known landscape. The scale and clarity of its perspective are astonishing. (p. 28)

Edith Milton, in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1978 by The New Republic, Inc.), March 25, 1978.


Beryl Bainbridge World Literature Analysis


Bainbridge, Beryl (Vol. 131)