Beryl Bainbridge 1933-
(Full name Beryl Margaret Bainbridge) English novelist, short story writer, nonfiction writer, and screenplay writer.
The following entry presents an overview of Bainbridge's career through 1999. For further information on her life and works, see CLC, Volumes 4, 5, 8, 10, 14, 18, 22, and 62.
English author Beryl Bainbridge is best known for creating spare, morbidly humorous fiction that examines the bizarre, often violent, turns of events that reflect the tenuous, menacing quality of modern life. Drawing upon her stormy upbringing in working-class Liverpool, Bainbridge was initially known as a writer of thrillers that chronicled ordinary lives in postwar England, as in Harriet Said (1972) and The Bottle Factory Outing (1974). In subsequent novels, however, she has reenacted historical events—the Polar expedition of Robert Falcon Scott in The Birthday Boys (1991) and the sinking of the Titanic in Every Man for Himself (1996)—to great effect and critical acclaim.
Bainbridge was born in Liverpool in 1933, the daughter of Winifred Baines and Richard Bainbridge, a salesman. Her childhood was decidedly unhappy; her class-conscious mother was discontented with her working-class husband, who was moody, dictatorial, and bad-tempered, and the couple often clashed. Bainbridge began dancing at age six and worked steadily as a child performer. When at age 14 she was expelled from school for drawing a rude picture, her parents sent her to ballet school. However, she ran away to London the next year. After several years of acting, including appearances on stage, television, and radio, she returned to Liverpool and married artist Austin Davies in 1954. While pregnant with the first of her three children, Bainbridge began work on her first novel, Harriet Said. This book was completed in 1958, but editors were so appalled by its gruesome plot and amoral child characters that Bainbridge could not find a publisher for it until more than a decade later. Bainbridge put the book aside and continued to write, publishing A Weekend with Claud (1967) and Another Part of the Wood (1968). After her divorce from Davies in 1959, Bainbridge held various jobs, including a stint in a wine bottling company, which inspired The Bottle Factory Outing. In 1970 Bainbridge began working as clerk for publishers Duckworth & Company, where fiction editor Anna Haycraft befriended her and published Harriet Said in 1972. The following year, Bainbridge received a Booker Prize nomination for The Dressmaker (1973; published in America as The Secret Glass, 1974), based on the paternal aunts she knew as a child in Liverpool. Bainbridge subsequently earned Booker Prize nominations for three additional works: The Bottle Factory Outing, An Awfully Big Adventure (1989), and Every Man for Himself (1996). Bainbridge has also written several television scripts, among them adaptations of her novels Sweet William (1975) and A Quiet Life (1976). In 1983 she traveled with a television crew throughout industrial England, recording her observations in the nonfiction work English Journey (1984). In 1986 Bainbridge began writing a quirky weekly column for the London newspaper Evening Standard; these columns were subsequently collected in Something Happened Yesterday (1993). Bainbridge continues to live and write in London.
Bainbridge draws upon her maladjusted family and working-class upbringing as inspiration for much of her work. Portraits of disappointed, temperamental, manipulative men based on her father recur in her stories. Elaborate plotting, alternating points of view, and bizarre humor also characterize her fiction, in which the central dramatic device almost always involves a death or violent act. Bainbridge based Harriet Said on a news story about two Australian girls who murdered the mother of one of them. The unnamed thirteen-year-old narrator, in league with her manipulative friend Harriet, chronicles how the two girls ensnare their married neighbor Mr. Biggs in a carefully planned seduction and proceed to frame him for the murder of his wife. The book's complex narrative structure begins with the aftermath of the central crime. The narrator then recounts the events leading to the climax and neatly ends the story where it started. Bainbridge experimented with stream-of-consciousness techniques in A Weekend with Claud, a departure from her usual spare style. A photograph serves as the unifying motif of the novel, prompting Claud—the first of Bainbridge's manipulative, predatory male characters—to recall his relationship with a woman named Maggie. The book recounts Maggie's disappointing interactions with Claud and three other men in her life. Another Part of the Wood concerns Joseph, a selfish, insensitive man who brings his mistress, his son Roland, and some friends to a cabin for a weekend, setting off events that lead to Roland's death. Bainbridge considered both A Weekend with Claud and Another Part of the Wood artistic failures. As a result she revised and re-issued them in 1981 and 1979, respectively. In The Dressmaker, Bainbridge fully realized the minimalist writing style for which she is known. As in Harriet Said, the book begins and ends with the cover-up of the same murder. Seventeen-year-old Rita lives with her aunts Margo and Nellie, who are inspired by Bainbridge's own Liverpool relatives. Bainbridge creates an unnerving portrait of Rita, Margo, and Nellie's lonely, colorless lives during World War II. Rita falls in love with an American G.I. named Ira, with whom Margo also becomes involved. When Nellie finds Margo and Ira together, she stabs Ira, causing him to fall down the stairs to his death. In The Bottle Factory Outing, central characters Brenda and her friend Rita experience misadventures while planning an outing with their co-workers at the bottle factory. Bainbridge explores their desperate self-deceptions in a grotesque comedy of errors resulting in Freda's death and Brenda's discovery of her body. A typical bizarre Bainbridge plot twist has Brenda pickling Freda's body and sending it to sea in a barrel in order to minimize trouble for everyone. In A Quiet Life, Bainbridge's most autobiographical novel, the central characters Alan and his sister Madge are reunited as adults. Bainbridge uses Alan and Madge to explore the alternate reality that people create which enables them to endure their lives; Alan and Madge revisit events of their childhood, but Alan has reconstructed his story in order to cope with his past. Young Adolf (1978) was Bainbridge's first work of historical fiction. Based on an unproven account that Adolf Hitler traveled to England in his youth to visit his brother and sister-in-law, who actually lived in Liverpool around 1910, the novel chronicles a series of comic incidents that influence Hitler's later life.
An Awfully Big Adventure follows the experiences of a teenager named Stella, who serves as an apprentice at a Liverpool theater during the production of Peter Pan. In her innocence, paralleling that of Peter Pan, Stella triggers comic misunderstandings and misalliances in the theater company. Bainbridge's based her next novel, The Birthday Boys, on Sir Robert Falcon Scott's failed attempt to be the first man to reach the South Pole in 1910. In a framework constructed from alternating journal entries by each of the expedition's five members, Bainbridge explores Scott's delusional self-confidence during the ill-conceived trek and the crew's relationships among each other and with Scott. The title derives from the crew members' childish insistence on holding birthday celebrations in the middle of the Antarctic. Bainbridge presents each man as a representative of different facets of British society and of human personality, as they begin the expedition with high expectations and gradually freeze to death in the bleak Antarctic landscape. Every Man for Himself takes place on the Titanic as Morgan, a wealthy young American, travels on the doomed ship with several friends. Morgan interacts with characters such as the sinister Scurra; the beautiful and unattainable Wallis; and the earnest Adele. The rich on the Titanic show their true colors when the ship begins to go down, coinciding with Morgan's learning the truth about his life and parentage. Master Georgie (1998), another novel based on historical events, begins in England in 1846 and ends during the Crimean War in 1854. The story revolves around young George Hardy, described in alternating narratives by Myrtle, a Liverpool orphan rescued by and taken to live with the upper-class Hardy family; Dr. Potter, a geologist married to George's sister; and Pompey Jones, a street child who is befriended by Myrtle and George. Bainbridge once again uses the motif of a photograph to structure the novel, presenting each chapter as a photographic scene that relates to George and Pompey's interest in photography. Each character is inexorably linked to the selfish, careless George, and each relates a facet of George's character and his impact on themselves and the world as they journey toward disaster in the war.
Bainbridge is recognized as an accomplished raconteur of middle- and lower-middle class postwar English life and death. More recently she has won distinction for her reinterpretations of historical events, particularly in The Birthday Boys and Every Man for Himself, both of which received critical approbation. Her talent for intricate plotting, true-to-life dialogue, convincing characters, and ability to convey volumes of meaning in a single sentence has earned her strong praise from critics, inspiring comparisons to Franz Kafka, Harold Pinter, and Iris Murdock. Many reviewers consider her macabre humor and startling, violent plot twists refreshingly original. However, for other readers such devices render her books implausible and predictable, as her predilection for shocking endings has become a regular feature of her work. Some commentators have also expressed dissatisfaction with Bainbridge's overly lifelike characters, considered realistically flawed to the point of being wholly unlikable and unattractive. In addition, Bainbridge's extreme detachment from the implications of her narrative has been cited as problematic. Her tendency to refrain from judging characters that commit repugnant criminal acts, or showing the consequences of their actions, is often felt to detract from the impact of her novels. Yet, despite such criticism, Bainbridge is well regarded as an innovative and gifted writer whose explorations of the dark side of the human psyche represent an important contribution to contemporary literature. Though Bainbridge is still more popular in Britain than in the United States, some critics have begun to lobby for greater recognition and serious reevaluation of her work.