Beryl Bainbridge

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Colin Thubron (review date 23 September 1984)

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SOURCE: “An Unsentimental Journey,” in Washington Post Book World, September 23, 1984, pp. 11, 13.

[In the following excerpted review, Thubron contrasts Bainbridge's English Journey with J. B. Priestley's 1933 book of the same title.]

In the autumn of 1933 the British novelist and playwright J. B. Priestley undertook a celebrated expedition through his own country, which resulted in his English Journey. At a time when most literary travelers were wandering the Mediterranean or were still describing an England of hedgerow land and cathedral close, Priestley confronted the country head-on. With no more than a glance at Salisbury and the Cotswolds, he plunged into the Midlands and the North: Birmingham, the Black Country, his childhood home of Bradford, the Potteries, Liverpool, Tyneside. Here was the demoralized heart of an England still locked in the Depression. At worst its sordidness and decline were unrelieved—a wilderness of derelict factories and rotting suburbia. At best it achieved, in Priestley's prose, the somber majesty of an industrial Gehenna.

Priestley's strength is that he himself belonged to this world. “If I declare that Coketown is a horrible hole,” he wrote, “I do not merely mean that it cannot be fitted into some private fairy-tale Merrie England of my own: I mean that it is a damned horrible hole. And I hope you will take my word for it.” He recorded what he found without condescension or maudlin pity. His tone is robustly independent, worldly, anti-Puritan, commonsensical. His compassion is grounded in reality, and leavened by a North-country humor and business sense. His familiarity with urban drabness makes him sensitive to differences which would elude a writer from another background. He is never facile: he does not always equate people with place. Viewing from a tram the fly-blown anonymity of Birmingham, he wonders “if this really represented the level reached by all those people down there on the pavements. I am too near them myself, not being one of the sensitive plants of contemporary authorship, to believe that it does represent their level. They have passed it. … They have gone and it is not catching up.”…

Not all the questions roused by Priestley are answered in Beryl Bainbridge's own English Journey, published half a century later. She is too much her own woman—which is nothing at all like Priestley's man. Whereas he wrote with a magisterial fullness, generalized, pontificated, indulged a masculine kindliness and an earthy poetry, Bainbridge is wry, introverted, idiosyncratic. She writes a clipped, impressionistic diary. She is eccentrically funny. Where Priestley presents himself as a down-to-earth man of the world, Bainbridge makes much of her female scattiness, and from behind this camouflage peers out with offbeat wit and shrewdness.

But she has not Priestley's attachment to place, to social issues, to people at large. To her, things often appear more ridiculous than important. Salisbury Cathedral she describes as “too big, too separate”—and the reaction typifies her. She relates best to the intimate. She is not a natural traveler at all. Priestley meets hazards in the grand Victorian manner (in other words, he scarcely mentions them), but exertion makes Bainbridge ill. She gets in traffic jams; she has too much luggage; there are never any porters at the stations.

Is Priestley's expansiveness a symptom of his time—and Bainbridge's enclosedness of hers? Partly, perhaps. Certainly Bainbridge's desire to share her problems and ineptitudes is typical of the modern traveler, while Priestley's book belongs to an age where travel writing was still about the places traveled through, not about the author traveling through them. But there is also a powerful contrast in individual temperament. Bainbridge loves the untypical. Her narrative is laced with zany conversations. Even her memories are quirky (there's a lovely description of a demented stagedoor Johnny who courted her when she was in repertory theater). Her efforts to summarize places—to assess the wholeness of things—are no more than hesitant genuflections to Priestley. She avoids both his pedagogy and his breadth.

At heart she dislikes all modernity. (“There should be a rule against change. Memories have to live somewhere.”) She even feels a sentimental nostalgia for Priestley's England, which he deplored. Certainly the 1980s England she discloses is no lovelier than his. At best it is orderly, vulgar and a bit absurd. At worst it is a demoralizing slum. The crowded factory staff of Priestley's time have been shredded thin by automation (robots mesmerize and appall her) and the familiar specter of unemployment now hovers over a landscape of black and Asian minorities.

Yet Bainbridge's chief loathing is reserved for motorways and modern shopping precincts; for all sameness. And perhaps it is in this, at last, that the two authors concur—condemning a world where (in Priestley's words) “everything and everybody is being rushed down and swept into one dusty arterial road of cheap mass production and standardized living.” Priestley looked forward to a brighter future while Bainbridge stares back at a romanticized past. The present, as usual, goes unloved.


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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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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.

David Punter (essay date 1985)

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SOURCE: “Beryl Bainbridge: The New Psychopathia,” in The Hidden Script: Writing and the Unconscious, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1985, pp. 59-77.

[In the following essay, Punter examines the presentation of psychological trauma in Bainbridge's novels and the struggles among her characters, particularly those who are female, to deal with both familial and cultural forces of alienation, deprivation, abuse, and rejection.]

Beryl Bainbridge has acted Krafft-Ebing in response to the self-aware Freudianism of many of her fellow-writers; where Lessing, Carter, Barth, have paraded analysis, she has presented herself during the 1970s as a meticulous chronicler of ‘everyday’ events, who would raise an innocent eyebrow at any mention of psychosis, whether attached to writer, character, reader or text.1 The calamities she depicts are, so the surrounding authorial fiction goes, conventionally implicit in our lives: they are a mechanical consequence of our upbringing, and either they will spring out, fully armed, at a later date; or, indeed, they have happened already, and only a thin skin of self-protection prevents us from remembering the terror of adolescence or of poverty. We do not need psychological sophistication to see through to the depths: events are hideously transparent, naturally manifesting the results of age-old cultural trauma. Yet of course in her descriptive and guileless way she forces us back to the schoolroom, back to early occupational experience: did we not then, she asks, experience the fear of being alone, of being unversed in the ways of our parents/employers? Were we too not brought on to a scene where everybody else understood the conventions, and then victimised for not possessing that unobtainable knowledge?

The question below that runs again in terms of gender, and has a curiously symmetrical relation to the question Nabokov poses to his audience. Where he asks whether we too shared, long ago, his experience of dividing the world (of young girls) into the ‘knowing’ and the ‘unknowing’ (and he is not so unsubtle as to be referring merely to carnal knowledge), Bainbridge asks whether we shared in the more dire experience of being known (as inferior, as junior, as incomplete); and whether, if as readers and particularly as male readers we claim not to remember such a time,2 we are thereby collaborating in a great refusal, a refusal of understanding which perpetuates hegemony and the transmission of fear between the sexes. The central characters in Bainbridge's fables of psychosis are mostly small, by nature or by nurture:3: they experience, indeed, the undeniable fact that, through murder, rape or anger, they produce large effects in the world, but there is a gap between cause and effect, between desire and achievement; and is this not, runs the apparently supplementary but really more important question, something which has been specifically done to women? Are not these acts of moral and carnal outrage precisely the inverted reflection of what a masculine culture has visited upon women, and are not male desires in the end fulfillable only through violence, of one kind or another?

None of this is to deny that Bainbridge writes about victims; but when her victims turn, there is a gleefulness in the outcome, even with the young Hitler. All of this, all this grotesquerie and bloodshed, is after all only to be expected while you (the reader?) capitulate in subjecting others to inhumanity. Thus there is in Bainbridge a wish for rebellion, but no special interest in the rebel: the excitement is more pure than that, more focused on downfall and the upturning of a deadly world. The time for the Other, the inversion, to emerge is, of course, the traditional moment:4 it is the moment of celebration, the bottle factory outing, the particular exemption granted in the form of injury time. It is at these moments, when we most hopefully imagine that some form of ritual is going to crown our efforts and achievements, that the voices of those whom we have suppressed in our facile forms of organisation, of those whom we have never prepared to understand the pleasures of our parties, will be raised; in a scream which, at first, we may mistake for participation, but which is eventually revealed as a cry of anguish and fury, the inarticulate sign for all that has been swept under the carpet in order to prepare the (primal) scene for a confirming ritual.5

During the 1970s, the furrow Bainbridge has ploughed has appeared a lonely one, in that she has consistently refused the displacements which have become conventional in the ‘new fiction’, the construction of a mythicised future or the return to a putatively explanatory past; she has also refused to parenthesise her fiction, to frame it within a satisfyingly self-conscious exploration of the writerly task. Her stories stand on their own, largely unweighted by a tacit compact between writer and reader: the signifier remains uncompromisingly rooted in the signified, resisting that increasingly convenient tendency towards play which could convince us that these traumas and psychoses are merely ‘effects of the text’. If anything, they are the effects of Liverpool, as a sign for the anti-metropolitan, as the standing rebuff to the existing modes of economic and social organisation, as the continuous ‘harbour’ of a freer interplay between the material and the aesthetic, as, implicitly, the place where art is determined by the mere resources available and the imagination which seeks to soar over the Mersey is more or less severely punished. For every success which emerges from the North-West, Bainbridge suggests to us, there are a hundred enactments, not of failure, but of simply not breaking through: a hundred endeavours hurled against the wall of deprivation, which receive only the answer, ‘Not here, dear’, or, at least, ‘Not now’. Bainbridge country is a land where the most bizarre of denizens may be found, but only on sufferance: anything can be entertained, but only a few transplants ‘take’, in either direction. Mostly, we will be condemned to tread the same gravelly roads, only as time goes on they will be all the more bitterly sprinkled with the detritus of hope.

The volumes are therefore slim, and motionless: they stack, like the early recordings of forgotten pop groups, redolent of spent sweetness, of untasted deadly nightshade, of ambitions carried through in thought only. The fact that, so often, the narrator comprehends a larger portion of the story than any one character does not serve as a guarantee of readerly wisdom, real or to be attained, but as a reminder of interpretations unmade, of understandings unreached, of all the moments we could have seized to construct patterns which might have continued to inform us. It is thus that childhood and adolescence are the essential terrain: for it is only back there, in the painful rememoration of the fear of parental absence, that we can be brought to admit to the continual defeat of expectation. If, Bainbridge says, these fables appear to resonate with present experience, that is by chance: it is too late to learn those lessons, and when the lessons were on offer we were usually looking out of the window. All that remains is a ‘quiet life’, a life in which those peremptory voices are content to remain silent, having weighed up their chances of audibility; yet it is also within those quiet lives that our secrets are held, every moment of collapse held sequestered in the continuing story of a locked family, an individual reduced to silence by the pressures of conflict. Each family, each place of work, stands as a silent monument to our past; each gesture we made is replicated at large in the frozen posture of some group locked into fear, incomprehension, worst of all guilt. Behind the net curtains, our own past survives; we can be brought, by the narrator, to see it, but the possibility of learning has probably been eclipsed, many years ago. These situations survive as hieroglyphs, encapsulated signs in the language of the unconscious, visible warnings on the road; but we give them little credit, and cannot predict the future moment when we too will see ourselves in the waxworks, will realise that our movement, our escape to the bright lights, has been illusory, that we too are being observed in our role as monitory sculptures, turned to permanent stone in the very moment of indignity.

In Harriet Said (1972), the narrative plays delicately around the problem of signification: that is to say, the central characters are clearly enacting a script, but we are never certain whose, and thus the meaning of events remains in doubt. At a fairly obvious level, Harriet is the succubus, the ever-present whispering self who eggs the narrator on (harries her) to mate with her father (the Tsar) and kill her mother (Mrs Biggs—who is, just before her death, ‘huge and menacing’,6 the frozen statue of adulthood before whom the narrator initially quails, but who has to be reduced to dust.)7 Yet at every turn Harriet's plans are in fact undercut by the narrator's; this blank and terrible ‘I’ takes Harriet's words and injunctions and twists them to an unconscious but preformed plan of her own. Thus there is an inversion: Harriet becomes the blank slate on which the narrator inscribes the record of her own desires, the ambiguous authority who can be invoked to justify any practice. If the unconscious is indeed structured like a language, the narrator's ritual progress through puberty is depicted as a dramatised encounter with that language, and as a subjugation of it: Harriet ends up baffled and threatened by the power of the narrator (who is, of course, structurally the only agent who can confer meaning) to distort her comparatively puny imaginary crimes into a realised tale of sex and murder. Thus the narrator acts as a pure ‘embodiment’: she exists to give carnal form (and the form of carnage) to the promptings of the unconscious. She is thus herself empty (nameless); and the fear we experience as readers springs from our uncomfortable proximity to a superior shaping power (Bainbridge incarnated) before whose unseen plans we can manifest only a shudder. What Harriet says is significant only insofar as it provides the pretext for the narrator's interpretation: Harriet offers, for instance, the category of humiliation (the Tsar/father must be ‘humbled’),8 but it is the narrator who connects this empty signifier with the available contents of the unconscious, and carries the desire through to a dreadful completion before which the prompter can only stand aghast—for a moment, before she begins again to act her role and fabricate cover stories after the event. Yet for the narrator, it is vital to maintain the claim that Harriet is the true ‘agent’:

How could I not understand her? I would have given all the power of my too imaginative mind and all the beauty of the fields and woods, not to understand her. And at last I gave in to Harriet, finally and without reservation. I wanted the Tsar to be humiliated, to cower sideways with his bird's head held stiffly in pain and fear, so that I might finish what I had begun, return to school forgetting the summer, and think only of the next holidays that might be as they had always been.9

What is thus enacted is the story of the girl-child's revenge against the father (the real father is constructed as a caricature, compounded of practical ineffectuality and swearing, absurdly laying claim to a power which is actually wasted beyond recall), in its full duplicity: the narrator constructs a false Other (the script of Harriet) in the name of which (in the name of the sister) she is then freed to humble and mutilate the masculine.10 As well as an absent father, the text also presents us with an actual absent sister (Frances); we are invited to suppose that the narrator acts under an imperative to fill in those blanks in the familial text, even though violence is the only sign under which they can come to have meaning: only through death can life be affirmed.

The narrator is stout and imaginative, body-full and fantasy-full: Harriet's dry and slender presence provides only a frame within which this over-present femininity can perform a drama, the drama. And yet there is no fullness in the narrator's response: the subjugation of the male and mother-murder contain a meaning to which she (so we are invited to suppose) has no conscious access. It is only by reference to the mythical authority of Harriet that she can convey to us the significance of her actions. Before this mirror (and filling the empty reflection with her own wishes), she can experience fullness, but in so doing she renounces the claim to interpretation: thus we are drawn into a circle of shared naivety, and invited to examine the Others we erect as justifications, as objective correlatives, for our crimes.11

How often had Harriet recoiled from me, telling me I was ugly, that I must modify and govern the muscles of my face. It was not that my feelings illuminated and transformed me, as Harriet became transformed in diabolical anger or joy, it was more a dreadful eagerness and vulnerability that made my face like an open wound, with all the nerves exposed and raw.12

Thus Harriet provides the pretext on which the ‘wound’, the assumed castration, can be made manifest, and the Tsar can be ‘un-manned’; we suspect that this ‘ugliness’ is the outward sign of something quite different, of the unmanageability of female trauma, something before which Harriet, like the Tsar, cowers. We are thus presented with a drama of female omnipotence: if, as Cixous claims, the feminine consciousness is plural, in part a defensive linking of many in the face of the demanding, phallic ‘one’,13 then we should not be surprised if this plurality begins to act like a team of bent detectives, endlessly covering for each other in an unscripted spiral so that the excuses for crime are themselves multiplied as the alibi becomes totally secure. Like Macavity, the narrator was never there, and so the story of her own burgeoning sexuality and its links with violence is again buried. There is no growth possible in the text, only an increasing complexity of cover stories:

At last I was allowed to go to bed. I lay in the dark wide-eyed. I had avoided real displeasure, I had been kissed, I had explained the broken window. They would never trace it to me, the more so as Harriet had been home early. I had lied very well and cried effortlessly; I would look white and ill in the morning. I thought of the beautiful night and my god-like strength in the church and I began to smile when I remembered the Tsar's banged nose under the lamp. Harriet could not have managed better.14

It is thus, Bainbridge suggests, that the girl-child grows to maturity: fragmenting, developing a spurious self-management, endlessly referring desire to a hypothesised Other (Harriet is the spurious plural, ‘Woman’), and thus becoming, paradoxically, the means for enacting the necessary vengeance for the thousands of years of male domination.

The construction of the female superego, and its purposes (which are quite different from those of the male equivalent), are again the ground against which The Dressmaker (1973) takes its form, and here again we are given a story which we are invited to see through: coupled with female vengeance, we are invited to a view of female ‘transparency’, as the writer's own revenge for generations of pornographic scopophilia. The tiniest of devices is significant:

Afterwards she went through into the little front room, the tape measure still dangling about her neck, and allowed herself a glass of port.15

In the ‘allowance’ to her self, a severance of the female subject already suggests that one part is going to be capable of anything; there is a ridding of scruple, a preparing for the feast, and this premonition is confirmed by the description of the fleshy young male American:

A great healthy face, with two enquiring eyes, bright blue, and a mouth which when he spoke showed a long row of teeth, white and protruding. It was one of those Yanks. Jack was shocked. Till now he had never been that close. They were so privileged, so foreign; he had never dreamt to see one at close quarters in Nellie's kitchen, taking Rita and Marge, one on each arm and bouncing them out of the house.16

The masculinity evidenced here is expressed in consumerist metaphors: yet also this manifestation of flesh is to be consumed and discarded, the developed but useless teeth finally helpless against the deprivation which breeds a truer violence. For the overall sign of The Dressmaker is deprivation: as in Harriet Said, it is as though Bainbridge is chronicling the grotesque shapes which the passage to maturity may take if the main channel (and the coastal setting makes the metaphor apt) is no longer negotiable; the difficulty of transit through dried tributaries and across unmeasured sandbanks, which always carry the threat of permanent beaching, of a sudden and premature halt after which we can never again progress. Nellie and Marge between them, riven and full of friction as they are, incarnate a solid maturity before which Ira (the ambiguous name, anger with a feminine ending) cannot even begin. In any case, he is simply a refraction of ‘Rita’, but thus, of course, derives the complexity of the story: for the vengeance the aunts wreak is displaced, does not fall on the phallic (Chuck, the drill-bit) but on a junior manifestation of masculinity, and similarly Rita fades from the narrative as the aunts reassert a complementary hegemony.

This displacement is crucial, because Bainbridge is not trying to offer a simple reversal of norms, or to claim that the force of the feminine can somehow rejuvenate society: on the contrary, she is showing the destruction which has been visited on the female in order to convert it into a force for conservatism, and therefore the insurrection performed is not a real insurrection but rather one which re-enacts the dominance of the phallic. The dressmaker ‘wins’ her battle through her employment, by sticking pins in wax effigies, but also through a fake penetration in a more general sense, a penetration of the potential links between the other characters. Partly she is enabled to achieve this by the fact that the forces of masculinity are already really dead: in the triumvirate of Nellie, Marge and Rita the entire force of the family is contained, with Marge (a name-changer; she is also Margo, but she cannot ‘go’, she is stuck, familially and sexually, within rememoration)17 as the substitute father, especially since she alone is presumed to have had previous sexual experience. Within that drama, what is predicted is that the line of communication which carries the sexual charge (father/daughter, but here Margo/Rita) falls within the control of the mother as the transmitter of inhibition: Nellie can sever that relationship at will, and thus reaffirm the future Rita-as-mother as the only possible shape for progression. It thus falls to Nellie, as the reincarnation of an unchangeable and frozen past, to lay down the tracks into the future; thus Rita is herself symbolically killed when Ira meets his (masculine) fate, but more significantly thus is depicted the fate of an entire culture, starved of meaning (in the shape of products for consumption, but also of the affections, sexual relations, feelings presented in the world) and thus trapped into a murderous resentment of change. The phallic sign which Ira represents, in however weakened and limp a form, cannot penetrate the tensed surface of this constructed and well-defended world, in which men have been reduced to Jack's role as absent provider; but meanwhile, within that hygienic bubble from which the male is excluded, significance has drained away and been replaced by a discourse of ritual.

It is in ways like this that Bainbridge, for all her surface naturalism, nonetheless provides us with a map of unconscious process: for her narratives are situated at those points where the covering operations are ceasing to be effective and the barbarous shapes of desire are poking through the torn fabric. The doubling of roles which lies at the root of Harriet Said reappears in Brenda and Freda in The Bottle Factory Outing (1974), and accompanied, as in The Dressmaker, by a diminution of the phallic. Here the men are almost all Italians, illegal immigrant workers, hidden and cowering, often described as a group of children and largely unable to speak the language of power: Rossi's sexual desires extend only as far as rumpling Brenda's clothing to the accompaniment of a meaningless and evasive patter. In this world of masculine midgets, the abundant Freda draws into herself all the power of conveying signification: it is only through her suggestions, her ideas, her interpretation that the world has any meaning at all, and it is only she who retains a potential for change, although this potential becomes increasingly unreal. Not surprisingly, this gigantism is the prelude to humiliation and death: and when Freda dies, she too has to be hidden away, in a barrel, to show that the forces of weary containment have won another battle. Yet, in a sense, it is Brenda, thin and anxious, who has won a Pyrrhic victory: it is her emaciated version of femininity which proves the only one able to survive in a run-down and barely moving world. It is as though she projects all the hope and desire into Freda, thus pumping her up into an unstable shape which causes her death: symbolically, Brenda wonders whether it was Freda's horse-ride which caused the bruises found later on her body, speculating really on whether any manifestation of sexuality might be irrevocably linked with Thanatos. Thus Freda's death acts, for Brenda, as a redemption of an awful kind: she is confirmed in her knowledge that there is nothing to be done about fate. After the death, she has a dream, and when she wakes ‘she didn't feel ill any more or cross’:

She had been in a cinema with Freda: Freda was wearing a trouser suit and one of those floppy hats with cloth flowers on the brim. She complained bitterly that she couldn't see the bloody screen. The men in the row behind said ‘Sssh!’ loudly and kicked the back of the seat. Brenda whispered she should take her hat off. ‘Why should I?’ said Freda; and Brenda remembered a little doggerel her mother had taught her, something about a little woman with a great big hat … went to the pictures and there she sat, Freda shrieked and recited rapidly … man behind couldn't see a bit … finally got tired of it. Somehow it made Brenda very happy that Freda too knew the little rhyme. She beamed in the darkness. She turned and kissed Freda on the cheek and woke instantly.18

What appears to cheer Brenda up is her recognition that Freda too, despite her ambitions, knows that underneath it all women are merely laughable, that the big hat is only a sham and below it lies fear and withdrawal. In this dream, Freda is an honorary man, trouser-suited and swearing, but this does not make her acceptable, it only renders her a target because she has dared to put her head above the parapet. She confuses the men, who cannot see past her; but this does her no good, for she herself cannot see either. By transgressing the stereotypes to which Brenda rigidly adheres, she turns into a kind of chimera and hence cannot survive. Brenda finds comfort in her mother's ‘doggerel’, as Rita is reduced to belief in the defeatist wisdom of Nellie: in Freda's trajectory through power to death, Brenda watches an enactment of what might happen if femininity were to cut itself loose from these apron-strings, and learns the lesson that it is better, in the end, not to have emerged into the world at all than to risk the violence visited on the admired.

What is appalling in The Bottle Factory Outing is the portrayal of low expectations: that nothing can be hoped for except the shoddy and the inappropriate, and thus the outing itself, hilarious though it is, is also sinister. Throughout it there is the fear that, really, even if we get the chance we shall not remember how to enjoy ourselves; and the concomitant fear that, in our flailing efforts to remember the nature of pleasure, we shall go too far and the ‘games’ will turn into mayhem and inarticulate rage. It is as though, for Brenda, all experience is bracketed: as though she is waiting, exhausted by past attempts to participate (her defunct marriage), for her mother to call her in for tea. At the end, she calls herself in, and regresses: the entire process of the story comes to seem as though it has itself been only an outing, an excursion into activity; the ‘real life’ which will be resumed by those who survive will be a life devoid of incident, in which Brenda can subside into a role of pure observer, those parts of herself which she has invested in Freda safely cut out, buried, forgotten.

Sweet William (1975) describes a similar trajectory: Ann is presented, in the shape of the ambiguous William, with a text which she makes a continuous series of attempts to read, in that she involves herself in an effort to bring her own life into an intelligible relation with the life of another. But as she reads this text, she becomes increasingly aware that such completeness of comprehension is not possible: that there are always further corners which cannot be explored, always unexplained absences and erasures.19 As the book moves on, Bainbridge signifies the way in which understanding eludes Ann by talking increasingly over her head to the reader; thus we sense Ann slipping away, as only we, for example, divine the probable secret of William's relationship with Mrs Kershaw, or the reasons for his reported fight with Roddy. No matter how close Ann seeks to draw to this reincarnation of the father, there is always something in the way, some surviving element of his earlier life, some continuing manifestation of his previous wife or wives. Ann, of course, goes through a period of strong ambivalence towards Edna, the principal incarnation of William's past, sensing the appropriateness of Edna's ‘theatrical’ manner to William's way of life: it is only by considering action as though it were bracketed on a stage (William is a playwright) that we can bring ourselves to refrain from asking illicit questions. Where do the actors go at night? Do they even continue to exist? Or are they, in fact, merely two-dimensional, and must we settle for a version of living in which facts are reduced to whatever William wants to present as his current fiction?

The splitting of the female self which is a habitual theme in Bainbridge is present here too, in the relation between Ann and Pamela; and its contours are becoming clearer.20 The nameless ‘I’ of Harriet Said, Brenda in The Bottle Factory Outing and now Ann experience an impossibility of role: they cannot hold on to their ability to observe the world if they simultaneously have to be themselves observed objects, and so they slide into invisibility and project the contours which they seek to shed into their Others, Harriet, Freda, Pamela. It is as though the body itself is too much of a burden to bear, and must be exiled so that its shapes will not give away anything of the self's identity or gender; but whereas in Harriet Said, this process still permits of a terrible victory, and thus the disguise enables a real crime, by the time of Sweet William there is less to achieve, and disguise has become an unconscious device for its own sake. Where Sweet William, however, diverges more radically from the previous fictions is in its insistence on the role of the male in producing this projective self-mutilation: it is William's capacity for generating self-justifying fictions which reduces women to the actants of roles in a predetermined script. Thus also, by a reticulative process, it is male writers who have laid down the terms of female ‘character’.21 and Bainbridge's response is to move towards dispensing with this concept of ‘character’ altogether, rendering her women progressively more emptied, so that, paradoxically, they shall not fall victim to the domineering habits of masculine interpretation. What is rejected is the familiar recourse to the portrayal of a ‘rich inner life’ as a substitute for thwarted action: these women do not have rich inner lives, or if they do they salvage them only at the expense of articulacy, because their words are not valued. William, we are invited to suppose, is at best a pretty poor playwright, a second-rate Pinter, yet even as that he is in a position to transmit within the social body: to the extent that he is given credibility, as playwright, director and philanderer, there is a concomitant societal refusal to credit the different accounts of women, and at the same time a blocking of the paths for communication within the feminine. William's need to separate his life into compartments is itself a reflection of fear, fear that for women to talk about him rather than through him would be to produce him too as an object, and that this would sap his agential status in the world.

But for Alan, in A Quiet Life (1976), the choices available for the male are themselves limited by the ineradicable record of parental defeats and disasters.

Most of the time he thought about Janet Leyland—the way she looked at him, what she said, a certain mannerism she had, of touching the lobe of her ear when she was unsure. He wasn't lovesick or anything like that. He wasn't off his food. It was more that he was engrossed in her acceptance of him—his ideas, his cleverness. She thought he knew a lot. He came from a household that regarded men as inferior; they were fed first and deferred to in matters of business, but they weren't respected.22

Yet this experience of subjugation does not lead to rebellion: for Alan, ingrained habit is far too deeply laid.

He knew, somewhere at the back of his mind, that he could only hope to be an extension of his parents—he'd step a few paces further on, but not far. His progression was limited, as theirs had been. … He'd always be polite and watch his manners. Most likely he'd vote Conservative, in rebellion against his father.23

Thus rebellion is converted into political regression, and the lesson Alan learns has also to do with not taking risks, with adopting a discretion which will ensure that he does not, indeed, end up despised like his father; but there is a terrible price to be paid. His life is to be led in the same way as, in childhood, he moves nervously about the cluttered living-room stuffed with reminders of richer and better days. The wish is to vanish, to become part of the pattern in the over-ornate wallpaper; and now it is he who, in his ‘wild’ sister Madge, watches warily as adolescence shudders its emergence from the chrysalis. Claustrophobia can itself become a habit: Alan experiences no desire for the wide open spaces, but wants instead to turn himself into the ideal and non-frictive inhabitant of a space seen as inevitably closed.

The inversion of the oppressive interior and its burden of partially visible trauma is in the pinewoods, where Madge not only encounters more real experiences, but simultaneously covers them under a patina of lies. Seen like this, the question posed by the text is symmetrical with that posed in Sweet William: in a world where knowledge can never be complete because the story (the play) began before we arrived, how are we to make the necessary adjustment to an acceptable level of incomprehension? And worse than that, in a real or projected sibling situation, where the Other has somehow already adopted or grown into the admired role, the role of freedom, how are we to find another space to occupy without falling prey to the sneaking suspicion that all we have done, every shape with which we have wrestled in the process of self-formation, is not simply itself an inversion, a fitting into a space already unconsciously designed by our elders? This, certainly, is Alan's fear, and it recurs to him when he meets Madge again years later: ‘immediately he felt disturbed. He hated reviving the past, the small details of time long since spent. Seeing her, he was powerless to push back the memories that came crowding into his mind.’24 What, of course, he is also scared of is the possibility which was ever present to him as a child: that Madge, from her position across the boundary of the family, from her magical haven in the pinewoods, might in fact also have a story to tell, a story about him, which would invalidate the years of patient and painful self-suppression; the possibility that, in fact, the neurosis now so carefully grown over might have been there and evident all along and that Madge might have seen it more clearly than he had cared to see himself.

Thus to be watched, indeed to be seen at all, is to be humiliated: the net curtains, the unused parlours do not seem strange to Alan, because he shares with his parents a despairing assumption that what might otherwise be seen would not bear the light of day. His own watchfulness, initially of his parents and later of himself, can survive and continue to operate as a protective mechanism if he is himself out of the reach of harm or affect. At the end, coming back to his wife from the brief meeting with Madge which frames the earlier narrative of memory, ‘turning his back on the house, in case his wife watched from the window, he let the flowers spill from his folded newspaper on to the pavement. Then’, freed from any incriminating evidence and thus restored to his conception of untrammelled masculine strength, ‘squaring his shoulders, he walked up the path’.25

In many ways, Edward in Injury Time (1977) shares Alan's situation, as a conformist whose tissue of habits papers over early cracks: but here there is something softer in the writing, some flicker of hope as Edward, forced towards a change of behaviour by his bizarre encounter with a gang of bank-robbers, has to attend again, if only momentarily, to voices he believed he had silenced. Here, for the first time, there is a fair match between the major subtexts: Edward and Binny, telling fragments of their own stories, have perceptions which at least connect with each other's, even if, time after time, the possibility for an actual sharing of these perceptions is lost, and shafts of light cross the gloom to no avail. This is structurally Bainbridge's most conventional narrative: a complex set of marital secrets, already on the point of blowing themselves apart, are thrown into full relief by the chance appearance of the criminals, and we are led to believe that, as usual, some kind of growth, if only into a deepened realisation of inadequacy, will occur—as indeed, to an extent, it does. But what is foregrounded is the essentially regressive content of this narrative structure. Edward's obsession is, like Alan's, with childhood events, with a difficult matrix of public-school betrayal and paternal excommunication: what the eruption of violence achieves is a return to that world. Edward, Binny and the others are themselves plunged back into a realm where callow bids for leadership and adolescent resentments replace previous emotions; and in this they enter into a curiously mirrored relationship with the invading gang. Where the dramatic interest of previous Bainbridge texts, and the apparent interest of the first part of Injury Time, lay in a splitting and redoubling of individuals, here the interest shifts to the redoubled interaction between the two separate groups.26 At some points where the various representatives of the bohemian and respectable middle classes are being held hostage by the workers, the two groups crosscut and intermingle; elsewhere, they hold themselves rigidly apart, fastidiously drinking their breakfast tea in the separate halves of Binny's kitchen/diner. The criminals, on the whole, are shocked: by Edward's infidelity, by the squalor of Binny's house. There is no change at stake for them; it is only the unstable syntheses of the initial appalling dinner party which might get remade, but in the end there is little felt impact across the groups, except perhaps for Edward himself: forced at one point to ‘stand in’ for Ginger, and purged by his repetition of an early cricketing incident, he becomes able to seize a moment of potential heroism, with—as we might by now predict—the proviso that it almost certainly entails his death.

But behind this drama lies another one, more marginalised, and more to do with youth and age than with gender relations. In the face of the toughness of their children, women like Binny and Alma are reduced to meditating on their own softness, and the relationship between Binny and Edward becomes a mutual consolation for ageing. Binny's elder daughter has acquired masculine disguise, army boots and overalls, although this is curiously parodied by the female disguise of one of the criminals, a disguise to which Edward proves completely unable to accommodate, continuing to treat him as a woman despite full evidence to the contrary. It is, indeed, as the title suggests, as though the time given to Edward and Binny for their faltering relationship does not really count: as though it is extra time, snatched from death, in which boundaries become unimportant, and the yearning is for the state of undifferentiation which age might bring. And this, in fact, is what is enacted, as under pressure the characters start to swap roles at regular intervals, and become immersed in a common predicament. The reader is soothed by suggestions of collectivity: but the price to be paid is a desexualising, as though we are supposed to share in a welcome abandonment of real concerns to the young, and to approximate ourselves to the image of Mrs Montague, over sixty yet still looking for a suitable hedge behind which to take her pleasures. Binny is made to feel young and old in dizzying succession, ending up in a grey area where nothing much matters any more, but where also, consequently, there is no need to accept the damaging descriptions offered by her children, by the criminals, by Mrs Montague: once again, there is a kind of invisibility to be achieved, and thus it is Binny, by virtue of her lack of determinate outline, who is the one chosen by the robbers to serve as a continuing hostage. Edward, with his suspect high profile and his suddenly found new reserves of energy, cannot survive: his final inducement of himself to take a risk is fatal, as, symbolically, the entire risk of the affair with Binny has been bracketed within the sign of an imminent heart attack. Bainbridge presents us, for once, with images of at least partial success in the acquiring of self-knowledge, but only by suggesting that the boundaries of the self are in any case pointless, that we may as well resign ourselves to the unpreventable invasion signified in the hostage process and in Binny's ambiguous rape.

Thus in Injury Time, the body is frail, softened by careless living and weakened by corrosive memories; we are in the constant whispering presence of imminent paralysis, shadowed for Binny by imminent menopause. There is a sense in which the main characters are already ghosts, although the arrival of the gang does not increase their reality: rather, it is as if two species of half-beings seek to inhabit the same space in the unconscious hope that, somewhere among the tangle of crossed wires, a spark might jump and a whole might be formed. It is mostly around Binny that these hopes are encouraged to coalesce, as though, perhaps because of her extensive motherhood, she might possess the alchemical skill necessary to convert waste material into gold, but her experiences with Edward and Ginger demonstrate bitterly for us that the hope of resurrection is a foolish one, and that nothing is about to be born of these sterile and furtive unions. The doubling of relationships passes down the line: from the public and ceremonial life of Edward and Helen (whom we never see, who is, perhaps, herself already an emptied shell), through the apparently more broadminded marriage of George and Muriel Simpson, which turns out to be a vicious fiction barely covering hatred and envy, through the relationship between Edward and Binny, which is finally forced to ‘go public’ by the intrusion, and on to the brief and ‘ineffectual’27 encounter between Binny and Ginger: at each point of intersection, we are invited to share a moment's hope that here at last there may be some form of life which has both shape and content, but it is never the case. The symbol with which we are left is the one offered to us in despair by Muriel: of the house prepared for union, where one partner never arrives.

If the secret of Injury Time is sterility (a lack of the materials for birth, but also a multiple sealing-off of incompatible areas of life), then Young Adolf (1978) offers us a monstrous birth which provides an ironic exit from the dilemma. Adolf Hitler, we know, at least went on to make a mark on the world; but equally, that ‘mark’ was to be a gigantic magnification of the marks inflicted on Adolf himself by his environment and upbringing. The text is riddled with the signs of displaced violence and birth trauma: most significantly in the extraordinary sequences which feature the appearance and disappearance of the hole in the wall of the third-floor room.28 Time after time, the apparently solid surface of that wall shatters (‘Old Shatterhand’ is Adolf's ‘alter ego’) and Adolf, among others, is flung violently through it in a parody of birth, to find his account unbelieved. His trajectory, then, becomes bound up with the attempt to discern the secret of the appearing and vanishing point of entry into the world; and that act of continuing displacement underpins his sexual hatred. The problems of accounting for his origins are further symbolised in his role at the hotel where his brother Alois finds him a job: although here is a luxurious sign of the kind of world for which Adolf longs, he is condemned never to enter or leave it by the front entrance, his complicated circuits through side and rear doors becoming ever more bizarre as he becomes increasingly involved with criminal designs. Through these symbols, a world is established where all the principal doors and windows are blocked up, and Adolf—and the reader—has to creep furtively around the edges, often occupying spaces apparently actually within the walls: the wider implication is of a world twisted so far out of true by divisions of birth and class that we have to make our passage through it in secret and by night, and where the questions we might need to ask, in order to explain how we got to our present point, are always thwarted.

As with many of Bainbridge's previous fictions, there is a tissue of interlocking texts and plans, half-revealed, constantly conspiring to prevent achievement. It is not, indeed, that we are drawn to feel much sympathy with Adolf; but it is suggested that, after all, from this tangle of errors and deprivation nothing much better can be expected, unless it be the passivity of Bridget, who acquiesces, half helplessly and half resentfully, in manipulation and inarticulacy. Kephalus and Meyer try to ‘save a few’,29 prevent one or two of the most deprived from falling directly victim to the presumed cruelty of the authorities, but not much real hope is attached to their activities: indeed, it may even be that their efforts are misplaced, a romantic charade which does not touch upon the roots of evil. Whatever location we seek to establish for ourselves as subjects, the very word ‘subject’ carries a fatal duplicity of meaning: our subjectivity involves also our continuing subjection, and we are left perennially listening through the wall for intimations of the real agency of the story in which we are acting a minor and subjugated part. It is this inevitable subjugation, Bainbridge suggests, which produces the hideous fantasies of domination which Adolf will go on to act out; this sense of rootlessness which will engender the fantasies of ‘roots’ which emerge into the world as racism and sexual violence; this knowledge of being battered which will make us in turn find people to batter. Alois and Bridget act as substitute parents for Adolf, but we know that this is merely a displacement: the real father exists only as a portrait on the wall, and as a nameless sign around which contradictory narratives are constructed; there is no path back to the truth.30

Taking the fictions as a series, we find ourselves in the presence of a detailed investigation of familial conditioning and of the baroque shapes for the self generated in a world where wholeness is not possible. The key process of splitting, from which later shapes derive, is between the acceptable and the rebellious, between the self as defined by an already present pattern and the self as a point of divergence from the familial norm. The problem is that neither choice actually leads away or forward: both enter us into an endless circuit where the only possible dialogue is with father or mother, the only reaction to the possibility of other relationships a terrified probing to see whether this stranger has the quasi-parental gift of seeing through the fictions we wish to present as our life story. The most feared figure is thus the sibling: because at the moment when we settled for an option, or claimed to have done so, he or she was there, observing, and might have a different account to give which would undo all the decades of self-suppressive work. And even if there was no real sibling, or not a significant one, the problem still remains: there is still the fear that our disguise is inadequate, that we have not sufficiently approximated ourselves to the shape we want, and that this will be glaringly obvious to the Other.

Thus, at all costs, we must not be seen: and it is, of course, at this point that the account of familial development (or lack of it) interlocks most importantly with the account of gender differentiation. For observation is also objectification, freezing the Other and turning it to stone; and principally, says Bainbridge, this is what men do to women, partly by regarding them as sexual objects and founding an entire culture on a violent pornography, but also by in a thousand other ways using the ‘gaze’ as an instrument of control.31 Not, of course, that this does the men much good: by replacing real women with moving statues, they in fact create a world of monsters before which they can only cower. Thus the ambition towards control is shown as fundamentally circular; and while we are embedded in these self-defeating ways of dealing with the outer world, we also stand no chance of achieving control over ourselves.

Bainbridge's characters can rarely interpret each other's behaviour: they are too preoccupied with trying to fight clear of acknowledging the constraints on their own. And, certainly, there is no freer, better, less ritualised life available at those levels of society where we might expect to find the regulations less rigorously observed; on the contrary, ‘down there’ is where deprivation makes itself most clingingly felt, and where there is barely enough substance available to flesh out the form of the individual. The experience is of an overwhelming scarcity, either actual or imagined: and that scarcity is itself a reflection of a deprivation of love, of an endless competition to achieve the security of having at least one parent, for a time, all to ourselves. By splitting, perhaps we hope that we might double our chances: that we might become, on the one hand, the competent agent in the world who might expect to attract a father's approval, and on the other the figure of pathos who might hope for a reincarnation of a mother's love. In fact, the trick results in a locked solipsism, in which the only object on view is our self-as-agent; meanwhile we, as subjects with an inner life, are further starved of the resources for survival.

And thus, in the end, this fiction which apparently makes little concession to the modernist habit of self-consciousness produces a highly self-conscious reader: because we are made increasingly aware that, in gazing at the squirmings of these Others, we too are looking only at parts of ourselves, that all these enactments are ones in which we too have shared or will share, objective correlatives for the dilemmas of maturation. And further, we become uncomfortably aware that the readerly position is itself voyeuristic: that we are being treated to a banquet of secrets which we would rather not have known, are being beckoned into the empty and sheeted front parlour where every framed photograph tells a story of defeat. And thus of course, if this is possible, if we can be beckoned through the net curtains and shown the skeletons, what of our own secrets? Is it that we too in time will find ourselves listening dumbfounded to the other story, to the narrative about our self which we have refused to acknowledge, but which nonetheless remains, somewhere, to haunt us with the possibility that our self-development has been a massive artifice built on willed ignorance, and that our power of relating is built on half-subdued hatred and half-known fear?


  1. Richard von Krafft-Ebing was ‘the great clinician of sexual inversion, rather than … its psychologist’ according to Havelock Ellis, Studies in the Psychology of Sex (2 vols, London, 1897-1900), vol. I, p.30; see, of course, Krafft-Ebing, Psychopathia Sexualis, trans. F. S. Klaf (London, 1965).

  2. It seems to me that Bainbridge's fictions are in fact directed towards the male reader, and that the tacitness of the text thus becomes a silence and a reserve in the presence of the masculine: as a male reader, I am forced to enact my own responsibility for this silence, and to experience, as an object, the grimace of contempt.

  3. Cf. Freud, Notes upon a Case of Obsessional Neurosis (1909) (the Rat Man case history), in Standard Edition, vol. X, pp.241, 244. The most relevant development in Freudian discourse, and one which is, naturally, radically undermining is Juliet Mitchell, Psychoanalysis and Feminism (London, 1974).

  4. I use the term ‘Other’ throughout in the strong sense, often thought of now as the property of psychoanalysis but in fact reaching back into older Hegelian traditions. The depiction of historical and interpersonal process in Alexandre Kojève, Introduction to the Reading of Hegel, ed. A. Bloom (New York, 1969), at, e.g., pp.45-60 and elsewhere still remains a relevant model for dialectical interpretation.

  5. Cf. Freud, The Claims of Psycho-analysis to Scientific Interest (1913), in Standard Edition, vol. XIII, p.173; Introductory Lectures on Psycho-analysis (1916-1917), in Standard Edition, vol. XVI, pp.264-70; and the continuing discussion of the ‘primal scene’ in From the History of an Infantile Neurosis (1918) (the Wolf Man case history), in Standard Edition, vol. XVII, pp.7-122.

  6. Bainbridge, Harriet Said (London, 1972), p.154.

  7. Freud's arguments in this area, as in, for instance, An Outline of Psychoanalysis (1940), in Standard Edition, vol. XXIII, pp. 193-4, are of course problematically phallocentric. See, for instance, ‘Women's Exile: Interview with Luce Irigaray’, Ideology and Consciousness, No. 1, (May 1977), pp.62-76.

  8. Bainbridge, Harriet Said, p. 134.

  9. Bainbridge, Harriet Said, p. 135.

  10. Cf. Freud, ‘Some Psychical Consequences of the Anatomical Distinction between the Sexes’ (1925), in Standard Edition, vol. XIX, pp. 243-58; clearly what is suppressed in this brief text has to do with the power of women together. There is no entry under ‘sister’ in the Index volume to the Standard Edition.

  11. I have in mind, of course, Lacan's comments on mirroring:

    The mirror stage is a drama whose internal thrust is precipitated from insufficiency to anticipation—and which manufactures for the subject, caught up in the lure of spatial identification, the succession of phantasies that extends from a fragmented body-image to a form of its totality … and, lastly to the assumption of the armour of an alienating identity, which will mark with its rigid structure the subject's entire mental development.

    (‘The mirror stage as formative of the function of the I’, p.4). But the relation between ‘armouring’ and the substitution of an Other for the evacuated self remains unclear.

  12. Bainbridge, Harriet Said, p.105.

  13. See Hélène Cixous, ‘The Character of “Character”’, New Literary History, V (1973-4), 383-414.

  14. Bainbridge, Harriet Said, p.99.

  15. Bainbridge, The Dressmaker (London, 1973), p.5.

  16. Bainbridge, The Dressmaker, p.28.

  17. Cf. the parapraxes concerning names cited by Freud in The Psychopathology of Everyday Life, pp. 224-5 (also pp. 83-4, 240-2).

  18. Bainbridge, The Bottle Factory Outing (London, 1974), p. 146.

  19. I mean ‘erasures’ in the sense used by Derrida in Of Grammatology and elsewhere; but there is also a connexion here with the Freudian erasure of women's specificity (and its frequent historical return in the ghostly).

  20. Cf. Breuer and Freud, Studies on Hysteria (1893-5), in Standard Edition, vol. II; and particularly Breuer's case history of Fräulein Anna O. (21-47). For instance, the characteristics of her illness are said to have comprised:

    the existence of a second state of consciousness which first emerged as a temporary absence and later became organised into a ‘double conscience’; an inhibition of speech, determined by the affect of anxiety, which found a chance discharge in … English verses; later on, paraphrasia and loss of her mother-tongue, which was replaced by excellent English; and lastly the accidental paralysis of her right arm. (42)

    Each of these symptoms appears imagistically in Bainbridge's writing.

  21. See again Cixous, ‘The Character of “Character”’, where this history is connected with Freud on the primal horde.

  22. Bainbridge, A Quiet Life (London, 1976), p. 41.

  23. Bainbridge, A Quiet Life, p. 42.

  24. Bainbridge, A Quiet Life, pp. 7-8.

  25. Bainbridge, A Quiet Life, p. 156.

  26. There is a complex further mirroring going on here, because each of the groups is searching symbolically for a way of (sexual) relating which will give birth to the future: the pram which is present throughout contains only money and a doll. Binny is pulled out of her group to occupy a space in the middle, between two groups of four: whereupon much of the puzzling seems to be around the question of whether the group symbol, or totem, into which she is thus fashioned represents hope or despair.

  27. Bainbridge, Injury Time (London, 1977), p.134.

  28. It is only when the hysteric renounces being what men fight over—we will have to precede her there—that she will be ready to conquer the truth. … It is then that we learn from her, from this mother in sufferance, that there is only one pertinent trauma: that of birth.

    (Moustapha Safouan, ‘In Praise of Hysteria’, in Returning to Freud: Clinical Psychoanalysis in the School of Lacan, ed. S. Schneiderman (New Haven and London, 1980), p. 59.) The paternalistic tone matches precisely the Bainbridge response, in the discursive hall of mirrors: thus the frozenness of trauma is re-enacted, not only within the unconscious but also in the conflicts of discourse around the unconscious.

  29. Bainbridge, Young Adolf (London, 1978), p.134.

  30. In any case, man cannot aim at being whole …, while ever the play of displacement and condensation to which he is doomed in the exercise of his functions marks his relation as a subject to the signifier.

    (Lacan, ‘The signification of the phallus’, in Écrits, p.287.) Cf. also Lacan on the ‘Name-of-the-Father’ in, e.g., ‘On a question preliminary to any possible treatment of psychosis’.

  31. See, for instance, Colin MacCabe, ‘Theory and Film: Principles of Realism and Pleasure’, Screen, XVII, 3 (Autumn 1976), 7-27, as one introduction to the politics of ‘the point of view and the look’; and, in more detail, Lacan, The Four Fundamental Concepts, pp.67-119.

Principal Works

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A Weekend with Claud [revised edition, 1981] (novel) 1967

Another Part of the Wood [revised edition, 1979] (novel) 1968

Harriet Said (novel) 1972

The Dressmaker [also published as The Secret Glass, 1974] (novel) 1973

The Bottle Factory Outing (novel) 1974

Sweet William (novel) 1975

A Quiet Life (novel) 1976

Injury Time (novel) 1977

Young Adolf (novel) 1978

Winter Garden (novel) 1980

English Journey, or the Road to Milton Keynes (nonfiction) 1984

Watson's Apology (novel) 1984

Mum and Mr. Armitage (short stories) 1985

Filthy Lucre, or The Tragedy of Andrew Ledwhistle and Richard Soleway (novel) 1986

Forever England: North and South [reprinted in 1999] (nonfiction) 1987

An Awfully Big Adventure (novel) 1989

The Birthday Boys (novel) 1991

Something Happened Yesterday (nonfiction) 1993

Collected Stories (short stories) 1994

Every Man for Himself (novel) 1996

Master Georgie (novel) 1998

Suzon Forscey (review date 12 January 1986)

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SOURCE: A review of Watson's Apology, in Los Angeles Times Book Review, January 12, 1986, p. 3.

[In the following review, Forscey offers favorable assessment of Watson's Apology.]

Beryl Bainbridge's 11th novel is a grim pleasure, but then so is life, and it is from life (and its documentation) that Watson's Apology is lifted.

On a Sunday afternoon in October, 1871, an elderly and respected clergyman scholar, the Rev. J. S. Watson, brutally murdered his wife Anne by cracking open her skull with a horse pistol. What British writer wouldn't find tempting material in the trial proceedings, newspaper accounts and an untidy packet of old love letters? Bainbridge, one imagines, pounced.

And succeeded brilliantly in bringing murderer and victims alive, in spite of some maddening tricks of organization.

John Selby Watson, after courting the impoverished, 30-ish Anne Armstrong at a remove and wedding her at almost first sight, immediately wants only to be undisturbed, to be left to the classical scholar's life. The activities of the wedding night, spent in a wallowing boat on the Irish Sea, dictate there will be no chance.

How fatal the bride's post-coital reverie: “My dear, my dear, she said to herself … They would never be parted. Soon her arm ached and he smelled like an invalid, but she would have died rather than shift him.”

And Watson? “He was afraid he should see … some vestige of that expression of pure delight, of impure joy which had ravaged her face the night before.”

So, through the decades of marriage, there was Anne's obsessive love in response to her husband's withdrawal and sexual revulsion, and there was Watson's corked-up fury. Such a wife (kin to both Alice James, the unemployed woman of intelligence, and Hedda Gabler, the untamed, powerful sadist) and such a husband (today he would be a doctor or politician) are agonizingly real.

But what frustration to have in hand an excellent novel that only the hardiest will tackle. There are lives that sensible people don't want to experience. To be so convincingly trapped inside the heads of two excruciatingly tormented people is not much fun.

Though Bainbridge has never been sentimental, her best-known novel, The Bottle Factory Outing, is a rather lively place where bad things happen only because of an unfortunate juxtaposition of events. “Nothing personal!” is the typical attitude of the usual English murderer. “Watson's Revenge” is a much bleaker black.

This is not to say that the book is without humor. Perhaps, one even suspects, the sly Bainbridge has put over one huge joke. Maybe the line “I should have bought her a piano” is the wickedly glittering solitaire in a massive Victorian setting.

The final pages, describing the dreariness of Watson's enfeebled prison life and his undignified death, deprive the reader even of the grandeur of tragedy—though with the uneasy feeling that our own griefs can be so pragmatically resolved by divorce or therapy.

How sad it is, though, that at the finish of Watson's Apology—as at the termination of most miserable marriages—one cannot remember any earlier admiration or happiness.

Further Reading

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Wennö, Elisabeth. Ironic Formula in the Novels of Beryl Bainbridge. Göteborg, Sweden: Acta Universitatis Gothoburgensis, 1993.

The only book-length study of Bainbridge's novels.

Additional coverage of Bainbridge's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Contemporary Authors, Vols. 21-24R; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 24, 55, 75; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 14; DISCovering Authors Modules: Novelists; and Major 20th-Century Writers, Eds. 1-2.

Richard Ingrams (review date 22 August 1987)

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SOURCE: “England, Our England,” in Spectator, August 22, 1987, pp. 28-9.

[In the following excerpted review, Ingrams offers positive assessment of Forever England.]

Last year I took on the task of compiling an anthology about England, since when I have been delving around among my books looking for bits and pieces that might merit inclusion. There are basically two categories. One is the writing of foreign observers like Henry James who see the country from the point of view of a tourist to whom everything is fresh and strange. The other is that of the English themselves—more rewarding from the anthologist's point of view because in writing about England they reveal, if they are any good, the character of the English people.

One conclusion I have reached is that the hallmark of the authentic English writer, to be found on a whole range of authors from Dr Johnson to Philip Larkin, is the assumption that England has gone to the dogs. True patriotism is not to be found in the outpourings of men like Rupert Brooke, whose famous sonnet would be just as effective if one substituted, say, Finland for England throughout. The most English book about England is probably Cobbett's Rural Rides, which is inspired by the true patriotism of a man convinced that the country is done for. This general attitude of indignation is actually what has preserved England (what is left of it). It is because a small but significant band of people have always been confident of imminent collapse that something at least has survived.

In a lesser role are those writers, especially prevalent today, who feel that a way of life, thought to be particularly English, has vanished for ever beneath a flood of motorways, tower blocks and television aerials. Northerners, like Beryl Bainbridge, are especially aware of the drastic changes. The Liverpool that she grew up in, with its docks, its tramlines and cobblestones, has been obliterated. More important, the institution of the family, which dominated her childhood, has been undermined in all kinds of ways.

Her new book, which is commendably short, is devoted to the theme of North and South and much of it is taken up with a series of portraits, based on television interviews, of young couples who illustrate the national differences. However, as in her previous English Journey, the real meat of the book is Miss Bainbridge's own memories which keep breaking in to interrupt the more humdrum accounts of day-to-day life in Mrs Thatcher's Britain. I assume that her own humility is what prevents her from writing a proper autobiography, for there is more than enough in both her books to provide the material for an excellent one. All she needs, I suspect, is a bit of encouragement. It is easy to see why she might be regarded as an unfashionable writer. A lapsed Catholic, a lapsed socialist, she can write about herself with humour and detachment and without any of the feminist self-consciousness which mars so much of the writing of those modern women who are preoccupied with ‘sexual politics’.

Nicci Gerrard (review date 5 January 1990)

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SOURCE: “The Death of Tinkerbell,” in New Statesman and Society, January 5, 1990, pp. 38-9.

[In the following review, Gerrard offers tempered assessment of An Awfully Big Adventure.]

This is Beryl Bainbridge's first adult novel for five years, and initially it seems as if a sweet whiff of her writing for children curls round the edges of its chilly humour. The title harks back to jolly yarns and to Peter Pan's brave hopes; the setting is the raffish fifties society of weekly rep in Liverpool, where everyone is smeared with greasepaint and called “ducky”; the central character Stella—no star but assistant stage manager—is an aspiring actress who extracts drama out of the dustiest situations. The novel that Beryl Bainbridge evokes and rewrites is, inevitably, Priestley's Good Companions—a novel that has always struck me as more suitable for children than adults; and the play they rehearse is Peter Pan.

But in An Awfully Big Adventure Tinkerbell dies when Stella fails to re-illuminate the torch that represents her: “For a moment the clapping continued, rose in volume, then died raggedly away, replaced by a tumult of weeping.” And Stella herself might be innocent, but she is also conniving. Nor does she achieve stardom or the admiration of her hero, the camp and ageing director, Meredith Potter. Instead the novel, with its ear for provincial manners, its undercurrents of violence, unlovely sexual encounters and increasingly brittle theatrical dialogues, tells a sinister story of emotional abuse. Beneath the saccharine surface lies a bitter subtext of deserted children and neglected mothers.

Beryl Bainbridge has always been a mistress of mordant humour and cruel insights. Puffed-up whimsy collides with reality's pricks, becoming absurd: when Stella is kissed by callow Geoffrey (she thinks of it as a rehearsal for Meredith), she is simply “glad her ears were clean. Every fortnight, on bath night. Lily probed them with a kirby grip.” When she loses her virginity to Captain Hook (“it had to happen sometime and now was as good time as any”), she shrugs off the experience: “I expect there's a knack to it. It's very intimate, isn't it?”

But in spite of its sharp set pieces, self-conscious theatricality and hilarious one-liners, An Awfully Big Adventure is wistful rather than edgy. The Liverpool that Bainbridge describes manages to be both Gothic and sepia-tinted. Behind the gilt and bright light is a colourless and seedy world.

Death, as Peter Pan says, might be an awfully big adventure—but life seems an awfully joyless business.

Francine Prose (review date July 1991)

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SOURCE: “With Poison Pen in Hand,” in Women's Review of Books, Vol. VIII, Nos. 10-11, July, 1991, p. 37.

[In the following review, Prose defends Bainbridge's work against demeaning critics and offers praise for An Awfully Big Adventure.]

Traditionally, the back of the book jacket is the venue for quotes from past reviews and blurbs conveying fevered, near-hysterical praise. Yet some of the praise accompanying the British novelist Beryl Bainbridge's new book, An Awfully Big Adventure, strikes one as curiously diminutive and puzzlingly restrained. New York Times Book Review calls Bainbridge “a dazzling miniaturist” while the Times Literary Supplement rather poignantly expresses its regret that “we cannot, on Oriental lines, designate Miss Bainbridge a Minor [sic] National Treasure.”

Given the considerable virtues of An Awfully Big Adventure, and of Bainbridge's thirteen previous books of fiction, it does make one wonder, if not exactly for the first time: Who precisely is that signifying angel of literary judgment, perusing the hopeful little books as they come along and winnowing wheat from the chaff? Who separates elect from damned? Who tags Bainbridge's novels as minor (domestic or kitchen dramas) while Saul Bellow and John Updike (also writers of domestic and kitchen dramas, though much less precisely observed) are ushered, with considerable fanfare, into the Major Leagues, where no one, to my knowledge, ever refers to them as miniaturists or minor treasures?

The question, of course, is not whether Bainbridge is in fact a major writer (whatever that is). The question is why this extraordinarily good writer is, despite having published so many fine novels, not better known on this continent; why her reputation should lag so far behind that of her less accomplished compatriots—for example, Martin Amis.

Readers who go to Amis and Ian MacEwan for a certain sort of sinister, deliciously creepy (and somehow particularly British) nastiness will find plenty of that in Bainbridge, who is a master of the quick, sharp, poisonous barb that can make character description indistinguishable from character assassination. (A man in the new novel describes a woman as having nothing wrong with her “apart from her love of beauty, an affliction which she was ill-equipped to fight. He put it in a nutshell when he said she was the sort of girl who, if there had been a meadow handy, would have been out there in a flash picking cowslips.”)

Bainbridge is as good as anyone on the subject of social class and at the way people, hoping against any reasonable hope to make themselves more upwardly mobile, transform themselves in the most inappropriate fashion and for all the wrong reasons. Moreover, the themes that recur almost obsessively in many of her novels—the ways that power gets tossed back and forth as people manipulate one another, mostly through unsatisfied desire and unrequited affection—are as important (and subtly handled) as any that one might hope to find in the work of writers whom the TLS might wish to designate “on Oriental lines” as Major National Treasures.

At the risk of sounding like the sort of whiner who blames every last little thing on gender discrimination, one can't help wondering if Bainbridge's relegation to the minors may not have something to do with the fact of her sex. That is, despite the considerable gains that (as they say) women have made, in literature and elsewhere, certain sorts of women writers still appear to have a rather difficult time gaining acceptance in this country: writers who see “too much” (that is to say, the most unsettling and inglorious small human flaws), hear too much and too sharply, and who write about it with wit, humor, irony and—perhaps most damningly—without any desire to seem at all times forgiving and redemptive.

More disturbingly, this sort of writer is frequently also less than beloved among female readers, many of whom still, depressingly, expect a sort of “niceness” and “nurturance” from writers of their own sex (the rather cozy maternal sense that some appear to find—mistakenly—in Doris Lessing). Even women seem to feel more comfortable when, if anger is expressed, it is directed at politically correct targets.

The bookish, sharp tongued, dismayingly observant little girl is never the most popular child in the schoolyard (with other little boys or girls), and there is some of her in Bainbridge, who maintains a very careful and particular distance from her characters (even her main characters)—a cool remove from which she watches, records, but refuses to psychologize, justify, emote, or explain. She's less interested in making you like her characters than in showing you who they are, how they behave, how they push and pull each other as they try for (and miss by a mile) something remotely resembling what might be called human connection.

What's most striking about An Awfully Big Adventure (aside from the most immediately obvious thing—how amazingly funny it is) is how sympathetic its characters are without being, exactly, likeable. At the center of the book (set in Liverpool, circa 1950) is a teenage girl named Stella, a theatrical, ambitious, theatrically ambitious high school drop-out whose mother runs a boardinghouse that seems to specialize in war-damaged traveling salesmen.

Several regulars, including the soap man with one arm and the cork salesman with the glass eye, were seen lugging suitcases of samples into Ma Tang's next door … the commercial travellers pushed back sleeves and rolled up trouser legs to point at scars; they tapped their skulls to show where the shrapnel still lodged.

In the world of the novel, everyone is damaged, every time a character looks out of a window, it's to see some mindless cruelty or awful grotesquerie (a boy with ringworm throwing stones at a cat, a malicious looking tramp sucking on a chicken bone). And the members of the repertory theater company Stella joins are, at least in this respect, thoroughly unexceptional. Each of these actors is troubled, in pain, ineffective, or incomplete, and inconveniently enamored of entirely the wrong person; none of them are what the helping professions might call “high functioning”—artistically or emotionally. Putting them together for a performance of (of all things) J. M. Barrie's Peter Pan is rather like shaking a mixture of incompatible chemicals in a beaker; the effect is dangerous, volatile and (as in many Bainbridge novels) ultimately explosive.

The book is a joy to read; the narrative jogs along swiftly, turning and circling back on itself, pushed forward by the momentum of the characters' separate ambitions, quirks, desires and frustrated imbroglios. One might have wished that Bainbridge had tempered the slightly melodramatic ending, resisted the urge to tie things up with a series of rather predictable plot twists and revelations. But these minor reservations hardly spoil our pleasure in her immense (and not in any sense “minor”) gifts—her terse wit, her precision, her economy of style and, above all, the absolutely unique sensibility with which she observes and records the unjust, upsetting, clumsy and terribly moving comedy of errors that we call human relations.

Nancy Engbretsen Schaumburger (review date Fall 1991)

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SOURCE: “Briefly Noted,” in Belles Lettres, Vol. 7, No. 1, Fall, 1991, p. 54.

[In the following review, Schaumburger offers praise for An Awfully Big Adventure.]

If you can imagine a coming-of-age novel set in post-war Liverpool that trespasses on the macabre and metaphysical terrain of Penelope Fitzgerald and Muriel Spark, with a bow to Alfred Hitchcock and Graham Greene, then you will have some notion of Beryl Bainbridge's latest novel An Awfully Big Adventure. Despite these influences, it is still a unique work, wry and disturbing in its own way. The plot centers around the experiences of an insecure, unflinching young woman who never fails to give the world a hard stare as she bumps into some complex aspects of life, such as love and death, during her apprenticeship to a seedy theater company. The twists and turns of backstage intrigue are juxtaposed to the equally odd rooming-house milieu of Stella's uncle and aunt, who worry that she will turn out like her long-absent mother, “bloody Renée.” Ironically, the play that Stella assists with is Peter Pan, a work that has a lot to say about eluding love, time, death, parents, and normal life. (You will recall, for example, that Peter regards confrontation with death as “an awfully big adventure.”) Stella has a similar attitude toward learning about life, but one steeped in the hardboiled realism of the Liverpool slums. She knows a grim joke when she sees one.

Meredith, the director with whom she falls hopelessly in love, and O'Hara, the star from London who is cast as Captain Hook and who falls hopelessly in love with her, are only two of the mysteries abounding behind the curtains: they both have a painful past, as everyone deduces, but the facts are obscure. All of the troupe members are star-crossed in some area of life, Stella discovers. Complicating the romantic subplot is the material of Greek tragedy that Stella unknowingly revives. Other mysteries emanate from the strange telephone conversations that Uncle Vernon holds with his supplier, a man named Harcourt whom he barely knows, on the subject of Stella's troubling behavior; Harcourt delivers Delphic pronouncements on the problems of childrearing. There's also the puzzle of Stella's frequent phone calls to “Mother,” which Bainbridge deftly defers clarifying to the very last, sad, funny, chilling paragraph.

The finest feature of this quirky novel consists in the background details. It's not just the bombed-out buildings and the population of the maimed and corrupt who seem to drag out their lives in these ruins—one is reminded of the film The Third Man—but the frequent snapshots of casual cruelty, to children most of all, which Stella notes in passing down the street. One unforgettable instance of the principle of savage mischance operating in this novel is the sight of a boy carrying a pane of glass down the steps, stumbling, and winding up a pool of blood and shards. Nobody much notices these sidewalk catastrophes or comments upon them, which is perhaps the point. It resembles the appalling background detail of the drowning Icarus in Breughel's beautiful, otherwise serene painting that Auden rendered even more famous in his poem Musée des Beaux Arts. Despite the footlights and the grease-paint, Stella's world is still full of suffering. Like Uncle Vernon's roomer, the badly burned salesman with no eyelids to close, Stella perceives it all and goes about her business.

Francis Spufford (review date 20 December 1991)

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SOURCE: “In Scott's Footsteps,” in Times Literary Supplement, December 20, 1991, p. 24.

[In the following review, Spufford offers favorable evaluation of The Birthday Boys.]

My grandmother was born in March 1911, the month in which this novel starts. Its famous events, then, are still in one sense within the reach of living memory. While Beryl Bainbridge's “birthday boys”—“Taff” Evans, “Bill” Wilson, “Con” Scott, “Birdie” Bowers and “Titus” Oates—were ragging each other in the polar snows, and stepping out the stately dance of class divisions, and dying, my grandmother's parents ran a small Turkish Delight factory in the West Country. But at the weekends, a world away from ice and darkness, and at least one social level beneath the officer corps, they too were devotes of the Edwardian style of fun. They went on country jaunts, they japed, played Wellsian practical jokes and called each other by nicknames as silly as the explorers': “Pebby” and “Japonica” were two; I forget the others. The vanished manners that make up a prize part of Bainbridge's interest in Scott's expedition lived in these vanished relatives of mine as well. They are still, just, accessible to recall.

And yet to see the five dead men as they appeared to themselves requires a journey back through layers and layers of time that cannot quite be managed. Between now and then stand, not only the enormous differences of the century's history, but the many screening versions of the story with which different decades have beguiled themselves. Before the present debunked picture of Scott's fatal expedition to the South Pole, there was the secure (if shrunken) place it had as a children's story, a Ladybird book on a tragic theme. Before that, the film (with John Mills as Scott) had shaped it as a post-war fable of class integration, apt for the austerity era. Before that, the 1930s had fashioned its concern with natural history into something congruent with Tarka the Otter and rambling in shorts. In the 1920s, when the nervously wonderful Worst Journey in the World appeared, the sense of anomie that followed the Great War had separated even participants in the expedition from their former selves, and already filled the gap with matter alien to 1911. And even if we could draw all these later meanings aside, like stage scenery on painted flats, one after another parting to reveal the boards going back and back and back, the chances are that all we would arrive at, in the end, would be a tableau from a toy theatre of the time, the birthday boys as Duty's cardboard cut-outs, against a final backdrop inked in lurid red and blue and white (a lot of white). Imagination has a difficult journey to go to reach them, one complicated by the busy work imagination has been doing on them for eighty years.

Bainbridge divides the three-year story of the expedition, from Cardiff Docks to the tent on the Great Ice Barrier, into five monologues, one for each of the five who died on the return from the Pole. Their birthdays—something not remarked till now—index the downward fortunes of the party beautifully, and also, though these are days without festivities, provide a chink into the private minds that weren't disclosed as the explorers rubbed along together. How I wish these documents were real. They are exactly what curiosity looks to find, and fails to find, in the true accounts, official and otherwise. They dip beneath the social frictions and the expedient silences; they test for cheese to the bottom of the honey. They can do this because they enact the stoic gruffness of the time without adhering to it. A lovely directness, instead, fills the mock-Edwardian musing. Petty Officer Evans's monologue makes a beeline for the drinking sprees that shamed the man ashore, and gave Scott's choice of him its permanent question-mark; Wilson's, for the pious death-wish that makes the doctor's goodness seem, in retrospect, more than a little sinister (His last letter to his wife ends, “All is well.”); Bowers's, for the muscular simplicity that dares the future to find him stupid; Scott's for the tortured attitude to commanding others, and for his endlessly intriguing marriage to a New Woman; Oates's, the last in the novel, for the motives behind his horsiness.

Not that Bainbridge goes after secrets, exactly. She exercises the right to spring surprises, and certainly does her share at peeling off her boys' veneer, but she is wise enough to know that no secret—no hitherto unsuspected revelation—could be sufficiently explosive to re-shape the story wholesale, without also shattering the interest of it. It is, implicitly, a narrative of inhibition, in which death comes to silence the characters' half-understanding of themselves, not to complete it. The interesting thing is how they handled what they guessed about themselves; how far they let truths filter into awareness. It matters far more that (one of Bainbridge's best invented details) Birdie Bowers cherished an empty jam jar, his sole souvenir of female affection, than that, ugly and virgin till he died, his polar feats were obvious sublimations.

The polar past, so other and elusive, is also vulnerable to the present. It can be trampled on, and the acuteness of the explorers in their own mode be drowned out if present perceptions are condescendingly applied. Their ideas of cowardice and “nerve” and providential guidance allowed remarkable articulations of themselves. It was not, after all, a vocabulary that constricted Conrad. The polar story, Apsley Cherry-Garard knew, “involved all kinds of questions”; and Beryl Bainbridge, though her brush is broad and comic, treats the fragile parts of polar narrative with delicacy. From the ventriloquistic point of view, she isn't entirely successful. I cannot quite credit her Taff Evans, for in the extant letters the “other ranks” who use the officers' registers of voice do so more individually, without the jerks that signal a literary amalgamation. Nor does her Oates escape sounding stiff and expository when (“this somewhat embarrassing outburst”) he tells a story about a picture of Queen Victoria which prepares for Bainbridge's ultimate special effect; the gallant man's conviction, as he stumbles away to die, that the Queen's gillie, John Brown, is holding a pony waiting for him. But she succeeds wonderfully in navigating the story, with laughter and grief, as if it were happening fresh, for the first time, in all its brave absurdity, thus grasping intact the hope of every reader of the original accounts that, this once, somehow, the idiots may get through.

And here there is something important to be observed, for Bainbridge has incorporated the debunking research done by Roland Huntford, and yet the story persists. It survives, in imagination, the evidence of incompetence. It still manages to be present, for the reader; though so foolish, and all so long ago.

Andro Linklater (review date 4 January 1992)

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SOURCE: “No Longer Hero or Villain,” in Spectator, January 4, 1992, pp. 25-26.

[In the following review Linklater offers praise for The Birthday Boys.]

The fall of a hero produces a curiously intense sensation—a surge of libertarian delight pitted against pangs of filial anguish until both are swamped by cynicism. Those at least were the emotions I remember from reading Roland Huntford's admirable demolition job on Scott of the Antarctic, Scott and Amundsen, about ten years ago.

It brought down a figure epitomising the gentlemanly virtues of courage, generosity and a masculine resolution which endured without self-pity to the end. In its place stood a vain, impractical creature, racked by feminine irresolution, whose short-comings in preparation and equipment were exposed, cruelly by the hard-headed Amundsen in the race to the South Pole, and fatally by the Antarctic cold on their journey back.

Years of hero-worshipping made it impossible to wipe from one's mind the last photograph of Scott in his huge fur gloves and outsize boots, surrounded by the other members of the expedition, or to forget the poignancy of the final entry in his log. ‘For God's sake look after our people’. Yet now it was equally impossible to ignore the fact that the photograph showed the party on foot because of Scott's reckless antipathy to skis and dog-drawn sledges, while ‘our people’ needed looking after due to his failure to finance the expedition properly. In the end, each cancelled the other out, leaving nothing but contempt for someone who might have had the triumph he yearned for had he been a little more the professional and a little less the gentleman.

Beryl Bainbridge has taken Scott's expedition as the theme of her latest novel, The Birthday Boys, and not the least of its virtues is that it allows another more charitable conclusion. Her story runs from the last desperate fund-raising dinner in Cardiff, through the Terra Nova's long voyage south, to Oates's despairing walk into the snow. It is told through the thoughts of each of the five members of the group who made the assault on the Pole: the boozy, powerful petty officer, Taff Evans; Scott's right hand man, Dr Bill Wilson; Scott himself; the immature but iron-willed naval officer, Birdie Bowers; and the wealthy regular soldier, Captain Titus Oates.

At first sight, the story of five men struggling through the Antarctic and doomed to die in the attempt is a long way, both in scale and subject matter from Beryl Bainbridge's usual turf. In the past her characters have struggled simply to survive urban life with their dignity, if not their sanity, intact, and some of her sharpest comedy has been centred on women who had to face this struggle handicapped by impossible children and all too possible lovers. For such an author, it might be thought that the scale of the Antarctic, with its epic spaces and tragic ends, would simply be too great.

In fact it is precisely her understanding of the intensity of small-scale drama which brings Scott and his companions into focus. No longer either heroic or contemptible, they are restored to human dimensions.

As drawn by Bainbridge, each of them is aware of their leader's shortcomings, but each quietens his doubts out of a kind of protective love for Scott. Both Evans and Wilson acknowledge his touchiness and lack of foresight, but confess that he was a man they would die for, while Oates, the least starry-eyed, goes further.

‘I've never known such a man for making mistakes and shifting the blame onto others’, he exclaims, and then, knowing that Scott's faults have killed him, admits that:

I had none the less come to recognise his other, more important, qualities, not least his ability to put himself in another's shoes. One could see in his eyes, even when he wasn't blubbing, that his heart was too big for his boots.

She builds up the complexities of this passionate loyalty with considerable skill, slipping easily from Evans's self-confident, lower-deck voice, to Wilson's reserve, Bowers's eagerness and Oates's well-bred irritation. At the centre is Scott's feminine presence, his very perversity and impulsiveness inciting them to achieve impossible tasks as intoxicatingly as the foibles of a troubadour's lady.

It is a beautiful piece of story-telling. Far more accurately than any biography could do, it catches what must have been Scott's hold on his followers, and I do not know of any other woman writer who could have conveyed the curious tenderness of male companionship so deftly. Finally, and perhaps most valuably, it teaches compassion for fallen heroes.

Michael Cross (review date 11 April 1992)

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SOURCE: A review of The Birthday Boys, in New Scientist, April 11, 1992, p. 43.

[In the following review, Cross offers tempered assessment of The Birthday Boys.]

Well into the 1960s, my schoolmasters solemnly taught that Amundsen—he merited neither rank nor Christian name—beat Captain Robert Falcon Scott to the South Pole only by the most dastardly trickery.

Luckily, no era set itself up for debunking quite as much as the final decades of the British Empire. By the 1970s, the line “I am just going outside and may be some time,” had launched a thousand comic sketches. In 1979, Roland Huntford's Scott and Amundsen (later republished as The Last Place On Earth) completed the job by portraying Scott as a self-deluding romantic whose incompetence cost lives.

Beryl Bainbridge leans heavily on Huntford and the more veiled criticism of Apsley Cherry-Garrard's The Worst Journey in the World for her fictional first-person portraits of the five men who died returning from the South Pole in the autumn of 1912. Scott's companions are the boozy and loyal Evans, saintly Wilson, cheerful Bowers—and Oates, stoic and aloof to the end. The theme of birthdays celebrated in extraordinary circumstances casts a suitably juvenile light on their characters.

However, Bainbridge keeps her novelist's licence oddly in check by shying away from issues that Polar historians still debate: the sudden choice to take five men to the Pole, for example, and the exact circumstances of the deaths of Evans and Oates. Probably only one episode, an instant of unrequited homosexual attraction, will raise real hackles among the old guard of the British Antarctic Survey. My great disappointment was that Bainbridge did not work harder at the character of Edward Wilson, doctor, ornithologist, artist and Christian, the “Uncle Bill” upon whose shoulder the other birthday boys lean.

Bainbridge is not the first person to borrow Scott's story. Whether to ridicule or imitate, we still enlist the spirit of Scott's men on our own winter journeys, 80 years after their blood congealed into black ice.

Elisabeth Wennö (essay date 1993)

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SOURCE: “Introduction: Background,” in Ironic Formula in the Novels of Beryl Bainbridge, Acta Universitatis Gothoburgensis, 1993, pp. 1-8.

[In the following excerpt, Wennö discusses Bainbridge's critical underestimation and argues that her novels, though regarded as conventional narratives, actually embody sophisticated distancing techniques that call into question the illusions and constructions of literary realism.]


Little scholarly work has been done on the novels of Beryl Bainbridge despite their wide publication and readership. Apart from a few articles in literary journals1 and a discerning interpretative chapter, dealing with six of her novels in David Punter's The Hidden Script,2 there is, to my knowledge, only one book-length study. This is a textual study which provides a detailed comparison of the original and revised editions of two of Bainbridge's novels, and discusses the stylistic changes made in the second versions of these novels.3

Despite the fact, then, that Beryl Bainbridge has written a number of TV scripts and documentaries, published a collection of short stories, a short novel written in her teens, a documentary, and thirteen novels, the main body of critical commentary to date consists of reviews, interviews, and brief references in bibliographies and literary history surveys.4 The present thesis is an attempt to redress in part this lack of academic attention. The reason for the academic neglect is perhaps displayed in the assessment that “Beryl Bainbridge is hardly a writer who will be the object of scholarly interest or given a place in literary history—for that she is probably too ‘simple’.”5 The motivation for my interest in Bainbridge's writing is a wish to explore the workings of simplicity in her novels. In this way, I also hope to contribute to the current contesting of the hierarchical order of study objects implied above, and of the criterion of unexamined simplicity as grounds for relegating texts to the academic periphery.6 For, the apparent simplicity of Bainbridge's fiction contains a degree of subtlety that warrants attention. In this respect, a study of her fiction might serve to contribute to the ongoing discussion of textual significance and the validity of the canon, to which the growing interest in non-canonical forms of discourse, not least feminist re-evaluation, bears witness.

Bainbridge's fiction represents a narrative form that is based on ‘life as experienced’, and rooted in the mimetic tradition which is characterized by “chronological time as the medium of a plotted narrative, an irreducible individual psyche as the subject of its characterization, and above all, the ultimate concrete reality of things as the object and rationale of its description.”7 Asked to comment on her writing, Bainbridge explains:

As a novelist I am committing to paper, for my own satisfaction, episodes that I have lived through. If I had had a camera forever ready with a film I might not have needed to write. I am not very good at fiction … it is always me and the experiences I have had. …

I think writing is a very indulgent pastime and I would probably do it even if nobody ever read anything.

I write about the sort of childhood I had, my parents, the landscape I grew up in: my writing is an attempt to record the past.8

In this mimetic sense, Bainbridge's fiction may be seen as a traditional and straightforward form of novel writing. And in comparison with the notable influx of avant-garde writing in the same period, which demonstrates the impossibility of recording ‘lived experience’ adequately, it may seem even more so.

Against the background of the emergence of postmodernism in literature as a reaction to and development of both realism and modernism, and in the context of the theoretical challenges to humanist notions of subjectivity, history and language, it is not surprising, therefore, that Beryl Bainbridge's fiction might be considered academically peripheral. It does not draw attention to itself as an artefact with frame-breaks, exposure of fictional conventions or comments on the writing process; it does not openly parody other texts; it does not flaunt the instability of language by playful practice; subjective consciousness is not demonstrably at stake, and there are no challenging typographical experiments or strikingly innovatory features. It is, in other words, not an example of the self-reflexive fiction that covertly or overtly demonstrates the linguistic and ideological foundation and fictive status of any representation.

However, it is my contention that, simultaneously with their apparent mimetic simplicity and their allegiance to the referentiality of language, her novels display gestures and properties in their modes of construction, presentation and representation that not only produce a recognizable style or characteristic formula, but also emphasize the transforming potential of narrative fiction. In addition, they can also, to some extent, be read as sharing the postmodern characteristic function of increasing reader awareness of reality as a social construct. In other words, although the novels simply seem to mimetically reflect reality as dramatized expressions of the author's personal outlook and experiences, thus inviting a literal reading in terms of verisimilitude, their gestures and properties work to transform the material in such a way that the biographical context of the author and the horizon of literal reference become of subordinated interest.

These concerns are superseded by a consciousness-raising effect that provokes the reader to reflect on the function of construction, narration and interpretation in fiction and in life. Instead of simply serving as the mirrors of reality before which the reader may test whether or not these reflect or correspond to his/her own views and experiences, her novels lead the reader to examine his/her own modes of ‘constructing’, ‘narrating’ and ‘interpreting’ life. Compared with the more demonstrably provocative contemporary writings, Bainbridge's novels achieve a similar effect. But it is achieved by a different route and with a different implication. The Bainbridge provocation serves to recentre rather than decentre the contradictory humanist notion that both asserts the autonomy of the individual and relates the individual to the “social whole” in terms of a “universalized human nature.”9 This recentring takes the form of asserting the inviolable autonomy of individuality but also its inevitable dependence on the social whole for its development and fulfilment.

The consciousness-raising quality of her writing and its humanistically normative stance have largely been overlooked in the critical reception, which instead focuses on characteristic features of style and content, and the moral or immoral quality of her novels. While the features of style have generally attracted appreciative comments, the evaluation of the novels in terms of moral significance has varied. Indeed, the latter aspect proved an initial stumbling-block in her writing career. Beryl Bainbridge's first novel Harriet Said (written in 1958; first published in 1972) was, for instance, rejected on moral grounds by several publishers, one of whom commented that the characters were “repulsive beyond belief” and that one scene in the book was “too indecent even for these lax days.”10 The manuscript was then misplaced by a publisher and only resurfaced after A Weekend with Claud and Another Part of the Wood, which were written in a different style from Harriet Said, had been published without attracting much attention. The rediscovered manuscript was shown to the Haycrafts at Duckworth, where Beryl Bainbridge at the time was employed. They immediately recognized her talent, and not only published the novel, but encouraged her to abandon the rambling and elaborate style of the two previous novels in favour of the tauter and simpler style of Harriet Said. The publication of Harriet Said (1972) was therefore the beginning of “a series of original and idiosyncratic works,”11 which has been called the Duckworth Bainbridge line: Harriet Said (1972), The Dressmaker (1973), The Bottle Factory Outing (1974), Sweet William (1975), A Quiet Life (1976), Injury Time (1977), Young Adolf (1978), Winter Garden (1980), Watson's Apology (1984), An Awfully Big Adventure (1989), The Birthday Boys (1991),12 and the rewritten versions of Another Part of the Wood (1979) and Weekend with Claude (1981).

Although described as a “family of gifted eccentrics”13 and no longer dismissed on moral grounds, this body of texts somehow defies description and understanding beyond the similarities in content and in the style which was heralded in Harriet Said. Gloria Valverde's comparative study of the original and the rewritten versions of the first published novels shows that the difference between them is primarily the result of deletions. Cuts were made in narrative descriptions, explanations, critical commentary, and in analysis of and delving into character action and behaviour. Also numerous didactic passages were omitted. As a consequence of these alterations, the revised editions constitute a reversion to what Valverde defines as Bainbridge's original and personal style, which is now generally seen by critics as characteristic of her production, that is, “that of being objective and detached,” and with an ability to “select details and discard peripheral material.” These features also make “the wry humour, an important element of her style, more pronounced.”14 Although she does not analyse its implications, Valverde also recognizes that, despite the deletion of the many didactic passages in the original versions, there is still a moralizing tendency although “it is more subtle.”15

The combination of the laconic, detached style and the pervading bleakness of the world depicted tends to obscure the reader's recognition of the consciousness-raising quality as well as the kind of moral aspect that Valverde discerns. Valentina Yakovleva, for instance, declares her growing discontentment with Bainbridge's works:

The more I read Bainbridge novels the more disappointed I grew in her attitude to the surrounding reality and in her choice of characters. She deliberately strives to remain ‘outside the story’, an impartial observer. Yet the personality of the author cannot be hidden—the very striving after complete objectivity, the abstaining from judgements, from taking sides, from any commitment is in itself a ‘position’, a revelation of the writer's world outlook and of her moral principles.16

In contrast to Valverde, Yakovleva sees the detached style and the depiction of the world as signs of lack of morality. These positions are partly balanced by Krystyna Stamirowska who draws attention to the “complex responses that Beryl Bainbridge's fiction generates” in the way it elicits the reader's sympathy for the situation of the characters despite their unpleasantness and the detached narration.17 “Complex responses” do, in fact, characterize the reviews on Bainbridge's novels, and this per se suggests a degree of ambiguity and subtlety in her works.18

Thus, the characteristic features that Yakovleva sees as examples of an apparent lack of commitment, Valverde sees as implying a subtle moralizing quality, and Stamirowska as forming a deterministic framework that evokes sympathy. David Punter, however, recognizes the consciousness-raising quality as he convincingly shows in his Lacanian approach that the characteristic features are the result of unconscious structures of signification that speak of gender differentiation, deprivation of love, and continual defeat of expectation and knowledge. The effect of this, he concludes, is that

this fiction which apparently makes little concession to the modernist habit of self-consciousness produces a highly self-conscious reader: because we are made increasingly aware that, in gazing at the squirmings of these Others, we too are looking only at parts of ourselves, that all these enactments are ones in which we too have shared or will share, objective correlatives for the dilemma of maturation.19

What Bainbridge's critics in their various focuses—on text as expression of the author, on text as linguistic style, on text as narrative display, and on text as structures of signification—have failed to emphasize is that the intriguing effect of Bainbridge's fiction is the tension between the firm allegiance to realism and the implicit challenge of the premises that underpin it. In the context of this tension, it is useful to remember, as Elizabeth Deeds Ermarth reminds us, that realistic fiction does not necessarily suggest a naive acceptance of referentiality, but that both “referential and reflexive functions [are] at work in realism.”20 In other words, realistic fiction, in the descriptive sense of the term, as a mode of writing that through its conventions creates the illusion of ‘truthful’ imitation of commonsensical reality, like other modes of writing, also serves to contribute to our understanding of how the world is constituted by its texts and by conventions. Consequently, the realistic illusion in Bainbridge's novels not only displays the myth of realism as the objective representation of reality in their artistic transformation of ‘lived experience’, but it also emphasizes the functions of myth as both illusory conception and as narrated interpretation of life. In doing this, the novels achieve the twin effect of increasing awareness of the formative function of conceptualizing reality, and reasserting the reality of the mundane and the sublime.


  1. For instance, Valentina Yakovleva, “On Reading Beryl Bainbridge: A Voice from the Public,” Soviet Literature 11. 440 (1984): 141-149; Karl Miller, “A Novelist Worth Knowing,” New York Review of Books 16 May 1974: 25-28; Krystyna Stamirowska, “The Bustle and the Crudity of Life: The Novels of Beryl Bainbridge,” Kwartalnik Neofilologiczny 35. 4 (1988): 445-456.

  2. David Punter, The Hidden Script: Writing and the Unconscious (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1985). This study deals with J. G. Ballard, Angela Carter, Doris Lessing, Kurt Vonnegut and Beryl Bainbridge. Although Punter sees Bainbridge as set apart from this group through her naturalistic mode and contemporary settings, he argues that her novels contain similar materials of deprivation and entrapment.

  3. Gloria Valverde, “A Textual Study of Beryl Bainbridge's Another Part of the Wood and A Weekend with Claude,” 2 vols., diss., Texas Tech U, 1985.

  4. See, for instance Lorna Sage, “Female Fictions: The Women Novelists,” The Contemporary English Novel, ed. Malcolm Bradbury and David Palmer, Stratford-upon-Avon Studies 18 (London: Arnold, 1979) 85; Robert Barnard, A Short History of English Literature (Oxford: Blackwell, 1984) 206; Mary Cadogan and Patricia Craig, Women and Children First: The Fiction of Two World Wars (London: Gollancz, 1978) 279-281.

  5. Inger Hullberg, rev. of Sweet William, by Beryl Bainbridge, Nerikes Allehanda 7 Sep. 1983: 4 (my translation). As the Bibliography and other references to reviews will show, page references will not always be given. The reason for this is that the major part of my review material is copies made from various clipping files and this information was not always available.

  6. In A Theory of Literary Production, trans. Geoffrey Wall (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1978) 3-4, Pierre Macherey divides “criticism-as-explanation” into the two categories of “criticism as appreciation (the education of taste) and criticism as knowledge (the ‘science of literary production’).” This thesis attempts to apply the latter focus by asking how Bainbridge's fiction works in terms of its formative principles rather than in terms of success and failure.

  7. Ronald Sukenick, “The Death of the Novel,” The Death of the Novel and Other Stories (New York: Dial, 1969) 41.

  8. As quoted by Val Warner in Contemporary Novelists, ed. James Vinson and D. L. Kirkpatrick (London: St. Martin's 1976) 79-80.

  9. Linda Hutcheon, The Politics of Postmodernism, New Accents Series (1989; London: Methuen, 1990) 13. For further accounts of the poetics and politics of postmodern fiction, see, for instance, Linda Hutcheon, A Poetics of Postmodernism: History, Theory, Fiction (New York: Routledge, 1988); Patricia Waugh, Metafiction: The Theory and Practice of Self-Conscious Fiction. New Accents Series (London: Methuen, 1984); Postmodern Fiction: A Bio-Bibliographical Guide, ed. Larry McCaffery, Movements in the Arts 2 (New York: Greenwood, 1986), and Brian McHale, Postmodernist Fiction (New York: Methuen, 1987).

  10. As quoted in World Authors 1970-1975, ed. John Wakeman, The Wilson Authors Series (New York: Wilson, 1980) 49.

  11. The Oxford Companion to English Literature, ed. Margaret Drabble, (London: Guild, 1987) 60.

  12. This thesis will not include a consideration of The Birthday Boys, not because it deviates from the claims I make about Bainbridge's fiction, but because it appeared too late for inclusion.

  13. Diane Johnson, rev. of Young Adolf, by Beryl Bainbridge, Times Literary Supplement 1 Dec. 1978: 1385.

  14. Valverde 91, 183-184.

  15. Valverde 93.

  16. Yakovleva 143.

  17. Stamirowska 456.

  18. Reviewers frequently comment on the mixed feelings that reading Bainbridge occasions and characterize her novels in oppositional terms: they are described as neither wholly comic, nor wholly tragic; they are both real and surreal, macabre and authentic, simple and complex, subversive and cheering, entertaining and instructive, convincing and unimaginable, comic and sinister, witty and depressing, funny and appalling, farcical and menacing, very odd and totally relevant, thought-provoking and unnerving, grotesque and pitiful.

  19. Punter 77.

  20. Elizabeth Deeds Ermarth, Realism and Consensus in the English Novel

    (Princeton: Princeton UP, 1983) xiii. A similar point is made by David Lodge in “The Novel Now: Theories and Practices,” Novel: A Forum on Fiction 21. 2-3 (1988): 133, where he suggests that “it would be false to oppose metafiction to realism; rather, metafiction makes explicit the implicit problematic of realism.”

Dennis Drabelle (review date 10 April 1994)

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SOURCE: “In a Cold Climate,” in Washington Post Book World, April 10, 1994, p. 7.

[In the following review, Drabelle offers favorable assessment of The Birthday Boys.]

Fifteen years ago an iconoclast struck what may be the most telling blow to an English reputation since Lytton Strachey took aim at his Eminent Victorians. The aggressor was journalist Roland Huntford. The target was Robert Falcon Scott, Scott of the Antarctic, the very incarnation of English heroism in a lost cause, whose last written words—scribbled feebly in 1912 as he and his two surviving comrades lay tentbound and starving after coming in second to the South Pole expedition led by the Norwegian Roald Amundsen—included this self-serving tribute: “I do not think human beings ever came through such a month as we have come through.”

In his book Scott and Amundsen, Huntford demonstrated that the inept Scott had only himself to blame. In contrast to Amundsen, who through years of study and preparation had made himself a professional Polesman, Scott had learned little from his own previous Antarctic experiences and nothing from anyone else's. The methodically prepared Amundsen met with comparably harsh conditions on his trek but actually gained weight while coping with them. Afterwards he could boast on behalf of his team, “We haven't got much to tell in the way of privation or great struggle. The whole thing went like a dream.” Scott's legend, Huntford argued, owed much to the British love of “heroic disaster,” especially when committed by dash-it-all amateurs.

The paradox is that, even after being thoroughly debunked, the Scott expedition still holds up as an engrossing story—at least as told by Englishwoman Beryl Bainbridge. Examining the historical record with a fiction-writer's eye (she is also the author of The Bottle Factory Outing, Young Adolf, An Awfully Big Adventure and other novels), she credits Scott with a virtue that Huntford overlooked: empathy for his men. “One could see in his eyes … that his heart was too big for his boots. God knows how, but he's managed to surmount his naval training and retain his essential humanity.” Bainbridge gives these lines to Titus Oates, whose grudging praise gains credibility from his being Scott's chief detractor among his four subordinates on the Polar trek.

Otherwise, her Scott looks very like Huntford's: whiny, “nervy,” bull-headed, short on self-confidence, intent on attributing his own errors to poor performance by colleagues or plain bad luck—altogether a captivating fool. Here he is, taking his turn as one of the novel's five first-person narrators, weaving a series of miscues into a farrago of destiny: “Everything fitted into place—the decline of the ponies, the death of Wearie Willie [the weakest of those ponies], the calamitous fall of the dogs into the crevasse. Let those who believe in random happenings, Caesar among them, carry on believing the fault lies in ourselves; nobody will ever convince me that the stars don't play a part in it.”

The counterpoint to this sense of impending doom is the fey optimism of “Birdie” Bowers, the expedition's navigator. One night (or was it day?—and who's to say which is which during the austral winter?) the moon comes out from behind clouds, lighting up “a gigantic crevasse lidded with a shiny covering of thin ice.”

“At the time,” Bowers recalls, “we were running downhill, the sledges at our heels and, but for that sudden pale illumination, we would most certainly have perished. I understood then that providence was on our side; it was unthinkable to believe God would save us simply to prolong the agony.” It turned out, though, that providence was indeed a sadist.

In case you're still scratching your head about those ponies, there was a precedent for importing them as Antarctic beasts of burden. Ernest Shackleton, Scott's chief British polar rival, had done so. But what Scott didn't bother to find out was how and why they had failed Shackleton. For Scott, they performed much as any schoolchild might predict, breaking through soft snow and sinking up to their rumps. Some died; the others had to be put down. Similarly, he brought motor cars south for transport without properly testing them; they seized up in the cold almost immediately. He and his men were reduced to serving as their own draft animals, hauling sledges loaded with food and fuel and gear. Amundsen and some of his men skied alongside while dogs pulled their sledges.

Bainbridge is known for mixing comedy and dread. We get a glimpse of Scott's wife, Kathleen, accidentally squirting him while eating grapefruit at a testimonial breakfast before departure. Then, as the expedition blunders toward catastrophe, the humor takes on a gallows tinge: One man's dream of a tap-dancer performing onstage gives way to the real-life sound of his tentmate's teeth chattering. There is nothing funny, however, about the novel's climactic scene: the crew's discovery, near the Pole, of a flag in their path—crushing proof that Amundsen has beaten them.

Frequently the narrators pause to evoke their sensations en route. Bowers again: “We ran into a series of blizzards of such icy ferocity that our minds threatened to become as numbed as our bodies. We were almost worse off in the tent than out of it, for our breath and the steam from the cooker deposited a rim of boar frost on the inner lining which, if we left the cooker burning long enough, gradually melted and dropped mercilessly down upon us. Our sleeping bags were daily turned into frozen boards, and in trying to prise them open one had to be careful lest the leather [break] like glass.”

The Birthday Boys (the title comes from the trekkers' placement of inordinate value on birthday celebrations so far from home) is something of a departure for the author, whose novels typically depict half-baked characters in prosaic settings—e.g., the young Hitler repeatedly spooking himself on his 1912 visit to his emigre-brother in Liverpool. Here, rather commonplace characters (perhaps too much so for their own good) flail about in a milieu whose peculiarity knows no bounds. Either way, the author provides her customary sculpted prose, throwaway dark jokes and keen-eyed scrutiny of human flaws. If not all of Beryl Bainbridge's previous novels have traveled well beyond England, perhaps the lasting appeal of the Scott saga will bring her the wide readership she deserves.

Gary Krist (review date 17 April 1994)

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SOURCE: “Antarctic Antics,” in New York Times Book Review, April 17, 1994, p. 15.

[In the following review, Krist offers favorable assessment of The Birthday Boys.]

“All Englishmen are virtuous,” wrote George Orwell in his novel Burmese Days—“when they are dead.” And certainly death does seem to have a remarkable effect on the moral character, regardless of the corpse's nationality. No sooner is a body cold in the ground than the eulogies begin, obscuring the psychological complexities of the living person beneath a layer of sonorous pieties. This kind of posthumous revisionism is especially pronounced in the case of soldiers, politicians, explorers and others who have fallen in service to God and country in remote latitudes. Whatever these people may have been in life, in death they are transformed.

It is, I feel, partly to debunk such sentimentalized views of the figures of our past that some writers are drawn to the historical novel. And few have risen to the task more ingeniously than Beryl Bainbridge in her extraordinary new novel, The Birthday Boys. Ms. Bainbridge, the British writer responsible for such refreshingly eccentric books as The Bottle Factory Outing and An Awfully Big Adventure, takes as her subject Robert Falcon Scott, a dead Englishman, but one whose most famous act in the service of his country is naggingly difficult to sanctify.

Scott, of course, was the British naval officer and explorer who led two celebrated expeditions to Antarctica in the early decades of this century. The second culminated in an all-out race to the South Pole, with Scott's team reaching the objective in January 1912, only to find that Roald Amundsen, a Norwegian, had already come and gone a month earlier. Disheartened, Scott and his four companions planted a Union Jack on the spot, photographed themselves around it and then headed back home. On the way, pummeled by blizzards and debilitated by dwindling supplies, they all died—gradually, agonizingly and (some would say) futilely.

The rehabilitation of this tragic fiasco has presented a challenge for the official spin doctors. Most early accounts seemed to find little ambiguity in the heroism and worth of Scott's achievement. But later historians sensed troubling dissonances: hints that the tragedy may have been attributable more to Scott's organizational weaknesses than to unusual weather; suspicions that Scott's resolve may have been diluted by uncertainty and petty jealousies; suggestions that the whole idea of dashing to the Pole was a folly to begin with. The debate has been colored by the fact that the only detailed, firsthand source of information about the group's final days is Scott himself, through his diaries and letters, which contain a few too many self-justifications and pro forma paeans to the courage of his fellow English gentlemen to be entirely reliable. Interestingly enough, the diary of Capt. Lawrence Edward (Titus) Oates, Scott's colleague and principal critic on the march, was never published, destroyed, by order of his mother, after her death.

And that's where Ms. Bainbridge comes in. Bringing her subversive and ever-mischievous imagination to bear on the subject, she fills in the details neglected by Scott's diary, deepening the portrait of stiff-upper-lip heroism by adding the sometimes ugly shadows that suggest real life. She accomplishes this by creating a separate monologue for each of the five men who died on the return from the Pole—Petty Officer Edgar (Taff) Evans, Dr. Edward (Uncle Bill) Wilson, Lieut. Henry Robertson (Birdie) Bowers, Titus Oates and Scott himself, who comes off here as the complex man he must really have been: insecure yet determined; insightful but often unfairly critical; strong in his leadership but all too ready to blame others and poor luck for his own mistakes.

These five monologues, which contain some of the most convincing and slyly revealing first-person narrative I've ever read, span a remarkable range of voices and dispositions, but what they share is a mesmerizing readability. Taken in tandem, they relate a story far more interesting than that of five virtuous Englishmen rising nobly to the occasion in extreme circumstances; instead, they present us with a microcosmic society of flawed individuals, pushed and pulled even in a frozen wilderness by the subtle dictates of class, personality and ambition.

Hovering above these five distinctive sensibilities, moreover, is a sixth—that of Kathleen Scott, the explorer's irreverent, unconventional wife, whom we see only through the prism of the other narratives. Kathleen, I feel, is Ms. Bainbridge's own representative in the novel, gazing down on the entire polar endeavor with a mixture of emotions—a compassionate respect for the obvious courage of these men, on the one hand, but also a critical, somewhat ironic detachment, the judging eye of one whose penetrating intelligence cannot be switched off, even by the sentimental requirements of familial or patriotic duty.

There is, in fact, an amused, almost maternal indulgence in Ms. Bainbridge's stance toward these “birthday boys,” who seem noticeably, even abnormally, preoccupied with horseplay, their mothers and their birthday celebrations. The author seems to regard their embarrassed need to be the center of attention on their own special days as not entirely unrelated to their motives in being first to reach the South Pole. “Is it nothing more than a game?” one expedition member asks while preparing a foray into the Antarctic wasteland. This is a question that hangs suggestively over the entire book. Ms. Bainbridge is too subtle a writer to engage in blatant polemics, but her novel does imply a critique of something more than just the so-called “Heroic Age of Polar Exploration.” It seems to pass judgment on the whole ethos of action, conquest and empire upon which so much of European history has been based.

Of course, I may be reading too much into the book, and fortunately it succeeds on many levels besides the political, most notably the visceral level of the adventure story. Much of the action is related with a brutal directness that can set the bones to aching in sympathy: “On the 12th day the temperature registered -69 degrees. Cherry crawled out of the tent and turned his head to the right, and instantly his balaclava froze to his windjacket. For four hours he had to pull with his head stuck in that position.” When reading of such exertions, my amazement that a person could endure such hardship was exceeded only by my astonishment that anyone would actually choose to do so.

But there is another endurance tale associated with The Birthday Boys—that of the book's prepublication history in this country. First released in Britain in 1991, the novel apparently did not please Ms. Bainbridge's previous American publishers and did not readily find another home. The reason for the delay is perhaps understandable. Ms. Bainbridge's exhilarating refusal to produce a homogeneous, easy-to-categorize body of work has prevented her from achieving a wide audience on this side of the Atlantic, and the sheer unexpectedness of this brilliant novel might prove even more confusing to potential readers. Certainly the editors at Carroll & Graf deserve credit for taking a chance on it. But the fact that a work of this caliber should have any trouble at all reaching readers is disheartening, another ominous sign that American publishing may be entering a long, cold, Antarctic winter of its own.

Michael D. Schaffer (review date 9 June 1994)

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SOURCE: “Sculpture of Courage,” in Chicago Tribune, June 9, 1994, p. 5.

[In the following review, Schaffer offers positive assessment of The Birthday Boys.]

Nothing punishes like the cold. If you doubt this, remember how miserable you felt just a few months ago when winter seemed endless.

Not surprisingly, some modern fiction writers have found that they can map the terrain of the human soul more accurately at horribly low temperatures, when body and mind move in slow motion.

English author Beryl Bainbridge does this skillfully in The Birthday Boys, a fictional account of Robert Falcon Scott's disastrous expedition to the South Pole in 1912.

Scott and each of the four men who will die with him tell part of the story of their doomed project. Despite differences of personality and background, they share the naive bravery of overgrown boys on a great adventure-boyish enough to remember their birthdays even under the most desperate conditions. Hence, The Birthday Boys.

Imbued with all the robust self-confidence of pre-World War I England, they are men who live by a code of sportsmanship. Winning is not the most important thing; honor is. And they would politely brush aside a helping hand, certain that success counts only if achieved under the most formidable odds.

“The world is changing, and soon the machine will be of more importance than the body,” observes the most boyish of the birthday boys, Lt. Henry Robertson “Birdie” Bowers. He marvels that “it's tremendous luck to have been born into the last few seconds of an epoch in which a man is still required to stand up and be counted.”

Bainbridge explores friendship, loyalty, leadership, class differences and the love that grows from sharing hardships.

She uses Petty Officer Edgar “Taff” Evans, a blustering drinker and spinner of tales, to tell us what real cold is all about:

“To be cold is when … the mercury freezes in the thermometer. Petrol won't burn … and even an Eskimo dog can't work, because its lungs will stop functioning,” Evans says, recalling an earlier trip to Antarctica.

To survive under those conditions, the members of the expedition must rely on the leadership of Scott. And Scott, though brave and conscientious, is unequal to the task.

Scott's worst decision is to disregard the conventional wisdom on Antarctic travel and use ponies rather than sled dogs to haul the expedition's supplies. The dogs—snarling, vicious and always ready to fight—offend Scott's sense of propriety. The ponies flounder in the deep snow and their failure cripples the expedition.

Whatever his deficiencies as a leader, Scott is a relentless competitor. “For Scott, there was no such word as impossible, or if there was, it was listed in a dictionary for fools,” observes another member of the expedition, the stiff-necked Capt. Lawrence Edward “Titus” Oates.

When the English explorers arrive at the South Pole, they find that the Norwegian Roald Amundsen has beaten them by about a month.

“We took a photograph of ourselves,” Oates tells us. “I don't think any of us had the heart to smile. Then we started for home.”

Bainbridge creates images that are startling, beautiful, haunting. Evans, who has fallen into a crevasse and is dangling by the traces of the sledge he has been pulling, tells us: “I was scared for my life, but at the same time I couldn't help noticing how bright everything was, the ice not really blue at all but shot through with spangled points of rosy light so dazzling that it made me crinkle up my eyes as though I had something to smile about.”

While the principal characters are skillfully drawn, Bainbridge doesn't quite pull off the five different voices. Each narrator sounds like the same person affecting five different accents.

But that's a small flaw, and it doesn't detract from Bainbridge's accomplishment. She has created an elegant ice sculpture of courage, loyalty and brotherly love.

Amy Gamerman (review date 13 July 1994)

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SOURCE: “A Writer's Dreams of Darkest Antarctica,” in Wall Street Journal, July 13, 1994, p. A12.

[In the following review, Gamerman offers praise for The Birthday Boys.]

The Antarctica of Beryl Bainbridge's novel The Birthday Boys is a land of “ice not really blue at all but shot through with spangled points of rosy light,” a land of cold so intense it can shatter a man's teeth into crumbs.

In fact, Ms. Bainbridge's novel about Robert Falcon Scott's doomed 1910 expedition to the South Pole is so convincingly icy, you might think she packed her parka and went there herself. But she confined her polar explorations to London.

“I did think of spending one night in Regent's Park, but I never got around to it,” the 59-year-old British novelist confides in her low, scratchy voice on a recent visit here. “I don't like the cold.”

So she just imagined it. The Birthday Boys weaves fiction around the facts of Scott's expedition, doomed almost from the start: The motorized sledges Scott lugged to Antarctica broke down, his ponies collapsed, and he didn't bring enough dogs. Scott and his four-man party did make it to the South Pole—only to freeze to death after discovering that they had been beaten there by the Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen.

Drawing on her reading of their letters and journals, Ms. Bainbridge delves into the minds of those five men: from Scott, a driven and emotional leader who writes off his blunders as bad luck, to the heroically chipper Birdie Bowers, who risks death for a ludicrous mission to collect penguin eggs, because “there was something splendid, sublime even, in pitting oneself against the odds.” In the process, she captures the doomed idealism of a British empire on the verge of dissolution, whistling in the dark of an antarctic blizzard.

It's one of Ms. Bainbridge's best novels yet. Curiously, The Birthday Boys is also the one that has taken her farthest from her factual and fictional home turf: Liverpool, where many of her 13 novels are set. She was born there in 1934, the daughter of a traveling salesman and his slightly better-born wife. Her early childhood was shaped by World War II and the hail of bombs that fell on Liverpool.

“One went into shelters every night,” recalls Ms. Bainbridge, a birdlike woman in a brown suit who smokes cigarette after cigarette from her mother's old monogrammed case. “Then I got double pneumonia and my parents put me under the dining-room table instead.”

The blitz from above was echoed in the turmoil in the Bainbridge house. Her father went bankrupt, a secret so shameful it was kept from young Beryl and her brother. That secret poisoned an already turbulent family life. Her parents “loathed each other,” she says. Her father alternated between explosive fits of rage and periods of moody withdrawal. (After one blowup, 15-year-old Beryl tried to rent rooms for her mother and herself at a local hotel—not knowing it doubled as the local brothel.) It was to make sense of her home life that she began writing at the age of eight or nine.

“I had a huge book on the travels of Dr. Livingston and Stanley in the jungle, beautifully cut like a huge old Bible,” she remembers. “I used to get an exercise page from my schoolbooks and make paste from flour and water and stick that over the marvelous prints, and write about my mother and father. The only thing is that in time the flour and water swelled, so the book wouldn't close. There was no privacy in that house, and I was terrified of them ever seeing it. So I burnt it.”

From then on, she only wrote “sub-Treasure Island and Dickens.” Such literary aspirations notwithstanding, she was expelled from her upscale grammar school at the age of 14 for illustrating a naughty rhyme by one of her classmates. “Since I was quite good at showing off,” her parents sent her to ballet school instead.

She had proven her talent at showing off by the age of 11, when in answer to a newspaper ad she began acting in BBC radio plays. But after nine months at the ballet school, Ms. Bainbridge left—never to return to school of any kind again. Instead, at 15 she got a job at a local playhouse as stage manager, bit player and general dogsbody: an experience she drew on for her 1989 novel, An Awfully Big Adventure. Her acting career continued until her first marriage, and included small parts in a few London productions and in the popular British TV series Coronation Street.

Although Ms. Bainbridge had written a few children's stories for radio, her writing career didn't begin in earnest until her marriage ended (she has three children). She moved to London and has remained there ever since. But the novels she began to write were all set in Liverpool of her youth, their characters figures from her past. In some cases, she didn't even bother to change the names: Nellie and Margo, the eccentric aunts of her 1973 novel, The Dressmaker (published here as The Secret Glass)—a darkly funny story about a young girl's ill-fated crush on an American soldier—are based on her own very real aunts.

“The first six or seven books were based on my childhood,” she says. “After a while, I used it all up and had to go elsewhere.”

But “elsewhere” often took her back to her own doorstep. Ms. Bainbridge's 1978 novel, Young Adolf, is based on Hitler's actual stay of several months in Liverpool with his half-brother in 1912. “Adolf was my father,” she declares. Both men were born in 1889, and for a brief time lived in the same city. Young Hitler—like her father—“had no friends, no money and no future.” Her 1984 novel, Watson's Apology, was inspired by the story of a real-life Victorian schoolteacher who bludgeoned his wife to death. Ms. Bainbridge drew on Watson's actual letters, but the character she created “was half my dad and half Dr. Johnson”—the curmudgeonly 18th-century literary critic.

Like those novels, The Birthday Boys is closer to home than one might think. Asked how she went about creating the British navy Capt. Scott, the writer answers: “I tried to imagine my father as upper class and naval.”

She also hung expedition members' photographs on her study walls, and even did paintings of them. Chance phrases gleaned from their letters and diaries helped bring them to life, such as the comment by one party member that “Scott was a dreadful man for blubbing” (Britspeak for crying).

“You act them in your head,” she says. “I mean, I'd walk around going, ‘Put up the mainsail,’ that sort of thing.”

Those men are still in her mind. Even now, she is haunted by the thought of them, lying in the shroud of their collapsed tent somewhere beneath the snow in that land of luminous ice.

“They're still there … perfectly preserved. They're on an ice shelf that moves terribly slowly. They won't tip into the sea for a long while yet,” she murmurs. “They're the lost boys.”

Judith Freeman (review date 7 August 1994)

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SOURCE: “Polar Adventure,” in Los Angeles Times Book Review, August 7, 1994, pp. 10, 15.

[In the following review, Freeman offers favorable assessment of The Birthday Boys.]

The Birthday Boys, a new novel by the English author Beryl Bainbridge, is an imagined account of Capt. Robert Falcon Scott's expedition to the South Pole in 1912, told in the voices of Scott and four men who followed him to their deaths. In each account a birthday is celebrated, or mentioned—thus the title. It's an ironic touch by a novelist noted for her droll humor. A darker, more tragic story couldn't be masquerading under a more jovial veneer.

I read The Birthday Boys in one sitting, in a state of complete absorption, stunned by its beauty, by the depth of its accomplishment, but perhaps most of all by the audacious choice of historical subject matter which Bainbridge has appropriated and so flawlessly rendered into fiction.

The facts of Capt. Scott's adventure are known. His second expedition (the first failed) was mounted shortly after hearing that Shackleton, in 1911, had been forced to turn back only half a dozen marches short of the South Pole. Scott's subsequent race for the prize was thwarted by Amundsen, who set out around the same time and beat him to the pole by a matter of days—some argue because Scott had chosen to experiment with motorized vehicles and the ill-fated ponies for transport rather than relying on the sled dogs Amundsen had favored.

But these are only the facts, and what seems less explored, and the perfect provenance for a novelist, is the deeper story of who these men really were. Each had a mother or a wife, a life he left behind, and these relationships are so subtly and economically evoked they become as much a part of the story as the physical privations that are endured.

It was a brilliant decision to chose to tell this story from five different perspectives, for it allows the complexities and contradictions to emerge. For instance, Petty Officer Taff Evans, a working-class Welshman valued for his brute strength and mechanical prowess, has a dogged devotion to Scott, who treats him with deep respect in spite of their class differences; the upper-crust Capt. Oates, sensing Scott's weakness for making mistakes and shifting the blame to others, mutters behind his back and offers quite a different portrait of their leader.

The actual march to the pole takes up the smallest portion of the story. It's the preparations, the long journey to Antarctica by sea, the months spent acclimating, waiting for the weather to break, Scott's mistrust of dogs, the motors that fail or are lost, that provide the bulk of the drama.

The little recollections of the lives they've left behind weight the story emotionally. Scott misses his wife, whose absence feels like an “amputation.” Birdie Bowers, still a virginal young man, swears his mother appears at the edge of a crevasse and weeps frozen tears before the apparition.

To the very end, the men behave with consummate kindness toward each other. They seem to increase in humanity as their chances for survival dwindle. “One just has to believe that it's within one's spiritual domain to conquer difficulties,” Scott says. “That is not to say that I don't recognize there has to be a time to submit, possibly a time to die, merely that I've never yet been taken to the brink.”

But he is soon taken to the brink, and beyond. Weak and starving, dispirited beyond words at finding Amundsen's tracks at the pole when they arrive, the men turn back, huddle in their tent, their frostbitten flesh red and purple, “shining with that same sort of sweet glaze one sees on rotten meat.”

For Scott, who in his ruthlessness of purpose resembled Napoleon, there was no such word as impossible, or if there was, as one character says, it was listed in a dictionary for fools. Bravery was a conscious act of discipline. “Is it true that adversity brings out the best in men?” Dr. Wilson is asked at one point. “Yes,” is the answer, “good men, that is.”

In a sense, Bainbridge has made all five characters “good men,” by simply giving them such full and rich human dimensions. “It's to be regretted that the best of me, the part that recognizes both the horror and beauty of destiny, remains submerged,” Scott writes. But it is exactly those submerged parts that Bainbridge excavates.

Scott always claimed that he meant his journey to be as much a scientific expedition as a quest for the pole (he derided Amundsen for being interested only in glory). In one of the most moving sections of The Birthday Boys, Lt. Bowers, a scientist, leads a small party to retrieve some emperor penguin eggs and endures a nightmarish ordeal. Later, musing on the horrors of that experience and the affection he feels for his companions, he comments: “It may be that the purpose of the worst journey in the world had been to collect eggs which might prove a scientific theory, but we'd unraveled a far greater mystery on the way—the missing link between God and man is brotherly love.”

Alex Clark (review date 6 January 1995)

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SOURCE: “Awfully Small Adventures,” in Times Literary Supplement, January 6, 1995, p. 20.

[In the following review, Clark offers tempered evaluation of Bainbridge's Collected Stories.]

Beryl Bainbridge is a prolific and highly accomplished writer, not simply in terms of the volume of her output—she has fourteen novels and five television plays to her credit—but also because of the range of ideas it displays. She seems capable of pressing her distinctive style into the service of the most inspired of plot structures, but is not entirely keen on the short story as a vehicle for her ingenuity. We know this because in a piece in this collection, entitled “How I Began,” she reflects on how she embarked, at the age of thirteen, on her novella Filthy Lucre: “It seemed to me, even then, that a short story was a waste of a good idea.” She remains unconvinced, explaining that this lack of faith lies behind the recycling of many of the stories, restricted here by the format, into television plays or full-length novels. Filthy Lucre itself, which was published separately in 1986, forms part of this volume, as if to reassert the author's commitment to the grand scale. It is a Dickensian saga of precocious complexity and extravagance, spanning several generations and peopled by fantastically named characters. The rest of the book consists of a previously published collection of twelve stories, Mum and Mr Armitage, and six uncollected stories, four of which have already appeared elsewhere.

The pieces from Mum and Mr Armitage are by far the most successful, although they definitely derive something from the cumulative effect of being written for a specific collection. Despite her misgivings, Bainbridge's style, and in particular her talent for deadpan dialogue, survives the constraints of the shortened form and, in some places, even seems to thrive. The quirky situations and casts of eccentrics are enhanced by the elliptical and immediate qualities that further elaboration might destroy. Bainbridge is at her best when giving full rein to her characters, often awkward and lonely people who feel that the plot is getting the better of them.

In the story “Mum and Mr Armitage,” a group of regulars at a country hotel await the arrival of the inappropriately nicknamed “Mum” and her shadowy companion with a near-hysterical devotion that prevents them from seeing the reality of their own situations or the true nature of what they admire. Mum is a practical joker driven by spite and an unerring sense of other people's weaknesses; but by the time we find out that she herself has suffered injury and pain, our sympathy is all but spent. This is a neat piece of equivocation that reinforces the sense, present throughout the story, that there is a complicity between victim and oppressor, and that it is closely related to the fictions we employ to protect ourselves from the truth. It is a theme reiterated in “The Worst Policy,” a tale of marital infidelity, and “Through a Glass Brightly,” the story of a lonely divorcee who dabbles with a crystal ball and consequently learns the dangers of setting oneself up as a truth-teller.

Some of the pieces scarcely seem to be stories at all, but are more like vivid fragments of writing attached to rather slight ideas. It may be true that you can squander a good idea in a short story; it is also true that good short-story writing can be blighted by an ill-conceived or semi-digested idea. This problem is particularly prevalent where Bainbridge mixes the supernatural with her original style of comic realism. “Beggars Would Ride,” an amusing exploration of male rivalry and pretension, is somewhat scuppered by the italicized paragraph at the beginning tenuously relating the action to a mysterious happening in 1605. Similarly, the almost identical stories “Poles Apart” and “Kiss Me, Hardy,” which rely on liars being caught out when their make-believe comes true, start from an interesting premiss but peter out in a welter of brilliantly realized details of little substance. At these times, Bainbridge does appear to be rehearsing for the main act; and although these stories contain good writing, they only occasionally achieve any depth. One feels that she is holding back, and this denies her short stories the resonance that they seem to promise.

Judy Cooke (review date 13 September 1996)

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SOURCE: “Before the Deluge,” in New Statesman, September 13, 1996, p. 46.

[In the following review, Cooke offers favorable assessment of Every Man for Himself.]

“Though not vain, I'm aware that my outward appearance raises expectations.” Thus 22-year-old Morgan, narrator of Beryl Bainbridge's novel: a gilded youth aspiring to significance, a romantic, hopeless with girls, a Wooster looking for a Jeeves. His uncle owns the shipping line shortly to launch the miracle of the age, the unsinkable Titanic.

On 8 August 1912 Morgan travels to Southampton to join his chums for the maiden voyage. Melchett and Van Hopper complain they wasted three hours waiting for him to turn up at the Café Royal. A baronet's daughter flirts with him. Wallis Ellery, “clever and absolutely unobtainable”, begins to obsess him. His range of acquaintances broadens to include Rosenfelder, a Liverpool tailor; a deserted chanteuse, Adele, intent on rebuilding her career in the States; the mysterious Scurra, dapper and well-informed; and a host of American and European types, from the aristocrats travelling incognito to a devoted old couple, Mr and Mrs Straus—whose role is reminiscent of Mr and Mrs Smiths' in Greene's The Comedians, a novel comparable to Bainbridge's in scope and tone.

Having assembled this varied and doomed cast, the author describes their inner journeys on the road to oblivion. The Titanic was afloat only five days before she struck the iceberg; within that tight dramatic framework the novel creates, then subverts Edwardian glamour. The coming war, as much as the immediate tragedy, is a brooding presence.

Right from the start, when a stranger dies in Morgan's arms on a London street, the omens are bad. A fire rages unchecked in the stokehold. The Titanic, pushed to beat her estimated arrival time in New York, is going too fast. Why does Scurra, before the catastrophe, insist that “it's every man for himself”?

Morgan is an engaging narrator, increasing in moral stature as the certainties of his life begin to crumble. His parentage has always been in doubt: at last, he learns the nightmarish truth. Scurra, who enlightens him, teaches him about self-interest, never more effectively than when making noisy love to Wallis within earshot of his aroused and anguished young rival. There are no nice gels, and no reliable father figures.

Bainbridge hits a tremendous pace as her story reaches its climax. In a remarkably concise book, shot through with laconic wit, she establishes complex characters who engage first the reader's curiosity, then affection. The elegiac theme extends far beyond the historical event. There are some choice farcical scenes in the swimming pool and on the dance floor. Then shots are heard as resolution dissolves into panic; the orchestra plays hymns on deck and “the water, first slithering, then tumbling”, reveals the identities of those who will survive.

Jane Gardam (review date 14 September 1996)

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SOURCE: “It Was Sad When That Great Ship Went Down,” in Spectator, September 14, 1996, p. 35.

[In the following review, Gardam offers positive assessment of Every Man for Himself.]

Beryl Bainbridge's first novel in five years is a short, taut piece of historical fiction, an account of the classic tragedy of the sinking in 1912 of the ‘unsinkable’ Titanic on her maiden voyage to America.

Every novel, of course, unless it is pure fable or allegory, is a historical novel. There is no present moment. Describe a current fashion or event—the gold ring in the navel, the heart-disease of Mr Yeltsin—and at once it is in the past. We need the sense of history in fiction, the light catching the provincial tea-service of Maggie Tulliver's aunt, Anna Karenina's black velvet ballgown heavy with lace. When it comes to a story like the Titanic, however, researched, physical, homely detail is not only poignant but essential. The vanishing of the Titanic was symbol of the end of an age and ghastly omen of what was coming next, when the Great War was to sweep first-class and steerage away again, but this time in larger numbers.

It is quite brave to retell a story so well known. Titanic means hubris. It is almost hackneyed, but it will not go away. This summer, nearly a century on, two million pounds have been spent unsuccessfully trying to raise her bones. The story can hold no surprises. There is no surprise even about Bainbridge's hero, Morgan, for being the narrator he must have survived.

Bainbridge places him and his set of bright young things, the hugely wealthy, aimless, idle, American and English glitterati, shadowed by familial madness and dissipation, inside the wonderful structure of the ship. A visit to her engine rooms suggests to them that man is catching up with God. For their last four days on earth they move about the eight towering decks, each 800 feet long, gymnasia, Turkish baths, concert hall, ballrooms, church. The reflection off the mahogany panels in the saloons makes their expensive complexions glow. The corridors are inlaid with mother-of-pearl. The restaurants are indistinguishable from the Ritz. On the upper decks the women are hung with sapphires, in steerage with shawls and crying babies. We know that everything is eggshell-fragile and soon will plunge the two black miles to the bed of the ocean.

When the iceberg strikes it rips the ship's great flank like a surgeon's scalpel and on the lower deck they begin to lark and play with snowballs. Detail gathers, begins to take on significance, great vividness. A long, terrifying chronicle ends with Morgan's noticing, just before the final great wave, the excellent polish on the shoes he has changed into from his evening dancing pumps.

There are some revelations and I'd like to know which are imagined, which researched. I believe her, but how does Bainbridge know that iceberg tastes of rancid fish? Was there really a container in the hold labelled ‘Hairnets’? Why does she avoid the folklore we were all brought up on—such as the Egyptian mummy travelling incognito on account of a curse? The description of the orchestra's playing to the last moment Nearer My God to Thee is heart-breaking and wonderful, though she has the players trembling into silence before the end.

And she put me right. I'd always imagined that the Titanic sailed from Liverpool and that this accounts for the creepy atmosphere of the Adelphi Hotel to this day, for it was where passengers spent their last night ashore. It seems that the rows of the doomed stood at the rails looking cheerfully back on Hampshire hills, the woods ‘nudging the town’ and the spire of a church.

But facts, real or imagined, don't make a novel on their own and I'd guess that the spur of this one was the character of Morgan. Who was this bemused, erratic, hard-drinking, lecherous young virgin, heir to great wealth? He has had a dark childhood and believes himself to be cast as an observer of tragedy. Perhaps to cause tragedy. He has an animal awareness of evil and sees it as infectious. On board there is a terrible man called Scurra, a purveyor of poison. Hypnotically attractive, hopeless of the human condition, he spreads the gospel of the impossibility of selfless love. ‘Love is a woman's word.’ It is every man for himself.

As the crowds gather on deck in their top hats (‘useful for baling’) and their rags, at first joking, then scuffling, at last screaming and fighting for the inadequate lifeboats, Scurra lies back in the saloon discussing the Peloponnesian War with a drunk. Morgan, fascinated to the end, can't help sending him a signal as he is swilled away, ‘a fluttering of the fingers as if we were both guests at a social function’.

The novel is overloaded somewhat by Morgan's melodramatic personal history. It lists a bit. But it asks good questions. Can personality affect the physical world? What is fate? Are there people who can engender disaster? And beyond the immediate subject Bainbridge spreads a sense of the darkness outside the ring of temporal light. The ineffectual stars. The last part of the book, and particularly the last scene where dawn comes up over an ocean ‘dotted with islands and fields of ice … a pale fleet on which the little life-boats rocked’, is superb.

John Updike (review date 14 October 1996)

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SOURCE: “It Was Sad,” in New Yorker, October 14, 1996, pp. 94-98.

[In the following excerpted review, Updike discusses the Titanic disaster and Bainbridge's fictional recreation of the tragedy in Every Man for Himself.]

The R.M.S. (Royal Mail Steamer) Titanic, whose sinking, more than eighty-four years ago, made the biggest news splash of the new century, still generates headlines. The discovery of the wreck, in 1985, three hundred and seventy miles southeast of Newfoundland and two and a half miles below the surface of the Atlantic, by a team of scientists from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and the Institut Français de Recherche pour l'Exploitation de la Mer, revivified a fascination that had never quite died. Though the leader of the expedition, Robert Ballard, denounced salvage of the wreck, and placed a plaque on the Titanic's stern declaring it “a sacred resting place,” his French partners in l'exploitation de la mer did not share his qualms. More submersible vessels rather than fewer will likely visit the watery grave and bring sacred relics to the surface. Lumps of coal from the Titanic's bins can be bought for twenty-five dollars each, and nine bottles of Bass Ale (of twelve thousand on board) have been recovered, along with plates, chamber pots, toilet articles, a camera, a gilded chandelier, and a wallet stuffed with money and receipts. The debris is scattered over a square mile; the ship lies in two big pieces, the stern badly damaged but the bow still grand. Touted as “unsinkable,” the Titanic at its launching became the largest movable object ever made by man—eight hundred and eighty-two feet (nearly three football fields) in length, forty-six thousand tons in weight. Her rudder weighed a hundred and one tons, and her hull contained three million rivets. This August, an eleven-ton, twenty-by-twenty-four-foot section of the hull slipped away from the diesel-fuel-filled lifting balloons, giving rise to another headline. A more modest retrieval, a small piece of inch-thick hull steel holding three rivet holes, led to a scientific test in Canada demonstrating that the Titanic steel was sulfur-rich and brittle; modern steel might simply have bent upon contact with the iceberg. So our sense of the Titanic undergoes yet another modification: it was made of bad steel. …

The cries are heard, though, by the twenty-two-year-old hero of Beryl Bainbridge's new novel, Every Man for Himself, when he surfaces out of the undertow of the plunging ship:

I had thought I was entering paradise, for I was alive and about to breathe again, and then I heard the cries of souls in torment and believed myself in hell. Dear God! Those voices! Father … Father … For the love of Christ … Help me, for pity's sake! … Where is my son. Some called for their mothers, some on the Lord, some to die quickly, a few to be saved. The lamentations rang through the frosty air and touched the stars; my own mouth opened in a silent howl of grief. The cries went on and on, trembling, lingering—and God forgive me, but I wanted them to end.

Bainbridge is attracted to disasters and male perspectives; her previous novel, The Birthday Boys, brilliantly renders the Scott expedition to the South Pole, another casualty of 1912, in the voices of the five participants who perished. She boils British heroism down to a boyish camaraderie that makes light of hideous hardships. In Every Man for Himself Bainbridge writes with a kind of betranced confidence, seeming to lose all track of her story only to pop awake for a stunning image or an intense exchange; as postmodern a fictionist as [Steven] Biel is a historian, she only intermittently gives us the ding an sich. Her sudden details make a surreal effect. The hero, Morgan (called nothing else, as if in blunt token of his condition as an adopted son of his uncle J. P. Morgan, the owner of the Titanic's White Star Line), remembers from his childhood a housemaid interrupting her scrubbing to comfort him: “A bubble of soap burst in her hair as she took me on her knee.” When a friend on the Titanic displays a fragment of the iceberg that has brushed the ship, “he thrust it under my nose and it smelt rank, a bit like a sliver of rotten mackerel.” And when the famous band on the doomed vessel goes on deck to play, Morgan, heading down into the lounge, notes, “I could see the score in the carpet where the cellist had dragged up his instrument.” These precisionist visions loom out of a fog of obscure motivation and vague portentousness: “In Scurra's company it was necessary to contemplate the exquisite darkness of the world”; “Pity welled up in me, and envy too, for I might never know the sort of love that gripped her by the throat.”

Hard-drinking Morgan, returning from England to New York in a crowd of chummy nobs, is in love with the “absolutely unobtainable” Wallis Ellery. “Dancing with her was like holding cut glass; Hopper [a chum] got it about right when he complained she made him feel he left finger marks.” Relations between the young in 1912 were sexually constrained:

Most of our time was spent thinking what we might do with women if only we had the chance. There were houses we could go to, of course, but with girls of our own set there was never the slightest opportunity of trying out even a little of what we'd learnt.

Morgan gets a distinct shock, then, when at close quarters he overhears Wallis making kinky love (she likes being tied) with their sinister fellow-passenger Scurra, whose grotesquely split lip is never satisfactorily explained. Scurra is ready to share, however, any number of aperçus. “One must distinguish,” he says, in refutation of Morgan's idealistic Marxism, “between use-value and exchange-value. … Philosophically speaking, life may be said to have use-value, but only for the individual. Its exchange is death, which has no value whatsoever unless one is in severe torment.” Asked by his slowly illumined acolyte if he is in love with Wallis, Scurra replies, “Love? Good heavens! Love is what women feel.”

Wallis is so enamored of Scurra that she has to be dragooned into a lifeboat. In historical actuality, many of the women did at first resist exchanging the vast deck of the luxurious Titanic for a lifeboat swaying in its davits above the black midnight ocean. Captain Smith gave few clear orders; no safety drills had been rehearsed. The confusion of the ship's last two and a half hours could have been worse; crew members, knowing in the pit of their stomachs that these were most likely the last hours of their lives, by and large performed dutifully, and the second- and third-class passengers tended to observe the proprieties, sticking to their sections even as the decks perilously tilted. The band played on. The class system held, though it failed of its basic promise to its lesser orders: Know your place, and you will be taken care of.

In the progress of Morgan's coming of age via glimpses of sex and death, fictional and real characters mingle: he brushes against Mrs. Straus on the ship's Grand Stairway, and observes the Astors looking “as if they'd barely finished a thundering row … he nearing fifty, his long gloomy nose nudging his moustaches, she barely nineteen, her flower head drooping on the stalk of her neck.” He happens to overhear that there are no binoculars in the crow's nest—a detail dear to Titanic scholars. Morgan's knowledge of the ship is above average, since, in obedience to his uncle, he worked for eleven months as an apprentice draftsman to Thomas Andrews, the designer of the great ship and himself on board, attentive to such minute details as the number of screws in the rooms' coat hooks. Amid the novel's somewhat bizarre and ghostly swarm of characters, the phlegmatic Andrews stands out in deserving pity. He was, of the foundering's fifteen hundred victims, the quickest to understand the fatal damage, and the one who knew best the love and labor lost when this nautical masterpiece was carelessly condemned to the bottom of the sea. …

The sinking of the Titanic seems, like the world war that commenced twenty-seven months later, tragically avoidable; it was a disaster that men coasted into, confident of their invulnerability and righteousness. Its awful majesty is not easily assimilated, however, into invented narratives. Reading novels that take place on board is like sitting through the warmup acts of a rock concert, waiting for the star—the crash—to appear. The Titanic's story can't be topped, though it is being extended and reversed by the ship's piecemeal raising. The story's august moral remains: Nothing human is unsinkable.

Karen Heller (review date 22 November 1996)

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SOURCE: “Titanic Resurfaces in Yet Another Novel,” in Chicago Tribune, November 22, 1996, p. 3.

[In the following review, Heller offers positive assessment of Every Man for Himself.]

The most famous shipwreck of our century has launched its own literary genre. Walter Lord, who penned the 1955 best seller A Night to Remember, “recently remarked, without much exaggeration, that a new book about the Titanic disaster is published every week,” writes Steven Biel in Down With the Old Canoe, a cultural history of the disaster published a few weeks ago.

Sure enough, this week's Titanic volume is British novelist Beryl Bainbridge's lyrical Every Man for Himself, which follows Norwegian author Erik Fosnes Hansen's Psalm at Journey's End. These books all arrive on the heels of the failed attempt in August to dredge a 21-ton section of the Titanic from the North Atlantic floor.

The narrator of Every Man is young Morgan, named for his relative J. Pierpont Morgan, owner of the Titanic's White Star Line. Morgan is confused about his heritage and uneasy with the great wealth it brings—though not the swells he attracts.

On board the Titanic, Morgan makes friends with a fashion designer, an opera singer and a mysterious, almost mystical man named Scurra. Morgan pines for a beautiful, unobtainable woman. “No one even dared flirt with Wallis. Dancing with her was like holding cut glass. …” But Wallis, like almost everyone else in Morgan's circle, is not who she appears.

Bainbridge intermingles her own characters with the Titanic's real passengers: Macy's owner Isidor Straus (whose wife, Ida, chose to stay on board and die with her husband), Benjamin Guggenheim, British journalist W. T. Stead and Broadway producer Henry B. Harris.

Like many Titanic books, Every Man for Himself concerns itself with the microcosm of the upper deck. Most of the characters, including Morgan, are hardly admirable. The best of the lot are the wealthy who actually work for a living, including the sage clothing designer Rosenfelder, who observes that Morgan's friends “were not living in the proper world. Their wealth, their poorly nurtured childhoods, their narrow education, their lack of morals separated them from reality.”

While the ship begins to sink slowly, the band plays on and the robber-baron society continues its social swirl.

“Scurra sat below in the Palm Court, sprawled at a table with his legs stretched out. He was discussing the Peloponnesian War with Stead, the journalist. Neither of them took any notice of me. Mr. Stead was neatly dressed for a windy morning on Wall Street. His life-preserver lay draped across his knee.”

Several paragraphs later, the discussion ends politely. Presently, the journalist stood and shook us both by the hand.

‘It's been an interesting trip,’ he observed. ‘I doubt we'll see another one like it.’

“‘Quite,’ said Scurra.”

As the Titanic ruptures, so do conventions. Time seems to slow to a halt even as death laps at the passengers' heels. In luminous and often witty prose, Bainbridge constructs a prism of an era prattling on even as it drowns in the icy deep.

Susan Heeger (review date 24 November 1996)

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SOURCE: “Ship of Fools,” in Los Angeles Times Book Review, November 24, 1996, p. 6.

[In the following review, Heeger posts a positive assessment of Every Man for Himself.]

Its very name described its lordliness on the sea. So vast its passengers got lost on it, so strong it was thought invincible, the Titanic remains one of the most compelling images of prideful folly in modern maritime history. Who doesn't know the story of its maiden voyage and midnight meeting with an iceberg, chandeliers blazing, orchestra tootling out ragtime? Two hours later, mortally wounded, the great double-hulled wonder heeled over and sank, sucking 1,500 people to watery graves.

Ever since, the facts have been hashed and rehashed, the 1912 voyage re-created in articles, books, documentaries and feature and television films. We can't seem to get enough: how many millions of rivets went into that hull and how much oak paneling and inlaid mother of pearl were used to decorate the Palm Court, the Grand Staircase and the first-class writing room? Why weren't they carrying more lifeboats? And, of course, how did it feel to be a passenger—to spend five days downing champagne with the glitterati till the jolt came, the lights blinked and ice showered across the decks?

Joining the throng of Titania is a fast-paced novel that blends known facts with fiction into a coming-of-age tale that also captures a social moment. For acclaimed British novelist Beryl Bainbridge, tragic death is only part of it. What interests her are the thorny moral questions—of fate versus human intervention, of compassionate acts versus an individual's responsibility for himself. Twenty-two hundred people—all with dreams, stories, families, futures—came together on the ship and eventually faced the same nightmare. Many were poor and traveled in steerage, never glimpsing the fabled Palm Court. Others labored below deck, hauling coal and stoking the engines. At the top of the heap, oblivious to dirt and danger, a couple of Astors, a Guggenheim and a Lord and Lady Duff Gordon dined formally and lolled in furs, observing the good form that went with their set. But when all hell broke loose and the upper-crust made for the lifeboats, there were heroes and cowards from every class, those who saved themselves and those whose first thought was for others.

One of the book's heroes, much to his own surprise, turns out to be Morgan, the narrator, a 21-year-old adopted nephew of J. P. Morgan, who owns the Titanic and its shipping line. A bit of a ne'er-do-well, Morgan drinks too much and hangs around with other moneyed wastrels while considering what to make of himself. In search of direction, he listens to just about anyone. Riley, the low-life seaman; Willis, the icy girl he wants; his cronies, who inadvertently show him the ugliness of his own kind. His true mentor is Scurra, a mysterious, charismatic fellow passenger familiar with Morgan's past as an abused and abandoned orphan. Scurra understands that Morgan's beginnings have set him apart from his ilk and made him complicated and kind in ways his friends will never be. Though Morgan's view of himself keeps shifting, Scurra awakens him to something solid at his core.

Bainbridge, author of 14 short, witty books (the most recent, the 1994 Birthday Boys), tells, as usual, a deceptively simple story. It opens with the thunderous moment before the ship sinks and then cuts away to a book-length flashback of the events leading up to it. Throughout Morgan's day-to-day account of social lunches, shipboard intrigues and musicales (all full of perfect-pitch details about manners, clothes, food and slangy chit-chat), the air of doom drifts like a deadly gas. People joke about accidents and bet on the boat's arrival time in New York. There's talk of thickening ice and nearby ships changing course for warmer waters. Meanwhile, the Titanic's designer is busy fussing over bathroom taps and passengers are having affairs and scrambling to make social and business connections.

All of which considering what we know is coming, adds up to an ongoing meditation on fate—the fate that puts some people on a sinking ship and moves others to change their plans or miss the boat; the fate that hooks up an aspiring couturier with the perfect model and then drowns them both. “We are like lambs in the field,” Scurra muses, “cropping the grass under the eye of the butcher who chooses first one then another to meet his requirements.”

Yet, as Morgan discovers, something inside us has a say in things too, and through adversity we come face to face with what we're made of. No theoretical discussions of character can prepare him for his own courage on the night of every-man-for-himself. In fact, the chief pleasure of the book—apart from the thrill of sailing the Titanic with Bainbridge—lies in watching this likable goof-up emerge from his shell of privilege and become a person to be reckoned with.

F.Y.I. Titanic buffs: W. W. Norton has just released two new nonfiction books on the legendary boat: In Titanic: Destination Disaster. The Legends and the Reality, John P. Eaton and Charles A. Haas update their 1987 book, which attempted to make sense of the tragedy. Steven Biel's Down With the Old Canoe: A Cultural History of the Titanic Disaster examines America's complicated reactions to the sinking and what this says about America.

Kate Saunders (review date 1 May 1998)

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SOURCE: “History As You Have Never Seen It Before,” in New Statesman, May 1, 1998, p. 59.

[In the following review, Saunders offers praise for Master Georgie.]

Some well-established novelists, garlanded with praise and blunted by success, become tired or lazy, or allow their once zeitgeisty voices to date. Not Beryl Bainbridge, who gets better and better. Master Georgie completes a trilogy of remarkable historical novels, following The Birthday Boys and Every Man For Himself.

The novels themselves have no links, except that they revisit events overburdened with legend—Scott's last expedition, the sinking of the Titanic—and cut away all received notions. This is history as you have never seen it. Heaven help you if you like your Great Moments softened and sentimentalised. Like a latter-day Lytton Strachey, Bainbridge knocks down monuments merely by highlighting all the little things that did not fit in to the accepted versions. Her heroes are reduced to their proper human size, and magnified to represent much more than their own experiences.

Master Georgie is narrated by three characters, all being swept towards the carnage of the Crimean War. Myrtle is rescued from a Liverpool cellar and taken into the home of the wealthy Hardy family. She is probably the illegitimate child of dissolute Mr Hardy. Pompey Jones is a hard-headed urchin with a talent for survival. Dr Potter is a failed geologist, with a fatal and comical inability to see beneath the surface of things.

Georgie, seen through these three pairs of eyes, is the eldest Hardy son. Myrtle is his slave. She is at his heels when he discovers the dead body of his father, in the bed of a whore. Both Pompey and Myrtle help him to avoid disgrace by getting the corpse home in a Punch-and-Judy wagon—a bizarre hearse, destined to appear again at the novel's end as a symbol of the indignity and casual brutality of death.

Years later we find Myrtle transformed from a grubby slave to a young lady, accepted and loved by the whole Hardy family. She appears to be a devoted, spinsterish, quasi-aunt, but appearances were never more deceptive. “If ever there was a woman with fairy dust in her eyes,” comments Potter, married to George's sister, “it was she.” Myrtle has made an idol of George. When she follows him to Scutari (he is a doctor working in hideous conditions), she gladly becomes like Sweet Polly Oliver in the old ballad, dressed in dead men's clothes to follow her love to battle.

Pompey, whose fortune was also made by helping at old Hardy's embarrassing death, knows another side of George, which stirs him into a stunted approximation of sympathy for the sacrifices Myrtle has made for him. He is in the Crimea as a photographer's assistant. The Crimean War was the first to be photographed, and the camera is presented here as a great liar and manipulator of history.

As for Dr Potter, he muddles along, reducing history to absurd personal detail: for instance, when “over 200 cavalry horses of the Light Brigade stampeded into the camp, their riders having perished in a charge,” he notes his transport problems are solved. History, before the history-makers have set to work, is an untidy and pathetic business. Bainbridge uses her supremely ironic hindsight to convey the fragility of life, the chaos and squalor of war, and the human craving for idols.

Master Georgie is a teeming epic, reduced to fit into a nutshell. Beryl Bainbridge is at her most brilliantly original in the dangerous and undignified area between high tragedy and low farce. Her triumphant novel deserves to be read at least twice, to milk every inference from sentences laden with meaning.

Daniel M. Murtaugh (review date 6 November 1998)

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SOURCE: “Worth Reading Twice,” in Commonweal, November 6, 1998, p. 26.

[In the following review, Murtaugh offers favorable evaluation of Master Georgie.]

Beryl Bainbridge's Master Georgie pursues the interests and, to some extent, the methods of her two previous historical novels, The Birthday Boys (1995) and Every Man for Himself (1996). Those two novels dealt with memorable events of 1912: the fatal expedition to the South Pole led by Robert Falcon Scott and the sinking of the Titanic. These disasters were celebrated in England for their displays of chivalry in extremis, the attractive, manly imprudence and amateurism which, to the disenchanted and postimperial eye, were largely responsible for bringing them about. Scott's expedition failed, after all, because it lacked the prosaic professionalism of the Norwegian team that reached the Pole with no casualties. And nearly half of the capacity of the Titanic's lifeboats went unused because there were no precautionary boat drills. But this incompetence was the felix culpa that gave a premise to heroism and models for England's young men. Master Georgie takes us back some six decades to the Crimean War, a scandalously mismanaged campaign which squandered troops to disease and mud and had its most conspicuous folly, the charge of the Light Brigade, burnished into another chivalric myth by Lord Tennyson.

The charge impinges obliquely on the action of Master Georgie. On the miserable periphery of battle, one of its three narrators takes some comfort in being “at least better off as far as transport is concerned; three days ago over two hundred cavalry horses of the Light Brigade stampeded into the camp, their riders having perished in a charge along the north valley.” He buys at auction a “mare so shocked by its recent subjection to bombardment as to have passed beyond nervousness into a state bordering on imbecility, and therefore manageable.”

That obliqueness characterizes the whole novel. The central character, George Hardy, is visible to us only in the cracked mirror of the accounts of three dependents. He is a restless, attractive bisexual, heir to a Liverpool fortune, a surgeon and amateur photographer who feels “that the war would at last provide him with the prop he needed.” He is, in different ways, a beloved central concern of Myrtle, a foundling servant girl who bears his children; Pompey Jones, a child of the streets who learns photography from him; and Dr. Potter, a pompous and touchingly uxorious amateur scholar who is married to George's sister Beatrice. Each of these tells two of the novel's six chapters, starting in Liverpool in 1846 and ending outside Sebastopol in 1854.

George's interest in photography informs the structure of these chapters. Each is called a “Plate,” dated, and given a title which is actually a caption: “Girl in the Presence of Death,” “A Veil Lifted,” “Funeral Procession Shadowed by Beatrice,” and so on. Each chapter moves toward the exposure of one of these plates and the production of the captioned picture. So the narrative action resolves itself into a pictorial summary, which, as it turns out, falsifies what we have been told. The medium that gives its very name to an ideal of verisimilitude conspires with Victorian sentimentality. In plate 1, the twelve-year-old Myrtle acts the part of a pious mourner over the corpse of George's father after joining with George and Pompey Jones in a cover-up of the disgraceful circumstances of his death. In plate 6, George's own corpse is propped among the living to round out “a group of survivors to send to the folks back home” and urged, with them, to “Smile, boys, smile.”

The most affecting use of photography involves a bit of magic realism. The debilitated Dr. Potter, attending a funeral for a cartload of naked soldiers, resorts to hallucination and conjures up the image of his longed-for wife Beatrice, smiling and beckoning him with a maternal sweetness that suggests her namesake in Dante. Just then Pompey Jones has set up his tripod and taken a picture of the funeral party. In the following chapter, Pompey examines his print and sees a blur in the corner resolve itself into the figure of Beatrice. The longing that created Potter's hallucination has burned itself into the plate.

The three characters are bound to one another in their orbits around George by fated linkages of coincidence which I do not need to detail here, and which are the subject of reflection by Potter. The three are also linked erotically: Potter through his relationship to Beatrice, Myrtle and Pompey through their separate liaisons with George. In the end, tipped out of their wagon into the mud as they barely escape death in battle, Myrtle and Pompey grope toward, then back away from, a sexual union. Pompey then dismisses the episode as “not being a matter of great importance. All I'd ever wanted, as regards Myrtle, was the recognition that she and I were of a kind, seeing that fate had tumbled the two of us into Master Georgie's path.” That erotic dimension of social class is expressed more tellingly by Myrtle earlier in the novel in a conversation with the mistress of a colonel of the Guards. Her colonel and she “talk for hours at a stretch,” her friend tells Myrtle. “That's unusual, isn't it?” Myrtle agrees politely but thinks to herself: “Georgie's not one for talking, at least, not to me. Nor would I wish to be his equal, for then I might find him wanting.”

In the novel's first chapter, in Liverpool, that self-protective deference shows itself as she walks quickly behind George, wishing but not expecting that he will turn back to look at her. In its final pages, outside Sebastopol, rashly, she calls to him from behind because she has hurt her foot. He turns to her and away from a rifle raised against him, and, in a variation on Orpheus and Eurydice, he meets his death.

I hope I have conveyed that this is a very rich novel. It is not an ingratiating one on the first reading. It is ironic. It works very quickly in its 192 pages, demanding close attention and not yielding the pleasures of uncomplicated identification with its characters. But go back and read it again, and it will astonish you.

Francine Prose (review date 29 November 1998)

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SOURCE: “Expiration Dates,” in New York Times Book Review, November 29, 1998, p. 5.

[In the following review, Prose gives positive evaluation of Master Georgie.]

Beryl Bainbridge's novels are like elegant teacups that contain a strong dark, possibly sinister but remarkable brew. Models of compression, they show us how much (character, plot, subplot, psychology, wit and depth) can be poured into a thin, deceptively delicate vessel. For over 30 years, her best books—from Harriet Said and The Bottle Factory Outing to An Awfully Big Adventure—have resisted the tide that has caused so much modern fiction to bobble, inflated and bloated, in increasingly murky waters. Indeed, Bainbridge's writing is so unlike anyone else's that it may be more instructive to find analogues in the visual arts. Her fiction is reminiscent of medieval woodcuts—their spare, authoritative line deployed to render some grisly scene (martyrs burning at the stake, victims felled by a plague) with antic, animated high spirits. Or perhaps the art it most nearly evokes is Hogarth's engravings, those richly detailed snapshots of mass depravity and mayhem.

A number of her books are set in the past. Young Adolf deals, nervily, with an imaginary sojourn in England by the youthful Hitler. The Birthday Boys considers the ill-fated Scott expedition to Antarctica; Watson's Apology exhumes a Victorian murder. Yet these are not the sort of historical fictions that serve up warmed-over Masterpiece Theater plots, larded with period costumes, periwigs and bared bosoms. Rather, Bainbridge's concerns—the heartbreaking, nuanced transactions between the strong and the weak, the perceptual differences dividing men and women, the roles of chance and character in determining our fates, the eager glee with which Nemesis undoes our careful plans, the influence that social class exerts on sexual morality—remind us of how much about human behavior and destiny is timeless and universal.

Bainbridge's new novel, Master Georgie, is organized, thematically and structurally, around a succession of upsetting photographs; several of them, as was not uncommon in the 19th century, picture the newly deceased. At the novel's center is George Hardy, an amateur photographer and (more or less) professional physician, whom we first glimpse (as always, from a distance) in 1846, racing through the streets of Liverpool toward the brothel in which his father has suddenly and inconveniently died. By the time the elder Mr. Hardy has been brought home and his body arranged to create the impression that he has expired in his own bed, a large and varied cast of characters has been efficiently assembled. In addition to the bisexual, seductive and mysterious George, there are (among others) Dr. Potter, the libidinous geologist who marries George's sister, Beatrice; Pompey Jones, the wily street urchin who becomes George's assistant and lover; and, most important, Myrtle, a foundling whose blindly obsessive passion for the man she calls Master Georgie is the luminous thread that holds the novel together. Narrated by the simultaneously starry-eyed and down-to-earth orphan, the vertiginous first chapter begins and ends with George photographing her beside his dead father, a grimly comic event that the enamored Myrtle experiences as an occasion of romantic transcendence:

I fixed my gaze on the dead man and told myself God would strike me blind if my eyelids quivered. So intense was my concentration, it was only Master Georgie who breathed in that sun-dappled room. Outside, the birds continued to twitter. All my life. I thought, I will stand at your side; and then I did blink, for the grandness of such a notion welled up tears in my eyes.

Much of the novel's drama—marriages, births, miscarriages and deaths—takes place during such blinks, in the months or years that elapse between chapters. The book has a rare, rather flattering faith in the reader's ability to extrapolate crucial information from what is—or, more frequently, what is not—said. This characteristic spareness, dryness and pared-down intensity can, I suppose, be confused with a certain surface chill and may explain why Bainbridge's novels have failed to achieve in this country the popularity earned by some of her windier countrymen.

When George volunteers to serve as an army medical officer and the others follow to be near him, the action moves to Constantinople and on to the cholera-infested camps and gory battlefields of the Crimean War. Throughout, the characters take turns telling their harrowing stories and offering their conflicting versions of reality—interpretations shaped by how much they can (or can bear to) comprehend about their situation and one another.

Everything is refracted and refocused, as if by a series of lenses, as Myrtle, Pompey Jones and Dr. Potter alternately assume the task of advancing the plot. Myrtle's adoring view of Georgie (“Of average height, stout of build, he walked with his feet turned out and back straight as a ramrod. I watched the way he swung his arms. How strange it is that even a mode of walking can inspire love”) refuses to recognize his polymorphous sexuality and so bears little resemblance to that of Pompey Jones, who sees his master and lover as a privileged, petulant drunk. Likewise, our sense of the minor characters is subject to major revision. Mr. Hardy, whose embarrassing death has set events in motion, is remembered by Myrtle as “cheerful and lacking in malice,” fond of entertaining party guests with bellowed renditions of maudlin ditties; in contrast. Dr. Potter recalls him as “a bully and a fraud.”

Perhaps what's most striking about the book—and about Beryl Bainbridge's work as a whole—is its companionable alliance between wry, dead-pan humor and nightmarish horror. Everywhere the characters look, there's something grotesque to see—if only they're willing or able to see it. Meanwhile, the cumulative effect of such an abundance of disconcerting incidents, described so dispassionately and flatly and with such understatement, is that they begin to seem at once awful and oddly funny.

Myrtle's life has got off to an unpromising start (“I'd been found … in a cellar in Seel Street, sat beside the body of a woman whose throat had been nibbled by rats”), and though the plucky, unshockable and sympathetic girl is educated and “made into a lady,” she never sheds her intimacy with hideous misadventure. In the Crimea, a brief pleasure excursion with an officer's garrulous mistress involves an ominous encounter with a three-legged black dog, an invitation to accept a farmer's hospitality that ends with a goat messily giving birth in the middle of a table and, finally, the sight of a dead soldier, propped against a tree: “The pink had quite gone from his cheeks and his skin was mottled, like meat lain too long on the slab. … Flies crawled along his fingers and buzzed at his mouth.”

Scattered throughout the novel are many similarly horrific moments, so that the narrative comes to resemble a cord stretched tightly, connecting these glittery dark jewels. One of Pompey Jones's photographic assignments is to assist Georgie in documenting cataract surgery on a captive ape. An evening of opera erupts in an outburst of jealousy and aggression. A child's puppy is torn apart by feral dogs. When a Punch-and-Judy show is interrupted by a collision between a horse and a van, the accident is explained with Bainbridge's typically dry, ironic, goofy logic:

A vegetable cart had spilled cabbages on the road, all of which, save one, had been recovered or run off with. The gentleman's horse, who had seen service with a cavalry regiment, mistaking it for a puff adder, had reared up and crashed down sideways, striking the van with its flank. The animal had recently returned from Africa, where puff adders were quite common. They hadn't any teeth but if they bit you their tongues imparted a poison that could turn your blood to treacle.

Of course, the level of violence and chaos escalates as the book nears its conclusion, and the sort of disaster that we anticipate and dread in all of Bainbridge's fiction inevitably occurs. A final photograph is taken, and the book ends with a searing image of grief and loss.

Beryl Bainbridge's novels are not exactly testaments to their author's faith in redemption; she places little stock in the ability of good intentions and common sense to dampen our natural appetite for duplicity, cruelty and violence, or to defeat the threatening, “disruptive force of haphazard actions.” For these reasons, Master Georgie is hardly a feel-good book—unless you're a reader whose spirits are lifted by the prospect of a writer so original and so firmly in control of her art.

John Gallagher (review date 7 December 1998)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 444

SOURCE: “A Unique and Haunting Vision of Wartime Chaos and Death,” in Chicago Tribune, December 7, 1998, p. 3.

[In the following review, Gallagher offers favorable assessment of Master Georgie.]

In this short, melancholy tale, British novelist Beryl Bainbridge all but reinvents the historical genre. Gone are moments of derring-do; gone, too, any notions of simple, linear plot. In their place, Bainbridge delivers a fitful, episodic story of death, disease and unfulfilled longing.

The Master Georgie of her title is George Hardy, a surgeon and amateur photographer in England during the 1840s and '50s. He is assigned to the British army during its disastrous adventure in the Crimea in Britain's mid-19th Century war against Russia.

Like American writer Charles Frazier in Cold Mountain, Bainbridge is more interested in war as background than in war itself. Battles are mere eruptions of violence in a landscape already strewn with victims of cholera, tainted food and other maladies.

A conventional narrative form would be too orderly, too forward-moving, for what Bainbridge wants to accomplish. Her tale unfurls in the voices of three people close to George. One is Myrtle, an orphan girl who adores George and bears him the children his wife cannot. Another is Pompey Jones, a vagabond photographer's assistant. The third is Potter, George's brother-in-law and a would-be naturalist in the mold of Darwin.

Through their eyes, we see George struggling to make sense of a world that begins and ends with a photographer's view of death. The photographer's art here stands in for the long view of history. But that view is flawed.

So, too, the medical arts that George practices. His army assigns him to the front but denies him proper supplies. He learns there is no rhyme or reason to a wounded man's fate. Soldiers hideously hurt in battle survive, while those with hardly a scratch die. Fever and bloated corpses are everywhere, but the greatest malady is the delusory belief in the army's mission.

Much of George's world seems enigmatic, as unresolved as a half-developed photograph. Bainbridge, for example, dismisses the famous charge of the Light Brigade in a single oblique paragraph. The troopers' horses stampede into camp, and Potter and others auction off the mounts with no thought for their dead riders.

This is neither an adventure yarn nor a bitter anti-war novel. Instead, with deadpan precision, Bainbridge sketches in fleeting vignettes of horror and madness.

Her prose is as sharp and cold as one of George's surgical instruments. Yet she manages to illuminate an entire world in this slim novel. That world haunts us with images of chaos and death. But no reader can deny the force of Bainbridge's vision.

Gail Pool (review date January 1999)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1723

SOURCE: “Pictures From an Expedition,” in Women's Review of Books, Vol. XVI, No. 4, January, 1999, pp. 5-6.

[In the following review, Pool offers tempered praise for Master Georgie, citing shortcomings in the novel's contrived events and characterizations.]

In her two previous novels, The Birthday Boys and Every Man for Himself, Beryl Bainbridge took her fiction in a new direction, creating a distinctive kind of historical novel. Like all of her books, these were slender works, not so much small as concentrated: it has always seemed to me that a Bainbridge sentence carries twice the information of the ordinary variety, and she practices a ruthless selectivity. But unlike her earlier novels, which focused mainly on individuals grappling with their lives, these gave her characters a wider stage: casting them as participants in a man-made tragedy symbolic of its time—Robert Falcon Scott's ill-fated Polar expedition in one case and the sinking of the Titanic in the other—enabled Bainbridge to interweave societal issues with the individuals' own. Although I didn't find these novels equally successful. Bainbridge's method in both seemed to me ingenious: the contrast between spareness and scope gave a sense of viewing events through a zoom lens that somehow had a wide-angle capability as well.

The photographic analogy seems particularly apt for Bainbridge's latest work, Master Georgie, another slim novel set against the backdrop of a man-made tragedy: the Crimean War. Notorious for senseless carnage and the abominable treatment of troops, this conflagration was also known for the war photography it produced: technological innovations achieved not long before the war enabled correspondents to send home pictures from the front for the first time.

Fittingly, Bainbridge gives photography a central role in her novel, not only by making two of her main characters photographers, by centering each of the book's sections around a photograph and by rendering the prose highly descriptive, almost photographic, but also by using the subject of photography to express ideas about perception and reality that are crucial to the novel. If these themes threaten heavy-handed reading, quite the opposite is the case. Master Georgie jostles along so easily, so much of it seems trivial or playful, that while one is reading it is difficult to know what if anything really matters, what the story is actually about and whether, adding up Master Georgie's vivid scenes, a meaningful Big Picture will emerge. This effect seems to me part of Bainbridge's intention—and there is nothing in this consciously written book that is not intentional.

Master Georgie opens in Liverpool, in 1846 and takes us by a sequence of disjointed episodes to the Crimean battlefield in 1854. The book's six sections are narrated in rotation by three of the central characters, each of whom is linked in some way to the fourth, George Hardy, a young doctor interested in the newly developing art and technology of photography. The narrators, a bizarre trio, include Myrtle, a foundling raised by the Hardy family and obsessively devoted to George, whom she calls Master Georgie; Pompey Jones, a street-smart boy whom George takes under his wing; and Dr. Potter, a philosophizing geologist who marries George's sister. All four will end up in the Crimea, though the moves that carry the story forward can be hard to discern.

This narrative indirection is striking from the first. In the opening section, Myrtle describes how, at the age of twelve, already so devoted to Georgie that she followed him like a shadow, she was present when he accidentally discovered his father dead in a brothel bed. With the help of Pompey, who got hold of a Punch and Judy van, the three carted the corpse home to his own bed, thus concealing the truth of his scandalous demise.

There is such a strong element of farce in this scene that it is easy to dismiss it as insignificant. Only later can we trace how the death and shared cover-up are pivotal in all three of the lives concerned and help lead each to the Crimea. First, the affair so affects George—Potter tells us—that he falls apart, turns to drink, never entirely recovers and in regret for “wasted opportunities, lack of application, etc.” offers his services in the Crimea, believing the war will be a “prop.” “A man like me needs something to hold him upright,” he says, a remark that will turn out to be grotesquely funny.

Second, the event appears to intensify Myrtle's already intense devotion to Georgie into such an obsession that she eventually chooses—almost incredibly—to bear his children when his wife proves unable, and to follow him to the Crimea when he seeks to offer his medical services because “she is unable to let George out of her sight.” Third, the episode wins young Pompey the patronage of George, who trains him as a photographer, an occupation that takes him to the Crimea on an assignment for a newspaper. Actually, it might be said that the circumstances of Mr. Hardy's death lead even Potter to the Crimea, since the decision to make the “ill-advised excursion” is George's more than his own, and he accompanies his brother-in-law in the belief that he might be of use as an observer.

Reading back, it is possible to trace all of these effects to the first grimly farcical scene, but it requires effort; nothing is made plain. By forcing us to piece it together in hindsight. Bainbridge suggests how difficult it is in life to read forward, to see ahead of time what will ultimately matter in part because so much is accidental: had George not wandered down a particular street he would not have come upon that brothel; if Pompey had not been nearby, he would never have met George; both lives might have been entirely different.

And by forcing us to piece it out, Bainbridge also provokes us to ask ourselves what “the story” here really is, what the whole that we are putting together amounts to. Is the novel, as its title suggests, the story of George Hardy? But he is the one we know least about; his, after all, is the voice that is missing. We are never inside his head, we never hear his view of his father's death, his mother's manipulation, Myrtle and those children. We perceive him only through the eyes of his companions, each of whom sees him differently. We gradually learn about his drinking, his homosexuality. But viewing him externally, we hear only what people choose to tell, which may not even be true, and which does not add up to a portrait.

This question of how much we can really perceive of the truth, the entire picture, by what we see from the outside seems to me central to the book. The inability to gain an accurate overview of what is happening is evident in Bainbridge's depiction of the war: witnessed from the ground, by our narrators, the battles appear as vivid individual frames of mud and slaughter that do not coalesce into any meaningful whole. “I didn't know what cause I was promoting, or why it was imperative to kill,” says Pompey, as he makes his way, with Myrtle, through the bloodshed.

The question of what can be perceived—and whether there is any truth to perceive—is underscored by the use of photography in the book. Each section bears the title of a plate that refers to a photograph, taken in that section, which, as the accompanying narrative makes clear, in some way distorts reality. In the first section, for example, the described photograph of Myrtle with the corpse of Mr. Hardy in his bed makes it look as if he'd died in bed which is true, as Myrtle observes, if “one didn't dwell on which particular bed.” Still more distorting, the final photograph, “Smile, Boys, Smile,” taken by a war photographer to show folks back home a group of survivors, includes a corpse, propped up to appear to be among the living. These are posed photos, of course, artfully arranged. But then, narratives are artfully arranged as well.

Master Georgie is a meticulously constructed novel and, as always, Bainbridge's controlled prose is a pleasure to read, even when she is describing terrible carnage. It may come as a surprise, then, when I say that I didn't really find it worked all that well as a novel. To me, it felt too conspicuously constructed, the story too contrived and the characters too artificial.

To believe that life is as accidental as Bainbridge suggests. I need to believe that the accidents she depicts could occur: here, I felt they were contrived to achieve their effect—to connect people who would not otherwise have been connected, to transport characters to the Crimea who would not otherwise have been there. To believe in the bizarreness of people. I need to believe in the people; but for me these characters were never more than an arrangement of the characteristics Bainbridge gave them. As they wander through the Crimea, each may bring a different viewpoint—Myrtle drawing strength from the proximity of Georgie, Pompey surviving as he did in the streets of Liverpool, Potter so overwhelmed by the horror of his situation that he loses his bearings and mentally retreats. But they all tend to sound like Bainbridge herself. Here, for example, is Pompey on the battlefield:

The carnage was horrid. Men died posed like the statues in Mr. Blundell's glass-house. I saw a horse crumpled on its chest, its rider with his arm held up as though he breasted a river. I saw two men on their knees, facing one another, propped up by the pat-a-cake thrust of their hands. On the wall, stuck to the steps of a ladder, a grenadier clutched at the steel that pinned him like a butterfly.

This is wonderful writing. But is it really a young man from the streets of Liverpool speaking? I felt so detached from the characters that while Potter was reflecting on what had brought him to the Crimea, whether it was fate or chance. I found myself offering up a third possibility: the author. This isn't really what a reader should be thinking. Master Georgie seems to me a novel to appreciate rather than to love—for its prose, its observations, and its clear-eyed view of our imperfect vision.

Christopher Lehmann-Haupt (review date 5 August 1999)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 897

SOURCE: “Yes, There'll Always Be An England, or Two,” in New York Times, August 5, 1999, p. E10.

[In the following review of Forever England, Lehmann-Haupt finds weakness in Bainbridge's generalizations, though interest in her autobiographic reminiscences.]

Considering the differences between the North and the South in the United States, one might find it hard to believe that in relatively compact England similar disparities are thought to hold true. Yet that is the subject of Beryl Bainbridge's quirky new book, Forever England. As the author explains in her preface, the book is based on a television series “which, in an attempt to examine the roots of that evergreen assumption, the notion that England is two nations, focused on the expectations and attitudes of six families, three in the North and three in the South.” Much of the perceived difference is based on myth. Ms. Bainbridge, who grew up in Liverpool and is best known as a novelist, writes in her introduction. “In the South they rode to hounds and went to Ascot; in the North we kept pigeons and raced greyhounds. When we had our tea, people in London sat down to their dinner dressed up as if they were off out to a Masonic hot-pot supper.”

“All the same,” she continues, “these simplistic myths, matters of manners and money and location never for one moment obscured the real differences that separated us, hid the severing wound that well-nigh cut us in half and could never be healed, for hadn't we been plundered by the South, laid waste, bled white? It was not just industrial. They had drained away our talent and our brains; who had ever heard of anyone once they got on in the world, from William Gladstone to Thomas Handley, who had been content to stay in the North? We learned this from our parents.”

To test both myth and parental lore, Ms. Bainbridge interviewed people on the dole in Liverpool. Fishermen in Hastings, descendants of coal miners in Barnsley, the extended family of a financier in Bentley, sheep farmers in Northumberland and a multiracial family in Birmingham.

A few arresting generalizations emerge. “Up here in the hills we have crisis after crisis,” says the wife of a tenant farmer who keeps 2,000 sheep. “There's no time to consult with anyone else. It could make you very self-opinionated, this sort of life. If you were in the South, you wouldn't need to be so determined, so dogged.”

“It is a softer life down here in the South,” Ms. Bainbridge concludes after visiting with the fishing family in Hastings. “They're not given to self-analysis, and perhaps the so-called southern reserve is not so much a matter of unfriendliness as a detached complacency born of comparative affluence.”

But since the people she visited with seem selected to illustrate her various points, one finds it hard to put much stock in them as a sampling. Their main value is to fix in our minds the geographical distinctions of various regions in England.

Far more diverting are the autobiographical tangents on which the interviews inspire Ms. Bainbridge to take off. Her return to Liverpool triggers memories of her parents, of her father's contradictory ways—he lamented the loss of the empire yet always voted for Labor—and of her mother, whose hands were always full “painting the furniture and rearranging the ornaments.”

Her visit to Hastings reminds her of a novel she once wrote in which she had to send her protagonist on vacation somewhere. “I didn't think he should go to Brighton—Brighton was too flashy for him. So I chose Hastings. The name came out of my head like a number out of a hat. I say that, but then nothing is ever as random as it appears. In my opinion there's no such thing as imagination—in the sense that we have the power to form images of our own making—for unless we've already acquired images in the first place, from somewhere, how can we possibly summon them into existence, reformed or not?”

A discussion of politics reminds her of the Cuban missile crisis, when she was chosen to go and protest to the American consul but was “struck dumb with admiration” because he looked like “a cross between Gregory Peck and Rasputin.”

What emerges from these musings besides the portrait of an amusing, original, opinionated individual? Because Ms. Bainbridge rarely wastes a word in her fiction—the most recent of her novels are Master Georgie, Every Man for Himself and The Birthday Boys—you look for a hidden pattern here, some subterranean message that helps you to see beyond easy generalizations.

But in vain. Instead what you get is the story of one unusual individual. “If you come from the North as I do,” she writes, “and you left it, as I did, you have ambivalent feelings towards the old working communities. It's an uneasy mixture of pride and irritation, sentimentality and mistrust, for you broke away from a narrowness of outlook and a lack of expectation which well-nigh crushed you. And yet—the heart lies back there in the past, and everyone longs to return and find things just as they were, the arguments in full spate and the home fires still burning.”

In Forever England, Ms. Bainbridge doesn't find the home fires still burning. But she manages to set a few on her own.

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Bainbridge, Beryl (Vol. 10)


Bainbridge, Beryl (Vol. 14)