Beryl Bainbridge

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Bainbridge, Beryl 1933–

Bainbridge is an English novelist, playwright, and essayist. Her fictional world is a drab, claustrophobic one, peopled by unhappy, unlucky denizens of the lower-middle class. The dreariness of subject and setting is, however, relieved by her satiric wit and spirited dialogue. (See also CLC, Vols. 4, 5, 8, 10, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 21-24, rev. ed.)

Olivia Manning

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Nothing in Beryl Bainbridge's previous novels would lead one to expect she could launch out upon a tour de force of this nature. Young Adolf is a remarkable work. She returns to her funny and keenly observed lower middle class world, but now she presents it merely as a background for a startling portrait: the portrait of Adolf Hitler, a subtle embryo of the man himself….

If I have any complaint to make about a novel I have greatly enjoyed, it is that very little happens in Young Adolf….

The main ingredients of the novel are the city of Liverpool itself: grey, wet and cold as charity: and the still unformed character of the future dictator: vain, hyper-sensitive to snubs, temperamental, ambitious beyond his natural talents, with an urge to power, a prevision of some great destiny, but with no idea how it will be realised. It is a brilliant ébauche for the later figure that was to become so deeply etched upon the consciousness of his contemporaries. (p. 52)

Olivia Manning, "Beryl Bainbridge's 'Young Adolf'," in Books and Bookmen (© copyright Olivia Manning 1978, reprinted with permission), Vol. 24, No. 2, November, 1978, pp. 52-3.

Blake Morrison

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Young Adolf is less of a success than its fascinating origins might have led us to suppose….

[By] forcing Adolf to suffer various Chaplinesque indignities, [Bainbridge] works a kind of comic historical revenge. In the course of the novel, Adolf is knocked over the head, bitten by fleas, drenched to the skin, dressed up in women's clothes. The slapstick purges old resentments, and largely frees Bainbridge from the task of 'explaining' Hitler psychologically. It must have been tempting to indulge in the ironies of hindsight, but in this respect the novel is aptly restrained: only as Adolf finally departs is a character allowed to observe: 'Such a strong-willed young man. It is a pity he will never amount to anything.'

For all that, Young Adolf is a disappointment—a brilliant idea, but one too sketchily (and perhaps too hastily) carried out. Bainbridge is good, as we'd expect, on Liverpool …, but remains a novelist more at home with the 1940s (and the present) than with 1912. Not only are many of the usual narrative tensions absent, but Bainbridge can't quite prevent herself from getting Adolf on the analyst's couch (persecution mania, fits, hallucinations, anti-Semitism and all). And when she does 'analyse'—'School had been rotten, and his father, and Linz and Vienna. Even his beloved mother had died rotten of a cancer. It was a rotten world'—the results can look disconcertingly vapid. (p. 630)

Blake Morrison, "Looking Backwards," in New Statesman (© 1978 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), Vol. 96, No. 2486, November 10, 1978, pp. 630-31.∗

Diane Johnson

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Beryl Bainbridge's novels are published in the United States but not much known there, which is something to be regretted. Like a family of gifted eccentrics, they are diverse, yet there are strong similarities, as there always must be in the work of an original and accomplished writer—perhaps it is the essence of accomplishment. In any case, Bainbridge's novels seem unlike those of other people, unless perhaps they resemble, in their economy and formal elegance, the novels of Henry Green. They are her own; the plots each with its lurking catastrophe are similar, the characters, each so memorable in his way, are similar too....

(This entire section contains 1387 words.)

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Four simple distinctions are preserved: they are divided into males and females, and into a type that is large, fleshy and pale—those are the people with power and energy—and other, often more sympathetic people who are small, thin, odd and astounded, like Binny inInjury Time or like young Adolf. As in life, things divide men from women. They do not look at the world the same way. The men are imprisoned in conventions, slaves to little rituals to preserve self-respect or comfort. Their lustful impulses are often checked by bourgeois compunctions. The women, more passive, are oddly freer, social reforms just go on over their heads. They long to pass for normal but never to be normal, for they consider that they are normal. All of Bainbridge's books have a way of being about the assumptions of society about normality and people trying to fit in and have what they want too.

For an American reader discovering Beryl Bainbridge, only one complaint mars universal admiration: the complaint concerns the passivity of the characters towards their environment and their fate. Masters of expedience, resilient despite their resignation, practised at making do, at sly deceptions on the givens of their situations, they are capable of tour de force contrivance for the sake of comfort, respectability or survival…. Perhaps Americans are surprised that the characters do not exert themselves more mightily than [they do] against outrages of poverty and inconvenience; although exigency is certainly a fact of American life, it has little place in American fiction.

Bainbridge's creatures are not disenchanted. Their illusions are so trivial that circumstances do not conspire to deprive them. On the big subjects—who they are and what will happen to them—they have no illusions at all. They never escape. "I knew it would be me", says Binny as the desperadoes carry her off. Bainbridge is wonderful on sex, for each character she seems to have located the exact conjunction of desire and social prudence that controls his sexual behaviour. She knows the point at which people will say to hell with it, in any crisis. Her characters don't have illusions, they have bruises—always bruises of the spirit, often literal bruises, and sometimes lacerations….

Young Adolf gathers up with astonishing success some … figures from Bainbridge's other books. An attentive reader might have seen him coming, might have glimpsed his face elsewhere, sensed his attraction for the novelist who had yet to unravel his place in her imaginery scheme….

Young Adolf is not a historical novel in [the] usual sense—that is, a dramatization of known events—it is an invention of another kind, a feat of imagination and craft, without definition.

Whatever the real facts of Hitler's life we believe this account in part because of its manner, detailed and confident, and because it does not insist too stridently in foreshadowing the later reality. Adolf, depressed, hungry, pitiful, driven to expedients, is very like a character in a book by Beryl Bainbridge. That the shirt, the moustache, the uniform, the hairstyle he will later wear, are all acquired during his five-month stay in Liverpool says something, doubtless, about the large consequences of small accidents; and that is characteristic Bainbridge, too. But mostly, when we get a glimpse of the future, the moment veers off into comedy…. The novel's time is told so absorbingly, and with such authority, that we lose our power to hold the future in mind. This is the method of all of Bainbridge's novels, each moment rendered vividly in the mind of one character or another, presented to the reader through his thoughts or his vision….

[Often] the interpretative consciousness, in this and in others of Bainbridge's novels, misinterprets, misunderstands what it sees, or sees too little. Human limitation is the basic assumption of this novelistic method. Because all consciousness is limited, a number of minds are needed from whom only the reader gathers all. It is because the characters never grasp the entire picture that the gothic and grotesque touches in the earlier books, and the historical game here, have, none the less, such an authoritative manner of truth.

A mosaic of personal interpretation reveals the disadvantage humans live under. It also makes Bainbridge's novels very funny. And her way of shifting from mind to mind enables her to escape what would otherwise be the great danger of her method, the danger of slipping into caricature or ridicule. No matter how ridiculous or stereotyped—an old maid, a gesticulating Italian—the immediacy and clarity of each person's perceptions remind us that he is unique, not to be sneezed at, things have happened to him…. When the characters seem comic to the reader, it is because they seem comic to each other, not to the author, who is virtually invisible in all her work, except for the occasional stage direction. By being only partially perceived, the horror which underlies and threatens in all her narratives seems mere daily horror.

The eventual horror in Young Adolf when it is understood cannot be dismissed or forgiven; but none of the characters can foresee it, and we, confined to their minds, can almost forget it. If we refer in our minds to events outside the novel, we perceive Bainbridge's suggestion, no doubt not entirely mischievous, that when the real horror comes, it will have had its origin in the England of 1912.

Bainbridge is never doctrinaire, seldom so explicit; yet political implications develop logically from her recurring interest in the relation of ordinary people to authority. The characters in her novels are always testing it out. They are usually victims, even if only of the tyranny of social convention, or the tyrannical fear of not being respectable or the tyranny of near-relations over one another….

Bainbridge seems fascinated, also, with the conspiracies among powerless people to defeat authority; the Italians at the bottle factory, or, in this novel, when they conspire to … get Adolf a job. Alois gets him an interview, and, because he has no shirt, they make him look respectable with "a tray cloth embroidered at the edges with bunches of cherries, which in some fashion he had stuffed into the revers of his black coat". Thus pitiably got up, wet with rain, Adolf waits outside the hotel. "Several times he started to climb the steps towards the Commissionaire who guarded the entrance to the building, and on each occasion he lost courage halfway up and turned back. He couldn't risk a rebuff." Thus we are made to sympathize and pity the monster of the world. It is a complicated exercise in social sympathy that Bainbridge demands of us, and is her most ambitious treatment yet of the serious concern and conviction that underlie her comedy.

Diane Johnson, "The Sufferings of Young Hitler," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1978; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), December 1, 1978, p. 1385.

Bainbridge's earlier novels for the most part delineate the dingy little lives of those who for one reason or another are not equipped to deal with the ordinary demands of social life, and in Hitler [in Young Adolph] she may have found the quintessence of the type. Surprisingly, she has succeeded in the seemingly impossible task of making him interesting and human—one begins to think of him as "young Adolph" rather than as "Hitler"—without giving him any sympathy whatsoever. And astoundingly, despite the predictable ending and occasional stretching of readers' credulity, Young Adolph is wildly, broadly funny: gallows humor at its most extreme. (pp. 133-34)

"Life & Letters: 'Young Adolph'," in The Atlantic Monthly (copyright © 1979 by The Atlantic Monthly Company, Boston, Mass.; reprinted with permission), Vol. 243, No. 3, March, 1979, pp. 133-34.

Neal Ascherson

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Beryl Bainbridge has written a great deal, with compassion and cunning, about the weak. Sometimes they are women, locked into some male-constructed paddock whose grass is growing thin but whose gate is rusted shut. Sometimes, but much less often, they are men. There is something of the pasha in the gaudy display and bulging bellies and bedroom tyranny of most of Bainbridge's men, but a few turn out as pathetic as only an aging pasha jostled by infidels can be. All of her novels, in more or less explicit ways, are about an increasingly bewildered and helpless England, the display gone shabby and the belly sagging and the knack of tyranny lost somewhere, a kindly but uncomprehending old country giving up hope of understanding the younger world, suffering some pain now and feeling the cold more.

But in this new, amazing short novel [Young Adolf], she has taken up a helplessness that doesn't finally resign itself. The idea is disconcerting. The young Hitler, escaping from the Vienna doss house, comes to spend a month with his relations in Liverpool. In their grotesque, hand-to-mouth household, he passes a few weeks. Then, as pallid, erratic, and hysterical as he came, he takes the train home again.

Adolf, we know, will triumph in the end, far beyond the close of the novel, in a supremely evil self-assertion. Here in Liverpool, he is almost a sympathetic character as he is engulfed in the mysterious purposes and eccentricities of other people.

At the novel's center is the figure of Mr. Meyer. A Jewish socialist, he turns out to be running an underground organization which attempts to hide poor children from the city welfare department, to prevent them from being taken from their parents and stowed in an orphanage.

[Adolf] witnesses the defeat of the plan, in a slum house off Scotland Road, when "the night men"—the welfare officials—burst in and take the children away. Meyer brandishes a stick, then gives in without resistance. And here we are encountering a plain allusion to the future, a device which in hands less delicate than Bainbridge's could easily go wrong and produce a sentimental discord. The Holocaust is prefigured, as the officials "select" children and take them away to their fate and as Meyer and his helpers surrender without a blow. The humiliated Meyer tells Adolf; "Let the minority act with enough authority, and the majority will walk like lambs to the slaughter."

It's the measure of this highly original, immensely skillful novel that such literary risks are successfully taken.

Neal Ascherson, "The Damned," in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; copyright © 1979 Nyrev, Inc.), Vol. XXVI, No. 5, April 5, 1979, p. 27.∗

Judith Chernaik

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Beryl Bainbridge has an extraordinary ear for the speech of drifters, refugees, entrepreneurs of various kinds, Irishwomen; her characters [in Young Adolf] probably exist in the seedier back streets of Liverpool and other ports but then again she may just as well have invented them. She has an uncanny knack for capturing place and time; every detail seems exactly right, from the railway carriage to the Liverpool docks in 1912, to the bedrooms, kitchens and basements in which her oddly-assorted characters live out their dreams, plaster cracking, dry rot eating away.

The novel unfolds effortlessly, inventively; it is the writing of a natural. (p. 142)

Judith Chernaik, "Class and Time," in London Magazine (© London Magazine, 1979), Vol. 19, Nos. 1 & 2, April-May, 1979, pp. 140-43.∗


Bainbridge, Beryl (Vol. 131)


Bainbridge, Beryl (Vol. 18)