Beryl Bainbridge

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Gillian Wilce

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 432

'It was as if they had all been plucked up out of nowhere, and set down with the express purpose of being amusing or interesting or something, and they had all been found wanting. It was so embarrassing, not knowing what way to be …' Reflecting on the evening gathering in one of the wooden huts at the Nant MacFarley camp a participant sums up the main matter of Another Part of the Wood. The camp is presided over by the physically large, but otherwise little defined George, son of the absent, paternalist MacFarleys whose brain-child it is. The assembled guests are an odd and chance mixture….

Their few days together are described with acuity; they are shown to be narrow, blind, selfish, strange and yet dread-fully ordinary. In fact, thoughts attributed to them (like the one quoted above) sometimes go beyond what you believe the characters to be capable of seeing, sound rather like the authorial voice displaced. One other small complaint is that the occasional flaw in style causes a hiccup in concentration. A sentence like 'a flux of tears came into Kidney's sparkling eyes', for example, sidetracks you into wondering about words themselves. Maybe these few roughnesses come from the fact that this is a rewriting of a novel first published in the Sixties.

The campers are made to talk, however, in a way that always convinces utterly. Irritating habits of speech—'The little woman loves her sweeties'—niggle away at already strained relationships. There is plenty of this all-too-lifelike talking, but little listening….

This is not as dispiriting as it may all sound. The acuteness of the observation has entertainment value and also makes for a detachment from the characters which means that you don't actually care very much on their behalf. There are some moments of exhilaration….

Nevertheless, Beryl Bainbridge's skill remains above all in establishing an intimate relationship between the ordinary and the horrible. Not only is much ordinariness, when ruthlessly treated, pretty horrible in itself, but also it is out of banal things that the sad, yet unGothic, ending of the book grows. The concluding event is not a towering finale to an inevitable, foreseen process; it is not any one person's fault. Rather it is the culmination of misunderstanding, thoughtless teasing, failure to listen and selfish pre-occupation. And it brings not the catharsis of tragedy, but only 'a general exodus, a dispersal into the landscape, a journey into another part of the wood'.

Gillian Wilce, "Rub and Bump," in New Statesman (© 1979 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), Vol. 98, Nos. 2544 & 2545, December 21 & 28, 1979, p. 1009.

Emma Fisher

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 295

The early Bainbridge dwelt on each moment, was too explicit; when a character spoke, he also made a physical gesture or his hair shone in the sunlight, and his inner thoughts and his effect on his audience were carefully explained…. In the earlier version [of Another Part of the Wood] events moved so slowly, because of her overwriting of each moment, that reading it was like wading through treacle.

The conciseness of the cut version is a great improvement. The pruning of adjectives sometimes goes too far—'her little teeth set like pegs between her violet lips' makes more sense than 'her teeth set like pegs between her lips', which is merely grotesque. Pegs can be any size. And I miss some of the proliferating Sixties details, such as that awful song 'When you come to the end of a lollipop, plop goes your heart'. But repetitions are banished, striving for effect—like 'salvation fingers'—has gone, and the sloppy punctuation has been made almost perfect.

The feeling of muddle in the earlier version was rather appropriate to the story. It was a typically Bainbridgean comic scenario with undertones of violence….

The cut version emphasises the comedy of awkwardness, and the author's more earnest moments, pointing out the failure of love that causes [one character's] death, are removed. All this makes it more of a piece with her later novels, but I still value the more intense and lush early Bainbridge. She had not yet learnt to be sly, and though her slyness is now magisterial, she has lost a certain charming willingness to make a fool of herself by being serious.

Emma Fisher, "'Another Part of the Wood'," in The Spectator (© 1979 by The Spectator; reprinted by permission of The Spectator), Vol. 243, No. 7900, December 8, 1979, p. 25.

John Naughton

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 140

[In Another Part of the Wood] Ms Bainbridge uses a conventional device—a group holiday in deepest countryside—to collect a grotesque menagerie of creepies in one location, the better to focus, distil and refine their awfulness….

With such a nest of vipers, hemmed in suffocatingly by seasonal rain, how could a novelist go wrong? Actually, it needs a delicate touch to avoid overkill in such scenarios, and Ms Bainbridge possesses just the right amount of restraint. She recounts the inexorable regress of the holiday, the churning of the sexual tensions, the neglect of the two children by adults preoccupied with their own miserable versions of existential angst, and the hideous tragedy which ensues, with a deftness that is wholly admirable.

John Naughton, "Creepies" (© British Broadcasting Corp. 1979; reprinted by permission of John Naughton), in The Listener, Vol. 102, No. 2641, December 13, 1979, p. 825.

Patricia Craig

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 504

[Is Another Part of the Wood] a worthy addition to the list [of Bainbridge's novels]? One's feelings are mixed. It contains many of the ingredients we have come to expect from Beryl Bainbridge: the depiction of unsatisfactory relationships, discomforts presented humorously, entertaining friction between the characters. The author displays her usual sharpness and perspicacity, at times we're reminded of her exceptional ability to make the squalid and commonplace funny—but somehow the narrative lacks the distinction of the later books. It is partly that the faculty of selection, used to ensure that nothing goes down but the most accurate, most expressive word or phrase, is not yet working to its greatest capacity.

There is a terribly likely victim in this novel, the child Roland; and it soon becomes clear that he is going to suffer for the shortcomings and misjudgment of others…. The behaviour of these people who have come, for pleasure, to stay in a wooden hut, is devised in accordance with Beryl Bainbridge's usual method to express to the fullest extent the peculiarities of each. She's adept at transforming the ordinary into the arresting…. The holiday is bad for everyone's nerves, and makes each person dour or edgy. But it is never suitably established as the prelude to a tragedy.

Roland's death is not a drama like the murder of Ira in The Dressmaker, or a farce like the extinction of fat Freda in The Bottle Factory Outing. It is just an accident, and it does not seem a fitting denouement for a story which gains its effects, elsewhere, from a scrupulous transcription of reality…. The deaths in the other novels occurred for technical reasons connected with the plots; this one appears to underline the moral point adumbrated by the publishers: 'a study of selfishness and self-absorption'. In fact, this description might be applied with justice to any novel by Beryl Bainbridge, if the implication of a disapproving assessment were taken away. She is the least didactic, the most detached of novelists. Her purpose is to observe and record, to point up the quirky and the absurd, to isolate and heighten the incidents of everyday life, but never to comment—or only in the most oblique, most satisfactory way. The audience may be in stitches, but the comedian remains poker-faced. On this occasion, it seems, she has involved herself in a game of moral consequences, or, worse, in a marshalling of defects and deficiencies, harmless enough in themselves, which are forced into a catalystic role. There is really too much ill-feeling converging on poor Roland, who is not the object of it at all. No, the novel is not equal, in construction or in its effects, to the best work produced by Beryl Bainbridge. But there is still, in the quality of the writing and the close, clear-sighted investigation of character, a great deal for the reader to relish. (p. 58)

Patricia Craig, "'Another Part of the Wood'" (© copyright Patricia Craig 1980; reprinted with permission), in Books and Bookmen, Vol. 25, No. 5, February, 1980, pp. 57-8.

Patricia Beer

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 274

Another Part of the Wood is a scorchingly brilliant study of a situation where the characters … state and blurt out much, and experience in their inner misgivings much that is accurate and truthful, but seldom bring frankness to bear on their several circumstances in any way which would help themselves or anyone else….

The difference between the [earlier and later] versions is that one is more explicit than the other, and which it is depends on what you mean by explicit. Version A [the earlier] is the more expansive, informative and explanatory; Version B, with its pruning and paring and suppression of apparently vital material, is perhaps the more truly out-spoken….

In portraying her characters Bainbridge often looks back in horror, but not at what has made them what they are. They themselves are the amateur psychologists….

In the world that Beryl Bainbridge portrays, the trouble is not that there are no answers but that there are no questions. There is another world, quite near, a frank world where both questions and answers exist, as Roland discovers when he visits the nearby farm (Version A), but not in the part of the wood she is concerned with. Even May realizes this; she stops short when about to ask Dotty a perfectly meaningful question about Kidney. "She could ask herself the same question and receive an equally unsatisfying reply." In the portrayal of such a world suggestion is probably not only as good as expatiation but far better.

Patricia Beer, "A Tale in Two Versions," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1980; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 4014, February 29, 1980, p. 246.

Julia O'Faolain

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 627

["Dead"] is this novel's final word, and a familiar one to Beryl Bainbridge's readers. This time the death is prefigured by forebodings, so that it arouses empathy rather than that gasp of anomic glee jerked from us by her grimmer comedies. "Another Part of the Wood" … is less darkened by the dye of its author's particular sensibility than are some of her late books. Like them, however, it was a good read the first time round and is a better one now.

The main differences I detect between the new and old versions are cuts. Miss Bainbridge, enjoying the rare opportunity of revising with a decade's hindsight, has pruned with the skill one would expect from a writer for whom cutting is an intrinsic part of narrative technique. The satiric effects for which she is admired are often achieved by splicing together incongruous slices of life. People in her books break off, fall silent or fail to say what is on their minds. The choppy rhythms establish a sense of general alienation, and speed drama. Timing and juxtaposition are as important in her narrative as they are to a comedian, and it is worth noting that Miss Bainbridge was an actress before becoming a full-time writer.

Her title is a theatrical echo. It suggests scene-shifting: a curtain dropped on one set of characters, then raised to reveal others unraveling their hopes in some more or less allegorical wood. The wood is in Wales, and of the people who came there to camp, several have emblematic names. Joseph, whose main preoccupation is with interpreting his own dreams and whose small son will die at the novel's end, is twice associated with the Bible….

It is Miss Bainbridge's style that makes her a seductive writer—her manner, not her matter, that is so good. Summaries do her no justice. Her genius is for a tapestry of ephemera. Detail is a component that she handles with a miniaturist's skill, often in a close-up so obsessive as to create a tension between her naturalistic accuracy and queerness of perspective. Objects can be so sharply perceived that (this happens in the description of George) people associated with them seem reified. Like automata, they tick over, the tapes in their heads going haywire as they fail to plug into each other's circuits and end by getting each other hilariously or tragically wrong.

We are not, however, given time to brood on tragedy. Cut, goes the authorial knife. Splice. Sheer movement keeps potentially depressing material in ebullition and releases that secondary resonance which makes anecdotes interesting. (p. 14)

If you chop up, then you must reassemble, and Miss Bainbridge has cohesive agents for this: unifying metaphors, such as Lionel's reflection that "life was war, in a more subtle form, that lasted forever." Lionel is presented as a fool whose harping on this subject bores people stiff. Fools, however, have traditionally been held to have vision, and he hits here on a theme the author will use again. The War and biblical allusions are an authentic part of ordinary English people's consciousness and are here used to cast their signifying shadow over random events. So is the Monopoly game that keeps Joseph busy acquiring unreal property while, unknown to him, his small son is dying in bed of a pill overdose. In this case, irony is perhaps a shade too neatly packaged, and Miss Bainbridge emerges as a more conventional moralist than one might have imagined on the evidence of her later work. Yet, even in this early novel, she had already found the dark dynamic of her siren voice. (p. 23)

Julia O'Faolain, "Slices of Life and Death," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1980 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), April 13, 1980, pp. 14, 23.

Betty Falkenberg

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 223

Beryl Bainbridge's Another Part of the Wood is a small, precise study of small, insidious deceits—mainly self-deceits. But their triviality does not bar them from exacting tragic prices. In a world where truth has passed out of human relationships, even the leaves on the trees seem unreal: They "glitter like glass." (p. 15)

[This] book has obviously been pared down, pruned of excess verbiage. Not that the author was ever long-winded, but she has a fine ear and previously has exhibited an enjoyment of dialogue for its own sake. Here the dialogue is not naturalistic; it does not seek so much to imitate class levels of speech (even if it does occasionally parody them), as to capture the quintessence of persons and states of being. No detail is accidental; everything works toward a clearly-defined end. If an atmosphere is established, it is part of the statement. Boredom, triviality, insensate chitchat are so infused with evil that they rise to another plane. Bainbridge is doing something in this book that was not apparent in her earlier novels. She is artfully creating a Fiction, and the sum, by virtue of being less, has become beautifully more than its parts. (p. 16)

Betty Falkenberg, "The Price of Deceit," in The New Leader (© 1980 by the American Labor Conference on International Affairs, Inc.), Vol. LXIII, No. 8, May 5, 1980, pp. 15-16.

Julian Symons

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 658

The glancing indirection of Beryl Bainbridge's writing, its waywardness and humor, owes something to Firbank and, further back, to Sterne, but she is a genuine original, with a macabre imagination and a wonderful gift for catching tones of speech, whether the people talking are the creepy little girls of Harriet Said …, the besotted young woman and her lover in Sweet William, or heavy-weight Freda and lean Brenda in The Bottle Factory Outing. Nobody else is so dashingly offhand in telling us only what she feels we need to know for the purposes of her story, or is able to mix comedy and horror with such assurance.

A reading of Bainbridge's work might begin with Harriet Said [(1972)] … and continue with The Bottle Factory Outing (1974). The adroit plotting of the first book places the suppressed lesbian relationship of two schoolgirls in the foreground of the story while making us uneasily aware of some mysterious nastiness that is not revealed until the end. A similar uneasiness broods over The Bottle Factory Outing…. Both books end in violence, both contain an element of mystery. Yet the violence has its seeds in scenes that are comic or even farcical, and although The Bottle Factory Outing contains a murder that remains unexplained until the last pages, Beryl Bainbridge's concerns are not those of the crime writer.

Her world is one in which it is the role of men to demand and exploit, of women to give and console…. The plot [of Sweet William (1975)] could provide material for a thesis on women as victims, but for Bainbridge this is simply the way of the world. It is the way of men like sweet William to charm and impregnate and console, and then go off with another girl or boy friend…. Women may be jealous or miserable, but for the most part happily fulfill their function, which is to lie back and enjoy it, then to bear children, and above all to be tolerant….

Another Part of the Wood is one of the least successful of Bainbridge's novels…. [In] spite of some rewriting for [the second] edition, [it] has an air of contrivance uncharacteristic of her best work, which flows with deceptive casualness….

It would seem that at this time Beryl Bainbridge was looking for an approach that would give scope to the juxtaposition of zany comedy and horror that she used so effectively later on. Most of her people seem odd only because she shows them to us through a distorting lens. In this novel, however, Balfour's fits, Kidney's incomprehension, George's moroseness give an effect of caricature, and the dialogue tends toward a solemnity that doesn't suit a writer who best conveys seriousness through frivolity…. In later novels people may talk in clichés …, but the phrases will be treated with the deflating touch of irony that is absent here.

The book's chief interest, however, still lies in the portrait of Joseph, who is always intending to do things that he never manages…. He is a preliminary sketch for sweet William, and the extent to which Beryl Bainbridge's art has developed in subtlety can be seen by comparing the two. There is not much to be said for either of them, as father or as lover, and this is made much too plain in the case of Joseph, so that we can hardly fail to dislike him. Sweet William's is a much more subtle portrait, of a man capable of charming any woman into bed.

Beryl Bainbridge is one of the half-dozen most inventive and interesting novelists working in Britain today, and virtually anything she writes is worth reading. It would be a pity, though, to come to her novels first through an early book like Another Part of the Wood. (p. 40)

Julian Symons, "'Another Part of the Wood'," in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; copyright © 1980 Nyrev, Inc.), Vol. XXVII, No. 12, July 17, 1980, pp. 39-40.

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Bainbridge, Beryl (Vol. 14)


Bainbridge, Beryl (Vol. 22)