Winter Garden

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Beryl Bainbridge’s ninth novel, Winter Garden, is set in Russia, but the principal characters are English, and the novel’s concerns transcend nationality. Douglas Ashburner, an admiralty lawyer, accompanies three English artists, including his lover Nina St. Clair, on a tour of Russia, sponsored by the Russian Artists’ Union. In the course of the tour, the rather ordinary, middle-aged Ashburner is confronted with the contradictions—the lack of certainty—that seem to characterize modern existence everywhere. Throughout the novel, the ordinary and the bizarre intermingle to a dizzying degree. Contradiction infuses every aspect of the novel: plot, characterization, and theme. Even Bainbridge’s style, which is characterized by a deft balancing of the humorous and the sinister, contributes to the message that life is never quite what it seems.

Reinforcing this particular message, the plot revolves around the tension between expectation and realization. For each of the visitors, Russia is not quite what he or she expected; but the problem is particularly acute for Douglas, whose expectations of golden moments with Nina are dashed almost from the start. Arriving at the airport, he is greeted offhandedly by Nina, who is feeling slightly ill and will make no promises about their sleeping arrangements during the tour. To make matters worse, the balding, conventional Ashburner is uncomfortable with the other artists: Bernard Douglas, a loud, outspoken man; and Enid Dwyer, a rather neutral woman, who is somewhat enamored of Bernard. Once the group is on the plane, Bernard takes the seat beside Nina, and Douglas must sit with Enid, who clearly wishes to be elsewhere. Later, when the group arrives at the airport in Moscow, Douglas’ unhappiness is compounded by the fact that his luggage is missing. Feeling increasingly uncomfortable with his unconventional compatriots, Ashburner wonders why he has left his home and his wife to come to Mother Russia, which appears cold, uncomfortable, and dull.

Although Bainbridge tends to keep the traditional British distance between herself and her character, her sympathies clearly lie with Ashburner, and much of the action is presented from his point of view. Manipulated in his marriage, Douglas is equally inept in his love affair, and this journey seems to offer the first hope for a comfortable liaison with Nina. Since Nina constantly stresses the need for keeping their relationship secret from her husband, a famous brain surgeon, Douglas has had to make love to her in awkward places and positions—often standing up. Once Nina even hides her lover in a closet to keep his whereabouts secret from her husband—who never appears. With the dampening of his hopes for golden evenings with Nina, Ashburner’s spirit sink; he thinks of his wife whom he cares about, although he knows she sees him in much the same light as the family dog—dependable, but incapable of independent action.

From Douglas’ point of view, matters go increasingly awry. Met at the airport by the official interpreter, Olga Fiodorovna, the group quickly becomes aware that their stay will be much too well-organized. An attractive, stylishly dressed woman, the interpreter is also domineering, high-handed, and officious. Finding in Olga Fiodorovna an unpleasant tendency to lecture on the glories of Russian history and landscape, her charges often long to be left to fend for themselves in this alien land. Within the group, only Douglas questions the careful shepherding she provides for her charges. His earlier suspicions that the little entourage of English artists will not be entirely free on their two-week tour of Russia is heightened by the absence of Nina on the first day of the tour. Olga explains Nina’s absence as a response to an impromptu...

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luncheon invitation from Boris Shabelsky, a Russian artist and an acquaintance of Nina. Later that day, Olga attributes Nina’s continued absence to ill health; according to Olga, Nina is resting in a sanatorium and will join the group later in Leningrad.

Bernard and Enid readily accept these explanations, even when Nina’s stay in the sanatorium lengthens into days, and she fails to join her friends in Leningrad. For Douglas, however, Nina’s continued absence and his inability to get in touch with her become concrete proof of the contradictions between what their official interpreter says and the reality of how things are. Torn by longing for Nina and distressed at the strangeness of his surroundings, Douglas begins to see the events of each day in a sinister light.

For Douglas at least, contradiction and confusion seem to abound. Douglas questions a mysterious and inconclusive phone call from an unknown “Boris”—was it simply a mistake, a caller who had the wrong number, or was the caller Shabelsky with a message from or about Nina? There are other confusing events. Apparently mistaken by his Russian hosts for Nina’s husband, the brain surgeon, Douglas is taken to a hospital to view an operation. As he surveys the scene in the operating chamber, Douglas fantasizes—or actually sees?—that the patient possesses the same star-shaped scar that Nina has on her forehead. Collapsing at the hospital, Douglas is taken to his hotel to recover. That evening he is relieved to learn that Nina telephoned the hotel the night before—although he later learns that only Olga talked to the caller. In a disquieting episode the following day, Douglas thinks that he catches a glimpse of Nina at a cemetery he and Enid are visiting. Later, at the Kirov Theatre in Leningrad, Douglas again thinks he sees Nina, only to have her disappear, almost before his eyes.

As these incidents reveal, Bainbridge relies strongly on mystery and possible coincidence to form the plot of the novel and to promote the sense of contradiction and confusion that mark the world of Winter Garden. It is no doubt a credit to Bainbridge’s skill as a creator of suspense that the reader is never quite sure if Douglas is the only person who suspects the truth; if he has constructed a fantasy world; of if he is, in fact, physically ill. Rather amusingly, there is some reason to suspect the latter since the unworldly Douglas learns from Bernard that certain unpleasant physical symptoms Douglas has been experiencing can be attributed to a venereal disease contracted from his beloved Nina, who had not gotten around to informing her lover about the problem—although she had told Bernard.

There are times, however, when the reader may find the clues overly subtle and the humor disconcerting. The star-shaped scar, for example, is mentioned only once before the crucial scene in the operating room—and only briefly then. Thus, the reader may not make the same connection between Nina and the scar that Douglas does. While Douglas’ naïveté about venereal disease—and about Nina—is both touching and amusing, the reader is left in a quandry: is Douglas a serious witness or a fool? The latter seems likely since Douglas’ credibility as a witness is already under attack; no one else sees the events he does. On the other hand, much that happens in the novel remains confusing and unexplained. Even at the end of the novel, there are no explanations concerning the disapperance of the luggage or the disappearance of Nina. The luggage at least is returned, although it obviously has been searched, but Nina’s whereabouts remain shrouded.

Although the use of contradiction in the plot of Winter Garden is sometimes disconcerting, the use of contradiction in characterization generally works well. Bainbridge shows her characters from varying perspectives, and each view presents a slightly different picture. In the portrayal of her characters, Bainbridge clearly means to say that people are not always what they appear to be or, more accurately, that they may appear in different guises to different people. The author’s main concern is with the tendency of observers to bring certain preconceived illusions or desires to the act of perception. To the hapless Douglas, who longs to bring excitement to his routine existence, Nina represents an ideal of the unconventional, liberated artist. In sharp contrast, Nina seems second-rate to Enid and a lightweight to Bernard—both of whom have their idiosyncratic reasons for viewing their colleague as they do.

This diversity of view could be simply amusing, or pathetic, but since Bainbridge places the problem of how the characters are to be perceived in a larger framework than the purely social one, the problem becomes a very serious one indeed. Since the four English tourists are in a foreign country where they may or may not be embroiled in sinister events, it does matter whether the group can trust one another’s accounts—or, perhaps even more important, whether anyone is able to see the truth and to communicate it to the others.

For the reader, the problem is compounded by the characters’ unpredictability; an individual’s responses often seem precisely the opposite of what one would expect them to be, given the public identity the individual projects. Douglas, ostensibly a staid representative of the establishment, becomes an irrational alarmist or a visionary observer—depending on one’s interpretation of events—when he is faced with the mishaps of the trip. On the other hand, Bernard, the flamboyant, unpredictable artist, tends to take a maddeningly prosaic approach to these same events. According to Bernard, everything that goes wrong is the result of a computer foul-up. Obviously, these characters will not trust one another’s interpretations of events, and Bainbridge gives just enough credibility to each view to leave the reader also slightly uncertain.

Uncertainty is no doubt the response the author wishes to elicit. Beware of people, Beryl Bainbridge seems to say; they are just as unpredictable, as quirky and contradictory as events. The “beware” is uttered sadly, despite the cool distance Bainbridge maintains between herself and her characters. These characters are all rather pathetic in their way, even the flamboyant Bernard and the self-possessed Olga. All seem to suffer from a failure to connect—with others, the landscape, the world. Indeed, the major thematic issues of the novel grow out of the author’s concern for her characters’ inability to thrive in the sterile “winter garden” of the modern world.

Bainbridge’s use of contradiction in the depiction of her characters and in the working out of plot carries through to thematic issues and is central to the two major thematic concerns of the novel, the difficulty of communication and the problem of separating illusion and reality. These two themes are closely related: the person who cannot separate illusion and reality will have a problem communicating any valid ideas—or perhaps even emotions—to someone else. In a modern, peripatetic existence, the problem has both individual and bureaucratic implications. At the end of the novel, Douglas is caught up in a bureaucratic nightmare; held in custody because he is suspected of being a spy, Douglas has no idea what punishment the future may hold. From the reader’s point of view, his hosts’ response is not altogether surprising since Douglas has been behaving erratically; on the other hand, strange events have been going on. The problem for both Douglas and his hosts may simply be a problem of communication; however, both parties must be able to distinguish between illusion and reality if they are going to communicate.

The likelihood of that happening is remote. Even on an individual basis, Douglas has not been able to communicate with others—not even with Nina, the woman he loves. Love without communication no doubt deserves the name of fantasy, not passion, but Bainbridge treats this lover sympathetically, though humorously. To be able to love at all requires real gifts, as Bernard notes. At the end of the novel, Douglas sees himself and Nina as two people “in a bleak landscape, frozen in their tracks.” The difficulties of communication, much less love, seem almost insurmountable in such a framework. One can hardly blame Douglas.

Bainbridge has the particular gift of being able to create a novel that succeeds both as a suspense narrative and as a thematic work. While the reader may desire more clues about both the plot and the theme, Bainbridge leaves only slender clues because she wishes to make the point that explanations about the complexities of modern existence do not come easily. Left at the end of the novel on the verge of understanding, the reader—like Douglas—can only bow to life’s contradictions.


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Best Sellers. XLI, May, 1981, p. 43.

Booklist. LXXII, February 15, 1981, p. 774.

Encounter. LVI, May, 1981, p. 90.

Guardian Weekly. CXXIII, December 21, 1980, p. 22.

Kirkus Reviews. XLIX, January 15, 1981, p. 86.

Library Journal. CVI, March 15, 1981, p. 677.

Listener. CIV, November 20, 1980, p. 699.

The New York Times Book Review. LXXXVI, March 1, 1981, p. 9.

Observer. November 2, 1980, p. 29.

Times Literary Supplement. October 31, 1980, p. 1221.