MARCH 3, 2012
THE LATE ENGLISH NOVELIST Beryl Bainbridge was a favorite among writers. That’s a lovely honor but not quite a ticket to popular success. Bainbridge had two distinct periods. In the first she wrote about young women and the trials of their working lives and the men they never quite understood and who never quite understood them. Those books often open as conventional comedies before they turn black. When Bainbridge was finished mining her own early years, she began her second period with a series of historical novels that brought her additional acclaim in both the United Kingdom and the United States. Her novel of the doomed Scott expedition to Antarctica, The Birthday Boys, was the first of her books to find a significant audience in America.
Her final novel, The Girl in the Polka-Dot Dress, unfinished at the time of her death and published posthumously, is an enigmatic book about a journey starting in Baltimore and ending up in Los Angeles at the Ambassador Hotel in time for Robert Kennedy’s death. Following the actual murder, the Los Angeles Times reported that “a girl in a white polka-dot dress ran from the hotel … and said, ‘We shot him.’” Then she disappeared into the mysteries of American assassination lore. Bainbridge has imagined her back into the half-life of fiction.
Road novels are an American habit. A few of them, On the Road and Lolita, seem indelible. It’s a big country, and a car, or in this case, a camper, is a good way to see it. Rose, the young protagonist, is a London dental assistant traveling across America in the era of murders searching for a Dr. Wheeler, an American who was kind to her in earlier days. She’s traveling with one Harold Grosse, known as Washington Harold, an American who is also looking for the doctor, but for his own purposes: Dr. Wheeler may have had an affair with Harold’s late wife. Harold is carrying a pistol.
Rose and Harold’s true purposes remain private and vaguely stated, though the elusive Dr. Wheeler may have a connection to the Kennedy organization. Harold, Bainbridge tells us, has “a soul immersed in darkness.” Rose is younger, unobservant and a little dim, though she can be devious.
The book brings together both of Bainbridge’s modes: The journey itself, with its promise of comedy and misunderstandings that tend toward darkness, recall her earlier works, while the assassination’s palpable historicity reflects her later period. The trip includes various eccentric stops: a Theosophist meeting, a funeral, a campsite—all surrounded by a lot of confusion and a touch of dreary sex. Bainbridge concocts people who can be self-absorbed and often annoying but are rarely aware of their effect on others. It’s true of Rose and many of Bainbridge’s other women. As for Rose and Harold, Bainbridge keeps pulling us along without revealing their secrets, though one suspects they’re going to enter history. If the novel loses its way in the climactic scenes at the Ambassador Hotel, perhaps it’s because her English editor completed the book from Bainbridge’s notes and unfinished draft.
One of her best early books is The Bottle Factory Outing (1974). Brenda and Freda, young women from the provinces, are in London. (Bainbridge’s young women are frequently from the north, and Bainbridge herself was born in Liverpool.) They work in a wine-bottling factory and share a tiny flat. Almost everyone else in the factory is an Italian immigrant, where the women are as English as beans on toast. Brenda is uncertain and turned inward — though capable of enough deviousness to be a cousin to Rose — while Freda is bossy with a theatrical air.. Their flat has one bed, so they put a row of books down the middle for separation. Freda, who is large, sleeps in the nude; Brenda, thin and emotionally frail, sleeps in her clothes. It could be a setup for an American sitcom.
At the bottling factory, Freda has set her sights on Vittorio, the boss’s nephew. She goes to elaborate lengths to catch his eye, keeping the flat prepared for his visit, of which he’s entirely ignorant. If she thinks there’s a chance Vittorio might turn up she sends poor Brenda off to the cinema. Vittorio is the reason Freda plans the elaborate outing of the title. Brenda, who is in London escaping from her husband, spends a lot of time avoiding the plant manager and his unwanted and wandering hands. Brenda’s tortured and very English sense of manners makes her worry that in rebuffing him, she’s insulting him. Freda has an entirely unlikely belief in her own charm and allure. Both women have a ferocious ordinariness.
The subsequent events continue in that direction — the outing itself dissolves into misunderstandings and tedious tourist sites. The plot seems to change genre from burgeoning comedy to a whodunit tale or procedural. One keeps reading to see where all this is heading. It’s Bainbridge’s version of E.M. Forster’s famous “And then? And then?” only here it’s more like, “Now what nuttiness?” Bainbridge goes deeper into drollness. The remaining characters don’t know how to dispose of the corpse they now have on their hands. Schemes are proposed, including one to stuff the body in an old wine barrel, ship it back to Italy and throw it overboard into the Mediterranean.
Bainbridge’s English deadpan style and her ability to create people of limited intelligence, a quality found in many of her books, are in full evidence here. She gets inside her characters’ heads and sees their hopes without granting them more intelligence than we know they possess. Other writers have done that with secondary figures. Dopiness is a character marker that usually trumps any other quality. Forster calls such secondary figures flat characters, as opposed to fully drawn round characters. Bainbridge’s knack for flattening central characters is exemplary. We try to understand her people’s hopes, and occasionally want to tell them to shut up and think about what they’re doing.
An Awfully Big Adventure (1989), another example of Bainbridge’s earlier work, is a backstage novel that was made into a movie of the same title in 1995. As a young woman, Bainbridge was an actress for a while before she found her truer vocation. The book centers on Stella, who might be a cousin of Brenda’s; she has a little more ambition, but an inability to concentrate on anything for very long. The movie imagines her as a more typical young woman of the time who blunders her way through the backstage life of a theatrical company in Liverpool. It keeps the novel’s plot but dumps Bainbridge’s narrative voice, which works well enough for the cinema, but drains the story of its most valuable component — the author’s touch.
Even though Bainbridge wrote several screenplays, it’s hard to imagine that she could give producers what they wanted. She brought her best characters to life by embracing their flaws and finding drama in foolish inadequacy, as is true of both Rose and Brenda.
Yet Bainbridge’s voice began to change with Young Adolf (1978), which is set in Liverpool in 1912 when Hitler, in his early 20s, might have been in England. In Bainbridge’s telling, he’s a failed art student staying with his half-brother, Alois, and his Irish wife, Bridget (which makes her Bridget Hitler). Mrs. Hitler kept a diary (unread by me) that no one in England seems to believe. It apparently contains the tale of the future Führer during his stay in Liverpool, which, the diary claims was a way to avoid conscription in the Austrian army. He discovers a taste for sharp uniforms and idles around the house, “looking as though a good wash would kill him.” He makes rude remarks about the impure blood that is infecting Europe. A minor character says of him, “Such a strong willed young man. What a pity he will never amount to anything.” I doubt that the question of there being any truth to the story interested Bainbridge at all. She just picked it up and ran with it into the second stage of her writing life.
Bainbridge’s history novels were unusual in that they didn’t have traditional heroes, which is certainly true of Young Adolf. It’s not much of an exaggeration to say that from the start of these novels, central characters often had personalities that were too weak to assert their will. Finding emotional turmoil — always understated — rather than dealing with reactions to established facts is at the heart of her later works.
Master Georgie (1998) is set in gaslight London and eventually, the Crimean war. The dominant theme, however, is photography in its early days. The opening paragraphs tell us this may be a tale of history, but whatever truth it has to tell will not turn on facts of the past. Myrtle, an orphan who is about twelve, stands beside the body of her adoptive father, a man she calls Mr. Hardy: “My head was on a level with the pillow and (Master Georgie) had me rest my hand on Mr. Hardy’s shoulder; a finger-tip chill struck through the cloth of his white cotton shirt.” Master Georgie, Myrtle’s adored adoptive brother, is about to photograph the corpse. Each chapter is be narrated by one of the characters and involves a photograph.
For Myrtle, Master Georgie is heaven itself. Not so in the eyes of Pompey Jones, a former street urchin who is bettering himself, though not as successfully as Myrtle. To find the truth of each other and their situations, these people are going to need more than a photograph. The story is narrated by Georgie, Myrtle, Pompey, and a Dr. Potter, Georgie’s brother-in-law. The Doctor is something of a windbag. These are the voices that will take us to the Crimea, where Georgie will photograph the war. His photographs have a habit of fading.
Bainbridge’s point is that modernity will tell us little and the people who record it, even less. Bainbridge gives a Victorian view of photography to the Doctor, the voice she trusts the least. He reflects on it amidst the carnage: “I don’t know that I think much of the camera. It appears to hold reality hostage, and yet fails to snap thoughts in the head … the lens is powerless to catch the interior turmoil boiling within the skull.” Finding the boil is the task Bainbridge has set for herself. There are historical facts aplenty, but one suspects they are the part of her history novels she values the least. Historical subjects for Bainbridge, despite their basis in established reality, are from an invented world.
Bainbridge published 17 novels, two story collections, five plays for the stage and television, and four books of non-fiction. She won the Whitbread prize twice — for Injury Time (1977) and for her novel about the Titanic, Every Man for Himself (1996), which Europa will reissue in April to mark the centenary of the ship’s sinking. Among her other later novels is According to Queeney (2001), the story of Dr. Johnson and Mrs. Thrale. She was appointed Dame Commander of the British Empire in 2001 and was nominated for the Man Booker Prize five times, prompting the press to sometimes call her a Booker widow. It must have galled her. As a sort of consolation prize, she was given an honorary Booker for Master Georgie in February of 2009. Beryl Bainbridge died in 2010. She was 77.