Bainbridge, Beryl 1934–
Bainbridge, Beryl 1934–
(Beryl Margaret Bainbridge)
PERSONAL: Born November 21, 1934, in Liverpool, England; daughter of Richard (a salesperson) and Winifred (Baines) Bainbridge; married Austin Davies (an artist), April 24, 1954 (divorced, 1959); children: Aaron Paul, Johanna Harriet, Ruth Emmanuella. Education: Attended Merchant Taylor's School and Arts Educational Schools, Ltd. Politics: Socialist. Religion: "Lapsed Catholic." Hobbies and other interests: Painting, reading, sleeping, smoking.
ADDRESSES: Home—42 Albert St., Camden Town, London NW1 7NU, England.
CAREER: Novelist and actress. Actress in England on radio and television, and in repertory theaters in Windsor, Salisbury, Dundee, Liverpool, and London, England, 1943–72; writer, 1956–68, 1972–; Evening Standard (newspaper), London, England, weekly columnist, 1986–92. Has also worked in a wine-bottling factory and as a clerk for Gerald Duckworth and Company (publishers). Host of British Broadcasting Corporation television series English Journey, 1983, and Forever England, 1986.
MEMBER: Royal Society of Literature (fellow).
AWARDS, HONORS: Booker Prize nomination, 1973, for The Dressmaker, 1992, for An Awfully Big Adventure, and 2001, for According to Queeney; Booker Prize nomination and Guardian Fiction Award, both 1974, both for The Bottle Factory Outing; Whitbread Award, 1977, for Injury Time; Litt.D. from University of Liverpool, 1986; Booker Prize nomination, and Whitbread Award, both 1996, both for Every Man for Himself; Booker Prize nomination, W.H. Smith Fiction Prize, Commonwealth Eurasian section winner, and James Tait Black Memorial Prize for Best Novel, all 1999, all for Master Georgie; named Dame of the British Empire, 2000; David Cohen British Literature prize (shared with Thom Gunn), 2003, for lifetime achievement.
A Weekend with Claud (novel), Hutchinson (London, England), 1967, revised edition published as A Weekend with Claude, Duckworth (London, England), 1981.
Another Part of the Wood (novel), Hutchinson (London, England), 1968, revised edition, Duckworth (London, England), 1979, Braziller (New York, NY), 1980.
Harriet Said (novel), Duckworth (London, England), 1972, Braziller (New York, NY), 1973.
The Dressmaker (novel), Duckworth (London, England), 1973, Carroll & Graf (New York, NY), 1996, published as The Secret Glass, Braziller (New York, NY), 1973.
The Bottle Factory Outing (novel), Braziller (New York, NY), 1974, reprinted, Carroll & Graf (New York, NY), 1994.
Sweet William (novel; also see below), Braziller (New York, NY), 1975.
A Quiet Life (novel; also see below), Duckworth (London, England), 1976, Braziller (New York, NY), 1977.
Injury Time (novel), Braziller (New York, NY), 1977.
Young Adolf (novel), Duckworth (London, England), 1978, Braziller (New York, NY), 1979.
Winter Garden (novel), Duckworth (London, England), 1980, Braziller (New York, NY), 1981.
Watson's Apology (novel; also see below), Duckworth (London, England), 1984, McGraw-Hill (New York, NY), 1985.
Mum and Mr. Armitage (short stories; contains "Mum and Mr. Armitage Clap Hands," "Here Comes Charlie," "People for Lunch," and "The Worst Policy"; also see below), Duckworth (London, England), 1985, McGraw-Hill (New York, NY), 1987.
Filthy Lucre; or, The Tragedy of Andrew Ledwhistle and Richard Soleway (novel), Duckworth (London, England), 1986.
Watson's Apology [and] Mum and Mr. Armitage, and Other Stories, McGraw-Hill (New York, NY), 1988.
An Awfully Big Adventure (novel; also see below), Duckworth (London, England), 1989, HarperCollins (New York, NY), 1991.
The Birthday Boys (novel), Duckworth (London, England), 1993, Carroll & Graf (New York, NY), 1994.
Collected Stories, Penguin (London, England), 1994.
Every Man for Himself (novel), Duckworth (London, England), 1996, Carroll & Graf (New York, NY), 1996.
Master Georgie (novel), Duckworth (London, England), 1996, Carroll & Graf (New York, NY), 1998.
According to Queeney, Little, Brown (Boston, MA), 2001.
English Journey; or, The Road to Milton Keynes, Duckworth (London, England), 1984, Carroll & Graf (New York, NY), 1997.
Forever England: North and South, Duckworth (London, England), 1987.
Something Happened Yesterday, Duckworth (London, England), 1993.
Sweet William (based on her novel of the same title), British Broadcasting Corp. (BBC), 1979.
A Quiet Life (based on her novel of the same title), BBC, 1980.
(With Phillip Seville) The Journal of Bridget Hitler, BBC, 1980.
(With Udayan Prasad) According to Beryl, BBC, 2001.
Also author of Tiptoe through the Tulips, 1976; Blue Skies from Now On, 1977; The Warrior's Return, 1977; It's a Lovely Day Tomorrow, 1977; Words Fail Me, 1979; Somewhere More Central, 1981; and Evensong, 1986.
(Editor) New Stories 6 (anthology), Hutchinson (London, England), 1981.
Contributor to books, including Bananas, edited by Emma Tennant, and Winter's Tales 26, edited by A.D. Maclean; contributor to periodicals, including Spectator, Listener, Times Literary Supplement, and London Sunday Times Magazine.
ADAPTATIONS: Sweet William, The Dressmaker, and An Awfully Big Adventure were produced as films.
SIDELIGHTS: Beryl Bainbridge was counted among Great Britain's "half-dozen most inventive and interesting novelists" by New York Review of Books contributor Julian Symons. Since beginning her fiction-writing career in the 1960s, Bainbridge has gone on to win critical acclaim and a wide readership on two continents for her chronicles of the lives and neuroses of the English lower middle classes. Reviewers have cited Bainbridge for her satiric but naturalistic portrayals of the drab and desperate British poor, and her depiction of "the hidden springs of anarchy that bedevil the least adventurous of us, booby-trapping our lives and making them the occasion of violent and dangerous humor," according to Spectator contributor Harriet Waugh. Bainbridge's tales of urban wildness often stray into the realm of violence and nightmare, where trapped spirits collide with thwarted ambition and the bosom of the family offers more grief than relief. Newsweek correspondent Margo Jefferson commented that "Bainbridge's books are melancholy, provincial landscapes in which violence, like a thunderstorm, always threatens, sometimes strikes." New York Times columnist Anatole Broyard suggested that Bainbridge "has established herself as the high priestess of the rueful. She has opened a thrift shop in English literature, a home for frayed, faded, out-of-fashion and inexpensive people. The name of her shop might be Things Out of Joint…. Bainbridge's people have all missed the train, or boat, the main chance. They are stranded in themselves, left behind by a world rushing toward the gratification of desire."
Fiction writing is Bainbridge's second career; during her teen and early adult years she worked as an actress on the radio and in repertory theaters. At age sixteen she met and fell in love with her future husband, artist Austin Davies. They were married in 1954, although Bainbridge had misgivings about the match. While awaiting the birth of her first child in 1956, Bainbridge began to write a novel. She derived the plot from a newspaper story about two girls who murdered their mother, and drew on her own childhood experiences to enhance and alter the details. The resulting work, Harriet Said, was completed in 1958 but remained unpublished until 1972. Barbara C. Millard noted in the Dictionary of Literary Biography: "When Bainbridge submitted the manuscript to publishers in 1959, she received outraged response, including the comment that the book was 'too indecent and unpleasant even for these lax days.'" Editors were aghast at the novelist's tale of juvenile sexuality, voyeurism, and murder; their response so daunted Bainbridge that she returned to the stage. In 1959, her marriage ended, she moved with her two young children to London and started writing again. In 1967, her second novel, A Weekend with Claud, became her first book to be published.
"Bainbridge's publishing history is perhaps the kind of thing you'd expect of a writer who is preoccupied with the idea of isolation," noted Karl Miller in the New York Review of Books. "It may be that this portrayer of shyness and constraint, who appears to be no punctuator, found it difficult to cope with the embarrassment of a debut, and of getting herself properly published." Indeed, Bainbridge eventually revised her first two published books, A Weekend with Claud and Another Part of the Wood. In the London Times, Bainbridge attributed her success as an author to her acquaintance, in 1970, with Anna Haycraft, fiction editor for Gerald Duckworth and Company: "She had read my two published books, didn't like them all that much ('rotten' was the word she used) and wanted to know if I had written anything else. I showed her Harriet Said…. Duckworth published it, employed me in the office for a year, put me on a monthly salary … and suggested I write another novel as soon as possible." Bainbridge added that Haycraft helped her to find her authorial voice: "It was she who told me to abandon the flowery and obscure style of my two later books and return to the simpler structure of the first. She pointed out that, in my case, clarity came from writing from my own experience…. I gradually learnt the best way, for me, of expressing what I wanted to say, and wrote a novel a year from then on."
Critics have suggested that although A Weekend with Claud, Another Part of the Wood, and Harriet Said lack the polish of more recent Bainbridge works, they nonetheless demonstrate a burgeoning talent at work. New York Times Book Review contributor Gail Godwin observed that Harriet Said "certainly ranks in content with the more celebrated thrillers of corrupt childhood, but it has literary and psychological virtues as well. The architecture of its narrative would have satisfied Poe: every incident advances the design. The language, though simple, often has the effect of poetry … [and] there are also several remarkable passages which reveal, so accurately, adolescence's frequent, unpredictable swing between mature and infantile behavior." Assessing A Weekend with Claud, Millard wrote: "The novel lacks the author's characteristic crispness; its fuzzy prose is rescued only by the pointed imagery which projects an exact vision of the despair and folly of love and lovemaking." A Washington Post reviewer found Another Part of the Wood "a scrupulously detailed, wryly witty and ultimately harrowing study of manners in the British middle and working classes, of the effects of dependency on a variety of weak people and of the lies we all tell ourselves to make life bearable and the deadly passions that lie buried under the dull surface of our daily banalities…. This slow-moving book does acquire a cumulative momentum, pointing toward an effective, quietly powerful end, and much of the detail work is exquisite."
The Dressmaker, published in the United States as The Secret Glass, remains one of Bainbridge's best-known works. Set in Liverpool during World War II, the novel explores the painful and claustrophobic existence of a young woman who lives with her two unmarried aunts. Millard suggested that the book "depicts the cramped, impoverished lives of working-class Liverpudlians during the darker days of 1944. The psychological realism of the novel goes beyond reminiscence and proves Bainbridge a master of detail and atmosphere." Godwin felt that The Dressmaker "will attract readers not for its suspense-entertainment but for its sharp character study and unrelenting Naturalism…. The author is painstaking in her evocation of era and perceptive about the world of manners in working-class Liverpool" and "has much to tell us about those pressure cookers of family life and limited means." A Times Literary Supplement reviewer wrote: "To have disinterred so many nasty things in the woodshed and yet evoked a workaday image of Liverpudlian optimism and resilience, in so few claustrophobic pages, is a remarkable achievement. Miss Bainbridge's imagination pushes her towards nightmare, and her eye for detail is macabre; but because she writes with taut, matter-of-fact simplicity this seems as authentic as any contemporary image the camera has preserved of that mercifully vanished past."
The Bottle Factory Outing draws on Bainbridge's experience of working in just such a factory. The central characters are factory workers Brenda and Freda. Brenda, a shy young woman, is being stalked by the plant manager; the more outgoing Freda is in love with the manager's nephew, but her pursuit of him is doomed. She ends up murdered at the company picnic, and Brenda discovers Freda's body. "The catastrophe is only the beginning of Freda's strange voyage in Bren-da's care, as survivor and victim change roles," Millard related. Contemporary Novelists essayist Val Warner dubbed the novel a "flamboyant black comedy" and praised Bainbridge's "rare lyricism" and "Joycean acceptance of her characters." Millard noted that the author uses much theatrical symbolism—role-playing, rehearsals, and so forth—and that "such a motif aptly conveys Bainbridge's central theme, the conflict between self-knowledge and self-deception, between the person and the role, between reality and fantasy."
Sweet William, like The Bottle Factory Outing, finds Bainbridge dealing with "the human tendency toward self-deception and self-parody," according to Millard. In this book, a young woman named Ann becomes caught in the web spun by the title character, a playwright who is deceptive and amoral. Ann's love for William leads her to give up everything else in her life, while he goes through a string of lovers. It emerges, however, that Ann can be deceptive, too. "The novel asserts that possessiveness and selfishness are invariably intermingled with love," Millard observed. Warner particularly praised the pivotal characterization of Ann's mother because "it was in reaction against her vicious pettiness that the daughter was vulnerable to William."
A Quiet Life reflects much of Bainbridge's life in its tale of the sometimes difficult relationships between family members. Framed within the story of a brother and sister meeting to divide an inheritance, the novel is largely in flashback form, as the brother, Alan, remembers events that occurred shortly after World War II. "At the end of the novel it is clear that Alan has remembered only what he could bear and has transformed or forgotten what he could not," Millard reported. Warner commented that in A Quiet Life Bainbridge focuses "devastatingly … on what children become in reaction to their parents." Also, according to Millard, the novel provides an example of "Bainbridge's skill at defining theme through black comedy."
Injury Time is also semiautobiographical in its focus on love affairs at midlife. Binny is a forty-year-old single mother in love with a married man; they try to give an elegant dinner party, but it ends up being crashed by bank robbers on the run. The novel's absurd action, which Bainbridge has said is based on things that happened to her, is a catalyst for character study. "Using multiple points of view, Bainbridge returns to the problems people have distinguishing reality from their own invented scenarios," Millard explained. Observed Warner: "Beneath the black comedy … the meaner and more generous impulses of the two main characters come through, in all their ambivalence."
Bainbridge's eye for telling details is again evident in An Awfully Big Adventure. To write this story she drew on her girlhood growing up in Liverpool. Like the author, the novel's protagonist, Stella, works as the assistant stage manager of a local repertory theater. Innocent yet determined to become worldly, Stella unwittingly influences the fate of all the older members of the company as they stage a production of Peter Pan. The novel brims with the dark humor typical of Bainbridge, including a scene in which Stella traumatizes an audience full of children by failing to revive Tinkerbell at the end of the play. Times Literary Supplement reviewer Lindsay Duguid commented that, "despite the grim setting and the characteristically bleak view of human nature, there is a mellowness about An Awfully Big Adventure which may come partly from the autobiographical element, but which is perhaps also due to its being set in the past. However sharp the details of poverty,… the retrospective picture has inevitably a blurred sepia halo." Duguid argued that while the novel's themes and settings are similar to those in her previous works, she invests the novel's subjects with a "new richness and complexity." Writing in the Women's Review of Books, Francine Prose remarked that the most striking characteristic of An Awfully Big Adventure "is how sympathetic its characters are without being, exactly, likeable." Prose called the novel "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." While faulting the conclusion as somewhat predictable and melodramatic, she asserted that such "minor reservations" do not detract from Bainbridge's "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."
As a writer Bainbridge has been frequently inspired by history and her own travels. Her novel Young Adolf, for instance, describes a family reunion in Liverpool between Adolf Hitler and his half-brother Alois, who did indeed live in England. Broyard contended in the New York Times that the book "has all the improbability of history. It is funny in a way that will make you shudder, sad in a way that will astonish you with unwanted feelings of sympathy. In making Hitler human, Miss Bainbridge has reminded us once again that it is persons, not abstract forces, that engender our disasters." Christian Science Monitor contributor Bruce Allen likewise asserted that the novel's best effects "rise out of Bainbridge's genius for finding latent menace in the dreariest everydayness." Noting that the fictional Hitler "is less … an embryonic monster than a subtle revelation of the social enfeeblement that let him grow and prosper," Warner called Young Adolf "Bainbridge's most ambitious book, with the tension deriving from our knowledge of what is to come, historically. Against this appalling factual scenario, details like the brown shirt made for the penniless Adolf by his sister-in-law … are intensely black comedy."
The novel Watson's Apology is based on a notorious Victorian murder case in which minister and schoolmaster J.S. Watson beat his wife, Anne, to death after years of increasingly unhappy wedlock; they had barely known each other when they married. According to Merle Rubin in Chicago's Tribune Books, Bainbridge uses the framework of documents surrounding the murder trial to weave "her fictional fabrication: thickly detailed, redolent of the specific time and place, and suffused in the grimly desperate atmosphere of a misbegotten marriage." James Lasdun, in Encounter, wrote that Bainbridge's "achievement is to show how very ordinary and unmysterious were the forces at play upon Mr. Watson and his wife…. What propelled them towards tragedy was an accumulation of the kinds of mutual disappointments that could afflict any marriage under similar circumstances." The Watsons' story, opined Michelle Slung in the Washington Post Book World, is "creepy, sad and suspenseful, all at once," and Bainbridge tells it in "tantalizing style." New York Times Book Review critic Marilyn Stasio deemed Watson's Apology "an extraordinarily lively work of the imagination because the facts themselves remain so obdurately dull," although the critic added: "For all [Bainbridge's] compassion for poor Watson's unarticulated miseries, she's a bit miserly with her sympathy for Anne."
The basis of The Birthday Boys is the South Pole expedition launched in 1911 by Robert Falcon Scott. An Englishman, Scott was determined to reach the pole before his rival, Norwegian Roald Amundsen. In January of 1912 he and his party did reach the pole, despite a series of unfortunate incidents, only to find that Amundsen had been and gone a month before. On their return trip, Scott and his entire party perished from cold and hunger. For years, they were held up by the British as examples of gallantry and courage, but it has more recently been argued that Scott's stubbornness and lack of preparation contributed greatly to the tragedy that befell his party. Using Scott's journal as a starting point, Bainbridge fashioned journals in the voices of the other team members to create her version of their fatal adventure.
Reviewing The Birthday Boys for the New York Times, Michiko Kakutani suggested that in this "affecting novel" Bainbridge creates a parable for the sort of brave, foolish optimism that flourished in Victorian England but died during World War I. The author "recounts their journey … with both sympathy and unflinching candor, capturing the boyish idealism and impetuosity that initially impel their journey, and the weariness and terror that gradually overtake them during their mission's final days." Furthermore, wrote Kakutani, Bainbridge renders their hardships with a verisimilitude so palpable that one "has the sensation of sharing the characters' experiences in that dangerously beautiful landscape firsthand. The Birthday Boys is a riveting tale by an enormously versatile writer." New York Times Book Review contributor Gary Krist added that in giving voice to Scott and his party, Bainbridge provides "some of the most convincing and slyly revealing first-person narrative I've ever read." While she subtly questions the heroic image of Scott and casts a jaundiced eye on "the whole ethos of action, conquest and empire," Bainbridge also creates a novel "that succeeds on many levels besides the political, most notably the visceral level of the adventure story," Krist averred.
Again focusing on the Edwardian era, Bainbridge's Every Man for Himself plumbs the depths of the 1912 sinking of the Titanic. As a Kirkus Reviews writer commented, this real-life tragedy "is not played for the usual melodrama but used … as the backdrop for the coming-of-age story of a well-connected, uncertain young man." The young man, Morgan, has been rescued from poverty by his aunt's fortuitous marriage to millionaire J.P. Morgan. This rescue is not entirely secure, however; although Morgan's formidable uncle expects him to find some sort of gainful employment, the young man is cast adrift with plenty of time and opportunity for drinking and getting into mischief. Once again, reviewers noted Bainbridge's ability to evoke character and history with a few deft passages. A Publishers Weekly contributor applauded Every Man for Himself as a "meticulously observed account that al-most offhandedly convinces the reader that this is exactly what it must have been like aboard the doomed liner." For John Updike, writing in the New Yorker, such telling details do not come so neatly, however. "Bainbridge writes with a kind of betranced confidence," wrote Updike, "seeming to lose all track of her story only to pop awake for a stunning image or an intense exchange," and "her sudden details make a surreal effect."
Another historical novel, Master Georgie draws readers to Liverpool and the Crimea of the mid-nineteenth century. The title refers to George Hardy, a doctor and amateur photographer from a wealthy family. His story has three narrators, all of whom are dependent upon George. Myrtle, an orphan taken in by George's parents, grows up to become his lover and bears him children when his wife cannot. Pompey Jones, a boy of the streets, becomes George's photographic assistant and also his lover. Dr. Potter, the third narrator, is George's scholarly but impoverished brother-in-law. All three accompany George to the Crimean War, which was the first conflict to be photographed. It also was a very poorly executed war, and its most famous moment was the suicidal charge of a group of light cavalry, immortalized by Alfred, Lord Tennyson as "The Charge of the Light Brigade."
Master Georgie joins The Birthday Boys and Every Man for Himself to form what Time reviewer Elizabeth Glieck viewed as "an ambitious trilogy of novels that dissect great examples of human folly." Glieck went on to write that saying that Bainbridge writes historical novels "is like saying that Jane Austen wrote domestic comedies." Bainbridge's characters witness history but sometimes falsify it, explained the critic, citing George's composition of war scene photographs. By the same token, through their complicated relationships they sometimes deceive themselves, each other, and their repressive Victorian society. Glieck dubbed Master Georgie "a deadpan tale of secrets and lies," while in Commonweal, Daniel M. Murtaugh considered the book "a very rich novel," although "not an ingratiating one on the first reading." He advised, "Go back and read it again, and it will astonish you."
In addition to her novels, Bainbridge has also adapted several of her books for the screen and has served as a host-commentator on two British Broadcasting Corporation travel serials. She once explained that she writes to work out her own "personal obsessions," because she believes that writing, "like old photographs, gives a record by which past experience can be remembered." New York Review of Books essayist Frank Kermode characterized Bainbridge's ability as "an odd and … fantastic talent," while in the New York Times Book Review, Guy Davenport made the observation that Bainbridge "has her comic eye on cultural confusion. She makes us see that it goes deeper than we think and touches more widely than we had imagined. The most appalling muddles can still be laughed at, and laughter is a kind of understanding."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
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RTE Interactive, http://www.rte.ie/arts/ (September 20, 2001), "According to Beryl."