A Novelist Worth Knowing

Harriet Said

by Beryl Bainbridge
Braziller, 152 pp., $5.95

A Weekend with Claud

by Beryl Bainbridge
Panther Books, 206 pp., 30p (paper)

Another Part of the Wood

by Beryl Bainbridge
Hutchinson (London), 288 pp., 30s

The Dressmaker

by Beryl Bainbridge
Duckworth (London), 152 pp., £2.35

Beryl Bainbridge is possibly the least known of the contemporary English novelists who are worth knowing. She has written four very interesting novels, the fourth and last of which, The Dressmaker, also deserves to be called a triumphant success. But she has, as yet, only the beginnings of a reputation in Britain, and has next to none, so far as I can judge, in America, where the last but one, Harriet Said, appeared in the autumn of last year.

It turns out that the last but one of her novels was, in fact, written first, and was submitted to London publishers in the late Fifties. One of them wrote to inform her that the two girls who are its leading characters were “repulsive beyond belief,” and that one of the scenes was “too indecent and unpleasant even for these lax days.” He went on: “I fear that even now a respectable printer would not print it.” The manuscript then got lost in the cupboards of some publishing house. Now that it has been recovered and published, it is apparent that, even by the standards of the vigilant late Fifties, it was inane to talk of unpleasantness and indecency.

In the meantime, two subsequent novels, A Weekend with Claud and Another Part of the Wood, had come out: in view of what had happened to the first, it must have taken courage to persevere with them. Both are badly under-edited, and the second is rife with misprints. Beryl Bainbridge’s publishing history is perhaps the kind of thing you’d expect of a writer who is preoccupied with the idea of isolation, and who is described on one of her dust jackets as “something of a recluse.” It may be that this portrayer of shyness and constraint, who appears to be no punctuator, found it difficult to cope with the embarrassments of a debut, and of getting herself properly published. On the other hand, she could not have been the easiest of talents to respond to, and her first publisher should be praised for doing so, despite the editorial slackness that was shown. This is far from uncommon in English publishing, which has fallen upon lax days in more respects than one.

She may well have found it less of a strain to manage her debut as an actress. She comes from Liverpool, and for a while she acted there and in London, where she now lives. More than any other place, it is Liverpool that she writes about. This Victorian metropolis and port, which is still going rank and strong and loud and clear, has given her much to ponder, and her mind continues to frequent the streets around the cathedral. Not long ago she wrote a piece about her native city, and about her father, which indicates that her family went up in the world, becoming more “respectable,” but that it retained a keen awareness of working-class life. The piece imparts her father’s opinion to the effect that …

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