Frail, Funny, and Prescient About Our Mess

Beryl Bainbridge at her house in Camden Town, London, 1989
Brendan King
Beryl Bainbridge at her house in Camden Town, London, 1989


When the English writer Beryl Bainbridge died in 2010, The Guardian obituary began by noting that she was considered “one of the best novelists of her generation,” but the piece went on to say:

No one was sure quite who the real Beryl Bainbridge was. Her life appeared rackety, her face ravaged, with wide eyes that looked (as the Daily Mail once noted) “as if they have seen something ghastly.” She was a great talker, a likable and amusing woman famed for falling over at parties.

Though she wrote twenty novels, three books of criticism, and abundant stories and occasional essays, many people in America were not aware of her dark, funny, trenchant works, which often allude to injuries and childhood disappointments that dwell in the minds of her characters all their lives, as they did, according to her, in her own. Though her personal reticence kept her off the pages of tabloids, reports of her antics while drunk at parties and her very numerous love affairs got around, and tended unfairly to distract attention from her literary accomplishments. They also take up, perhaps, a disproportionate part of her biographer Brendan King’s long history of her life, leaving less space for discussion of the place of her work in contemporary literature.

By all accounts, Bainbridge was an appealing person, frail and funny, who animated people’s caretaking instincts—in King’s very detailed book almost all of the photos show her with someone’s arm protectively encircling her, as if to defend her against the trouble and danger she seemed drawn to, like the characters in her books. Reading the books one after another, one is struck by a darker, angry side.

King worked for her for twenty-three years, presumably as an editorial and administrative assistant, beginning in 1987, by which time the most melodramatic events of her life were already behind her: marriage, many lovers, a rape, an ex-mother-in-law who tried to shoot her, alcohol, two suicide attempts, cancer. All of which make for a naturally interesting biography, although King takes care to write in a mostly nonjudgmental, respectful tone, only occasionally sounding exasperated, as when, roused from his bed in the middle of the night by her desperate phone call, he hurries to her house to find her peacefully asleep.

She was born in 1932 to a middle-class family in Liverpool, her father a traveling salesman with a violent temper, her mother a housewife—parents who didn’t get along. An emotional and imaginative child, she seems to have always lived at a high pitch; by age ten she was plotting to kill her father. Drama swirled around her. “She seemed to have no middle gear”; once her affections were engaged, it was all or nothing, King explains.…

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