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. When in her later years she talked about being molested as a child, King could not be sure how much was invented or exaggerated, or whether it was that she had long repressed these disagreeable memories and only in her seventies found herself able to talk about them. “That Beryl was the subject of unwanted male attention is clear” is his careful assessment.
Bainbridge would write about her traumatic experiences, testifying to “unwanted” things that happened during her Liverpool childhood, when the neighbor “fiddled” with her, or when she had furtive meetings with young German prisoners of war and sidled by the strange hermit who lived out in the dunes near her family’s home.
These events were probably the source of some of the abrupt violence, embroidered in her original and vivid style, that concludes a number of her narratives with instances of careless, arbitrary death and passive people lashing out. The strange hermit would become “Billy Rotten” in The Girl in the Polka Dot Dress. Her female victims often remain passive when preyed upon, as in the same novel, when the unattractive Harold finally has sex with Rose:
She could have jumped up or punched him away, but did neither. He lay on top of her, his tongue swashing about in her ear…. The ease with which he entered her probably made him think she was aroused. He wasn’t to know that she was one of those females whose bodies were ready for penetration even when their minds were closed.
On the surface, Bainbridge’s own attitude was similarly uncomplaining; she contended that the things that happened to her were normal, and that feminism was bunk. “She felt that younger women were making a fuss over nothing,” and thought it natural that adults would “fiddle” with children, as she says was common in her youth. (One thinks of Virginia and Vanessa Woolf, being fiddled with by Gerald Duckworth, whose eponymous publishing company would later handle Bainbridge’s work; her life would be intertwined with the Duckworth company in countless ways.) Perhaps because of some complicated process of internalized shame, she was dismissive of women’s complaints about “the predatory nature of male sexuality.” But her books are full of female aggression, akin to revenge against men, as when the two elderly aunts in The Dressmaker murder the young American soldier billeted with them, or in Harriet Said, where the two adolescent girls, conscious of their growing sexual powers, seduce a middle-aged man and eventually kill his wife.
Here, in a longer passage from her early novel A Weekend with Claude, the character Norman is describing Lily, the Beryl alter ego, who uses endearments and mixed messages to derail male advances:
When she constantly referred to my qualities of steadfastness and my integrity, I did not comprehend that it was her feminine way of obscuring the fact that she felt no desire for me. The advantages only slightly outweighed the frustrations. It has meant that I could watch her undress for bed, that I could soap her back, her faintly sallow back curved over the plastic bowl in the sink…. On occasion I could be her petal, her gold flower, her dulce boy, her jewel. Lulled by her glucose endearments, my fingers, slippery with soap, would begin a shy glissade over the surface of her damp and bony ribs, only to find that in a moment, the golden boy, the petal boy, would be banished utterly and the man of rock be called upon….
Many of the anecdotes King recounts with careful neutrality could be novels in themselves, for example: in 1952, when Bainbridge was twenty, her eventual first husband Austin Davies had impregnated someone else, Anne Lindholm, a serious Catholic, who, when he caddishly would not help her with a baby, against her conscience had an abortion that would continue to torment her for her entire life. Later, Anne married Colin Haycraft, an editor at Duckworth who became Bainbridge’s editor, and with whom Bainbridge began a decades-long affair, all the while maintaining a close friendship with Anne. Everything was known to each party—and no one was forgiven the various betrayals, even unto their seventies. Anne (by then called Anna) refused on her deathbed to see Beryl. The final ironic triumph was Beryl’s, who wrote a somewhat ambiguous obituary tribute about Anna for the newspapers.
Recognizing that Bainbridge is the better writer, King often lets her tell her own stories, as here, in a letter describing the first of her two suicide attempts. Her epistolary style has many of the characteristics of her prose fiction—its compression, drama, and carefully selected details:
Came home and pushed newspapers under the kitchen doors and put on gas in the oven. Waves of overwhelming self pity. Huddled near the oven, head on knees, breathing it in. Colour blue. Kept hearing my mother. Your fault. Your fault…. Thought I heard Austin and tried to get up, dreading the failure, of him coming too soon. Fell over and began to laugh. Lit the gas….
Bainbridge put her life into her early novels with only a little ornamentation, as in Harriet Said, or A Weekend with Claude, or her posthumous road novel, The Girl in the Polka Dot Dress, which seems to have been a quite literal account of a transcontinental trip to America in 1968. Her later works were reimagined historical episodes like the Scott expedition (The Birthday Boys), the voyage of the Titanic (Every Man for Himself), or the Crimean War (Master Georgie).
People are divided over which is her better mode. Many Americans first became aware of Bainbridge’s work with her audacious Young Adolf in 1978. In this poignant comic novel, the hapless young Adolf Hitler, traumatized by events of a trip to Liverpool to visit his brother, becomes the person we realize will go on to become the monster of history. Reviewers, somewhat caustically, dismissed it as much like others of her works: “Bainbridge has written the same sort of story before, and better, without history looking over her shoulder and making her work seem even more small-scale than it is,” said the Kirkus critic, who clearly preferred her early, more autobiographical novels.
The Rose character in The Girl in the Polka Dot Dress—unfinished at Bainbridge’s death in 2010, aged seventy-seven, from breast cancer—seems to have returned her to the autobiographical. The novel recounts a road trip across America, from the East Coast to Los Angeles in 1968, very like the one Bainbridge took with her then boyfriend Harold Retler. The novel’s heroine Rose, from England, and Harold, an American man she hardly knows, are both looking for a Dr. Wheeler, and Washington Harold, as Rose calls him, has offered to take Rose along with him in his VW microbus to the West Coast where they’ve been told they’d find him. Harold, peevish and plain, is at least hoping for some sex. Rose, who strikes him as “just short of simple,” is perfectly aware of Harold’s hopes, but finds him unattractive, and anyhow is only interested in finding Wheeler. Both expect to find him at an LA Democratic rally, where they arrive just as Robert Kennedy is assassinated.
This grimly comic novel is especially prescient in its view of America. Before the recent presidential election, American readers might have dismissed much of the detail she presents of the nation they find as they drive three thousand miles across it as Bainbridgean satire, an America characterized by poverty, anger, guns, and death, and above all uneducated, uncultivated, and crude. Rose stumbles into a faith healer’s meeting: “The proceedings began with a prayer to Him on High followed by a rendering of ‘I want to hold your Hand,’ sung without accompaniment by an elderly lady in a coal-black wig.” Satiric, and we recognize it all too well today. The text is littered with corpses (“A sprawled figure, hands pressed to a fragment of green cloth sticking to bloodstained white trousers”) and rape (“that woman last night who was dragged into the bushes by some blackie…”), and guns are everywhere.
Given her view of us, she was intrepid to venture back to the US in 1979, a tour during which she was invited to Berkeley to give a reading. She still was not yet well known in America, and only a dozen stalwarts had turned up to hear her, a forlorn trickle of fans in a large, empty auditorium. I was to introduce her, but she didn’t turn up. Yet we were pinned in place by successive bulletins announcing her imminent arrival. An hour, two hours passed. Some people bailed out, but I had to wait in case she arrived and no one was there. I tried to fill the time with a group discussion about her books, but few in the audience had read them.
When after two hours she did appear, to cover up how few people had come in the first place we assured her that the auditorium had been thronged, but that people had drifted off in discouragement after the first hour. She rewarded the faithful by explaining with charming candor that her reason for coming to America was to introduce her fourteen-year-old daughter Rudi, who was with her, to the father Rudi had never met—one of Bainbridge’s lovers who had left England years before. The meeting had gone well, she said; he (Alan Sharp) and Rudi liked each other. It might have been a Bainbridge novel.
Compared to shorter, often more psychologically probing biographies that place their subjects in the setting of a period or a movement—let us say like Lytton Strachey’s—Brendan King’s life of Bainbridge is of the scholarly, thick, and comprehensive kind, with dates and times and elementary school lesson plans, written by someone who knew her well and is concerned above all to get the details and chronology right. Up to you to decide whether you want to read an account of all her antecedents, down to the grandparents of her first husband. Perhaps they are important in that they affect the character of the grandson, who will be the husband of the subject…but if Bainbridge herself doesn’t quite struggle to the surface through the welter of information, we at least have confidence in its accuracy.
We are given much less about the interior wellsprings of her work. King does tell us that Bainbridge wrote her novels quickly, in several months of concentrated work, all day, into the night, fueled on cigarettes, but we do not get much of a sense of her artistic process. He attributes her prolific output to financial need and a need to be noticed, perfectly good explanations as far as they go. He also answers one question that’s always asked at author Q and A’s: she used a Logica VTS 2200 word processor with twin five-and-a-half-inch floppy disk drives.
One sympathizes with the problems of the biographer—for instance how to make interesting all the publishing details, which he actually does, by mostly confining himself to her dealings with her publisher Duckworth, which involved sleeping with her editor and refusing his requests to mortgage her house to rescue its failing financial situation. It all requires a complicated chronology, fortunately clarified by a useful and ambitious index, except for King’s decision to call people by their first names, so you can’t look them up especially since so many of them are called Harold.
There are few “scenes,” though this is less a complaint than just an observation about King’s method; descriptive scenes might bring her to life. King, with his long association, must have been present at Bainbridge’s at least enough to venture a little more of the things he must have heard her say. But it’s interesting to learn from Bainbridge herself that
I work in a very concentrated way: once I start writing I never go out, or very rarely indeed… I re-write and rewrite endlessly, or re-type rather, since my handwriting is fairly awful… I do one page and don’t do the next page till I get the first one right: and that may take another eleven pages. That goes on and on. Every morning I re-read the final draft again and possibly change something yet again.
Her game or her destiny might seem to have been to distract from her artistry by her antics, but in fact she was well recognized for her art during her life—she won the Guardian and Whitbread prizes, five of her novels were shortlisted for the Booker Prize, and she finally won an honorary one posthumously. How she was able to achieve so many novels (a book a year between 1972 and 1981) of such brilliance and authority is a mystery King cannot, and perhaps no one can, explain. A fellow novelist, Linda Grant, wrote in an introduction to Bainbridge’s reissued A Weekend with Claude about how she had met the older writer at a literary event in 2002, during which Bainbridge “ate a few salad leaves and drank a third of a bottle of scotch. I knew I was in the presence of greatness.”