Beryl Bainbridge: 1932 – 2010


Beryl Bainbridge is dead, of cancer, on 1 July 2010, in London.

She came from a downwardly mobile Liverpool family, born in 1933, to parents mismatched, if ever: her father a bankrupt, melancholic man given to outbursts, her mother a self-pitying woman who felt she’d married down. The home situation was so bad that Beryl and her brother made a pact that one of them would always be home so as to prevent the parents from killing each other. Expelled from Merchant Taylors’, a private girls’ school for writing a “rude rhyme” with illustration (“Today I would be given a medal for it, or some scholarship,” she once said), she became an actress with the Liverpool Playhouse, married and had two children, chucked the adulterous husband and proceeded to have a string of affairs herself, because, “those were the days when you could hardly walk down the road without someone accosting you, and my trouble was I could never say, ‘No’.”

Affairs out of her system, she settled down to write and write she did: in the course of several decades she penned eighteen novels, five of them shortlisted for England’s most prestigious literary award, the Booker McConnell Literary Prize. The early books were written out of her own family story, the best of that lot being The Dressmaker (1973), a chilling, grisly tale of murder and cover-up set in World War II Liverpool and drawing on the lives of her aunts (see the film version with Joan Plowright).

In mid-career Bainbridge moved away from personal memory as muse and inspiration, shifting into collective memory, drawing upon well-known historical events and characters – Scott’s expedition to Antarctica (The Birthday Boys, 1993); the ill-fated voyage of the “Titanic” (Every Man for Himself, 1996); the Crimean War (Master Georgie, 1998); and the larger-than-life Dr. Samuel Johnson (According to Queeney, 2001).

She lived a hard life – smoking incessantly (at one point, three packs a day) and downing plenty of her favorite scotch. She was a party girl, the delight of other guests with her madcap behavior and outlandish stories. In her Victorian manse in Camden Town, a life-sized stuffed water buffalo greeted visitors in the foyer. In her bedroom, an imposing, life-sized male mannequin with a Hitler moustache dominated one corner. The house, set in a now-fashionable district, looked like Dresden after the bomb with statues of saints, dolls, and church trappings scattered about.

Beryl Bainbridge was “one of the most distinctive and admired voices in postwar British fiction,” said the New York Times obituary on Saturday. I’ll say – and unfortunate beyond the telling is that it took her death to alert the larger world to her greatness: a style both elliptical and economical, a wit both sly and caustic, a sensibility both dark and edgy, a heart both generous and faithful. Though she said that DHLawrence, Denton Welch, and John Steinbeck (that’s some trio) influenced her style, in truth, she was all on her own, inimitable, bracing, occasionally shocking, always funny. What Peter Levi once said of Jean Rhys applies in equal measure to Beryl Bainbridge: she was “a major talent disguised as a minor writer.” Though made a Dame Commander of the British Empire in 2000 and receiving the David Cohen Prize in 2003, Bainbridge found that most honors went the other way, even the Booker: shortlisted five times, she never made the final cut and liked to call herself a “Booker bridesmaid.”

Honor here now, perhaps, by reading three of her best novels: The Dressmaker, Watson’s Apology, and Master Georgie. R.I.P. Beryl Bainbridge, one outrageous girl, one great writer.