Beryl (Margaret) Bainbridge Biography
Beryl Bainbridge comments:
Nationality: British. Born: Liverpool, 1934. Education: Merchant Taylors' School, Liverpool; ballet school in Tring, Hertfordshire. Family: Married Austin Davies in 1954 (divorced 1959); one son and two daughters. Career: Actress with repertory theaters in Liverpool, Windsor, Salisbury, London, and Dundee, 1949-60; cellar woman in a bottle factory, London, 1970; clerk, Gerald Duckworth Ltd., publishers, London, 1961-73. Presenter, Forever England television series, 1986. Since 1987 weekly columnist, London Evening Standard. Awards: Guardian Fiction prize, 1974; Whitbread award, 1977. D. Litt.: University of Liverpool, 1986. Fellow, Royal Society of Literature, 1978; Whitbread Award, 1996; W.H. Amith Award, 1998; Commonwealth Eurasian Prize, 1998.
A Weekend with Claude. London, Hutchinson, 1967; revised edition, London, Duckworth, 1981; New York, Braziller, 1982.
Another Part of the Wood. London, Hutchinson, 1968; revised edition, London, Duckworth, 1979; New York, Braziller, 1980.
Harriet Said. London, Duckworth, 1972; New York, Braziller, 1973.
The Dressmaker. London, Duckworth, 1973; as The Secret Glass, New York, Braziller, 1974.
The Bottle Factory Outing. London, Duckworth, 1974; New York, Braziller, 1975.
Sweet William. London, Duckworth, 1975; New York, Braziller, 1976.
A Quiet Life. London, Duckworth, 1976; New York, Braziller, 1977.
Injury Time. London, Duckworth, 1977; New York, Braziller, 1978.
Young Adolf. London, Duckworth, 1978; New York, Braziller, 1979.
Winter Garden. London, Duckworth, 1980; New York, Braziller, 1981.
Watson's Apology. London, Duckworth, 1984; New York, McGrawHill, 1985.
Filthy Lucre. London, Duckworth, 1986; published as Filthy Lucre, or the Tragedy of Ernest Ledwhistle and Richard Soleway: A Sotry. London, Flamingo, 1988.
An Awfully Big Adventure. London, Duckworth, 1989; New York, Harper Collins, 1991.
The Birthday Boys. London, Duckworth, 1991; New York, Carrol andGraf, 1994.
The Dolphin Connection. North Blackburn, Victoria, Australia, CollinsDovePublishers, 1991.
Every Man for Himself. New York, Carroll and Graf, 1996.
Master Georgie: A Novel. New York, Carroll and Graf, 1998.
Mum and Mr. Armitage: Selected Stories. London, Duckworth, 1985;New York, McGraw Hill, 1987.
Collected Stories. London, Penguin Books, 1994.
Sweet William, 1980.
Tiptoe Through the Tulips, 1976; Blue Skies from Now On, 1977; The Warrior's Return (The Velvet Glove series), 1977; Words Fail Me, 1979; The Journal of Bridget Hitler, with Philip Saville, 1981; Somewhere More Central, 1981; Evensong (Unnatural Causes series), 1986.
English Journey; or, The Road to Milton Keynes. London, Duckworth, and New York, Braziller, 1984.
Forever England: North and South. London, Duckworth, 1987.
Something Happened Yesterday. London, Duckworth, 1993.
Foreword, Scott's Last Expedition: The Journals by Robert FalconScott. New York, Carroll and Graf, 1996.
Contributor, Colin Haycraft, 1929-1994: Maverick Publisher, edited by Stoddard Martin. London, Duckworth, 1995.
Editor, New Stories 6. London, Hutchinson, 1981.
Ironic Formula in the Novels of Beryl Bainbridge by Elizabeth Wennö, Göteborg, Sweden, Acta Universitatis, 1993.
(1976) As a novelist I am committing to paper, for my own satisfaction, episodes that I have lived through. If I had had a camera forever ready with a film I might not have needed to write. I am not very good at fiction …. It is always me and the experiences I have had. In my last three novels I have used the device of accidental death because I feel that a book has to have a strong narrative line. One's own life, whilst being lived, seems to have no obvious plot and is therefore without tension.
I think writing is a very indulgent pastime and I would probably do it even if nobody ever read anything.
I write about the sort of childhood I had, my parents, the landscape I grew up in: my writing is an attempt to record the past. I am of the firm belief that everybody could write books and I never understand why they don't. After all, everyone speaks. Once the grammar has been learnt it is simply talking on paper and in time learning what not to say.
* * *
With the exception of Sweet William and Winter Garden, most of Beryl Bainbridge's novels have been centered on a death or act of violence. Her novels are also overshadowed by generalized violence, usually World War II. The Dressmaker evokes the Liverpudlian home front during the war, and An Awfully Big Adventure that city's postwar seediness. The title story and others in Mum and Mr. Armitage are set in the immediate postwar period. So is A Quiet Life, with German prisoners-of-war waiting to be repatriated, and Harriet Said slightly later, amid vivid memories of Italian prisoners-of-war. In A Weekend with Claude, an elderly Jewish woman finds herself unable to forget the concentration camps—the same camps that obsess the "Commandant" of the campsite in the earlier version of Another Part of the Wood. Since Young Adolf takes as its conceit the idea that Hitler might have lived in Liverpool in 1909, the book's very conception foreshadows the Holocaust and the war. Winter Garden is set against the Cold War; Injury Time draws on a background of terrorism and armed crime in contemporary London; and another London novel, The Bottle Factory Outing, relies for its effect on the build-up of a violently foreboding atmosphere in and around the bottle factory, without any political cause. Watson's Apology examines a clergyman's murder of his wife; it is based on an actual case of 1871. Bainbridge's novels in fact work largely by the build-up of violent atmosphere, drawn from both external circumstances and the characters themselves; this typically erupts in a death, albeit apparently accidental.
In A Weekend with Claude, the central act of violence is a shooting, innocuous in its effect whatever its intention. Like her second novel, Another Part of the Wood, which Bainbridge also later rewrote, it lacks the taut spareness which distinguishes her work from Harriet Said on.
Harriet Said presents a double-edged moral quandary: not only is the killing accidental, but the murdered person is a 13-year-old. On one level, the book is an amusing portrayal by a girl of her friend's sexuality and unnatural "wisdom": "We both tried very hard to give our parents love, and security, but they were too demanding." In The Dressmaker a young girl's pathetic first love for an American G.I. tragically unfolds against the stark symbolism of the dressmakers' work, while the dressmaker "dreamed she was following mother down a country garden, severing with sharp scissors the heads of roses." Through the more flamboyant black comedy of The Bottle Factory Outing flickers the rare lyricism that as elsewhere in Bainbridge's work is a measure of her Joycean acceptance of her characters. This lyrical quality derives from the setting; the garden in A Weekend with Claude has become Windsor Great Park in the later novel. But the death precludes total acceptance.
In Sweet William, a girl living in a London bedsit falls disastrously in love with the Don Juan of the title, a philandering playwright who moves nonchalantly among the human wreckage he creates. Outstanding here is the portrait of the girl's mother; reacting to her vicious pettiness, the daughter is all the more vulnerable to William. A Quiet Life again focuses on what children become in reaction to their parents, and hints that those children may pass on the same qualities to their own children, who will in turn react against them. Bainbridge begins several novels with a Chapter 0; here, as brother and sister meet 15 years later, she both begins and ends with this device—as in An Awfully Big Adventure.
Injury Time depicts the unorthodox dinner party of a middle-aged quartet, accidentally taken as hostages in a siege, to the special embarrassment of a married man caught dining with his mistress. Beneath the black comedy, both the mean and generous impulses of the two main characters come through in all their ambivalence.
Young Adolf is Bainbridge's most ambitious book, with the tension deriving from the reader's knowledge of what is to come, historically. Against this scenario, details such as the brown shirt made for the penniless Adolf by his sister-in-law—so that "he needn't sit wrapped in a blanket while his other one was in the wash"—are intensely black comedy.
Winter Garden hilariously follows an accident-prone civil servant masquerading as an artist in order to accompany his mistress in a delegation to the Soviet Union. In Watson's Apology Bainbridge traces a 26-year-old marriage to suggest how the Reverend Watson came to murder his wife. Contemporary documents are used in a narrative remarkable for its authentic reconstruction of Victorian London, culminating in moving impressions of the aged Watson.
Bainbridge wrote Filthy Lucre in 1946, at the age of 11, and several short stories in Mum and Mr. Armitage touch on the generation gap. Like many novelists, with stories Bainbridge takes risks not ventured in novels, as for instance in the surreal "The Man Who Blew Away" and "Beggars Would Ride." The setting of a Peter Pan production in "Clap Hands, Here Comes Charlie" is extended in An Awfully Big Adventure. Sixteen-year-old assistant stage manager Stella understands nothing of the doomed homosexual loves surrounding her, and virtually nothing of the equally doomed heterosexual loves, yet she is the catalyst for the inevitable act of violence.
Even in Bainbridge's earlier novels, the mandatory act of violence often seemed superfluous; this immensely gifted novelist's use of the device has become, to some extent, formulaic.
The 1995 film production of An Awfully Big Adventure, directed by Mike Newell and starring Hugh Grant, Alan Rickman, and Georgina Cates, extended the exposure of the author's works to a larger audience. It was not the only time in the 1990s when her career touched on the world of film, though in the other case the relationship was quiet coincidental. In 1996 Bainbridge earned the Whitbread Novel Award for Every Man for Himself, a fictionalized account of the Titanic disaster; at the same time, director James Cameron was filming his own fictionalized version of the tragedy, which would win the Academy Award for best picture two years later.
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