Introduction for the 2020 reissue by Abacus.
The novels of Beryl Bainbridge are remarkable for many things but the feature that stuck in public memory is that, while five were short-listed for the Booker Prize, none won. Three of these were her historical novels, now reissued.
In a way, this is appropriate because Bainbridge’s fiction, as tiny and quirky as its author, was all about people who are unconventional. Whether on a doomed quest to the North Pole (The Birthday Boys) or surviving the sinking of the Titanic (Every Man For Himself) or following a doctor into battle in the Crimea (Master Georgie) or sifting truth from fiction in the domestic life of Doctor Johnson (According To Queenie) her novels, both historical and contemporary, revolved around error and disaster.
Much of this can be traced back to the author’s childhood and upbringing. Her vivid public persona as a Bohemian ex-actress and painter addicted to booze and fags, living in a Camden Town house with a stuffed buffalo in the hall and a bullet-hole made by her mother-in-law in the ceiling of the staircase was entertaining to those who like novelists to live rackety lives, but also caused her, as Lisa Jardine observed, “to be treated like a delinquent child.” Clearly, her unhappiness was not invented even if some of her stories about herself were exaggerated. (The bullet-hole was not made by a bullet but a pop-gun, and so on. One of the problems of being a good storyteller is that people tend to believe you.) Her parents were very different from each other: her mother was sent to a finishing school in Belgium, but her father left school at ten and was bankrupt by the time Beryl was born. The North Londoners she lived among assumed that her Liverpool origins must mean she was working-class, but in fact both she and her brother were privately educated and grew up in a genteel suburb of the city. She was expelled from school at sixteen for copying out (not writing, as was often claimed) a dirty limerick. At nineteen, having embarked on an acting career (as memorialised in her most autobiographical novel, An Awfully Big Adventure) she was raped.
Small wonder that her compressed style, often compared to that of Muriel Spark, tends to what one critic called “strobe-lit observations and perceptions.” Her novels glitter with shards of bewilderment, pain and wit. You do not turn to Bainbridge for the comfort of nostalgia and a happy ending. Her own life, for all its superficial success (and it should be remembered that she won every prize except the Booker, and had one of her novels made into a first-rate film starring the cream of British acting) was not like this, and neither were her novels.
“The only reason why I began to write at all was to write about my childhood. There was no point in fiction. There’s nothing as strange as what happens to you in childhood. There was such violence in my family – not physical; verbal violence. It wrecked me for years. After 12 or 13 novels, I had used up all the material and I was not the same person,” she said in an interview.
The four historical novels under consideration here – Master Georgie, The Birthday Boys, Every Man For Himself and According to Queenie – are the opposite to the kind that, thanks to Hilary Mantel, have been considered weighty enough to repeatedly win the Booker Prize. Here is no rich treasure-trove of scholarly detail or evocation of past times but protagonists transplanted into different worlds with mysterious rules, grotesque feuds and hilarious agonies. Although some of her characters (Scott of the Antarctic, Captain Oates, Dr Johnson) are famous enough to have become part of our national story, what she portrays is still a version of what she was all too familiar with. “We are one big unhappy family,” says Scurra of the passengers on the Titanic. Even when on a luxury liner packed with some of the richest people in the world – the Guggenheims, the Astors, the Duff Gordons and more – human beings cannot escape what they do to each other.
While Bainbridge’s early, contemporary novels all have female protagonists, the four historical novels being reissued here – Master Georgie, The Birthday Boys, Every Man For Himself and According to Queenie – all revolve around men. She switched focus and genre as a response to the death of her publisher and sometime lover, Colin Haycraft – whose wife, Anna (the novelist Alice Thomas Ellis) was her editor, and who had previously been the lover of Bainbridge’s first husband Austin Davies. These double love triangles perhaps go some way towards explaining the comic naivety and the melancholy strangeness of her novels. But, as she said in an interview in the Paris Review, Haycraft’s death “in a terrible sort of way … released me; it enabled me to have confidence enough to do research and write about history or about those subjects which he knew so much better than I. I would never have had the nerve to do it if he was still alive, because he was so learned and clever. I was conscious that I had to do something else, as I had used up everything I knew about my own life.”
Serious historical fiction works by prolepsis, and the tragedies of Scott of the Antarctic, the Titanic, the Crimean War and even Dr Johnson’s struggles are part of our national myth of heroic failure. We know that the protagonists are doomed: the question is how each will confront this. What will they learn about themselves, and others? (What might we learn about ourselves?)
Three out of the four novels in this sequence are formally challenging. The first, The Birthday Boys, has five first-person accounts of Scott’s doomed expedition to the South Pole. The third, Master Georgie, is composed around five photographs, and has three first person accounts of a group of people travelling from Liverpool to the Crimea. The fourth intersperses a third-person narrative about the death and later life of Dr Johnson with contradictory letters from Mrs Thrale’s adult daughter Queeney. They are not easy reads: in According To Queeney it takes three pages to realise that the roll of carpet being taken out of a house contains a body. It’s more like the start of a thriller than a literary novel, and the grotesque scene in which Dr Johnson’s corpse is left on the autopsy table near the flayed carcass of a dog is reminiscent of Frankenstein, whose stories within stories it also seems to be echoing at times. Who do we believe, the seemingly authoritative, dispassionate third person account of Johnson’s mental torment and his relationship with Mrs Thrale, or Queeney’s resentful child’s eye view of him? Is Mrs Thrale a monstrous mother, or is Queeney the true egoist? Even Morgan, whose first-person account of his four days on board the Titanic, is at first confused and confusing, beginning with what might be his end as he and an unnamed companion are overwhelmed by the sinking vessel.
Each of Bainbridge’s historical novels, written in the ten-year period following Haycraft’s death, show the underside to myth, the people who have been left out (literally in the case of Mrs Thrale from Boswell’s Life of Dr Johnson) patronised and overlooked. Her way into them is to see the grotesque, the chaotic, the absurd side to real or imagined human beings rather than the ideal heroic people we read about. It is easy to surmise that this, too, was a response to Haycraft’s death. However, The Birthday Boys grew out of the discovery she made while writing about the production of Peter Pan in An Awfully Big Adventure that JM Barrie and Captain Scott were friends: the “awfully big adventure” is Peter Pan’s view of death, and the elite social position of four out of the five Antarctic explorers blinds them to their own foolishness. The sinking of the Titanic, which happened in the same year as Scott’s tragic expedition, bookended the end of the confident Edwardian era. Further back in time, The Charge of the Light Brigade, familiar to every schoolchild for over a hundred years because of Tennyson’s poem is described in Master Georgie in just one sentence, incidental to the struggles with filth, bed bugs, cockroaches, cholera, rotting meat and (above all) the secret love triangle that has dragged Myrtle out to the Crimea in Georgie’s wake. Further back again, Dr Johnson’s death is a hideous mess that gives us an entirely different view of the Augustan age to that of Boswell’s. If you have ever questioned the tendency of historical fiction to be nostalgic, conservative or idealised, these novels are literally a short, sharp corrective.
Some critics commented on Bainbridge’s “feral cleverness”, as if the brilliance of her books was the product of instinct rather than artistry, penetrating intelligence and research. Family dysfunction is her strength, and like her hero Dickens she used an unhappy childhood, as AN Wilson observed in an obituary, “to produce a gallery of literary comedy.” However, her choices of period – Edwardian England, Victorian England, Georgian England – are not random but points in our history when social formalities and conventions fell apart in the face of war, natural disaster and suffering. Why choose them? I would suggest it is because she herself, forged in social upheaval, found it difficult to navigate between the rigid convention of her upbringing and the freedom that the young and artistic could seize in the 1950s. [Like her friend, editor and love rival Anna Haycraft (Alice Thomas Ellis) she converted to Catholicism as a young woman, which suggests a yearning for structure and rigid precept; unlike Anna, hers did not seem to stick except (in the form of the plaster saints which they both liked to have in their homes) as a form of theatrical effect. The pair of them were like St Trinian’s schoolgirls, ravaged by insouciance.]
All her novels are about individuals not knowing how to behave. They are innocents abroad, often unable to understand that they have witnessed or participated in a crime. One suspects that this is something she herself experienced in her trajectory out of Liverpool and into Bohemian North London. Her adults’ sense of themselves is repeatedly broken down by a strange and challenging environment. “I didn’t know who I was any more”, Dr Potter says, and the same is true for Scott’s men struggling towards their impossible goal, the low-born yet richly connected Morgan on the Titanic and the uncouth genius Dr Johnson as a guest of Mrs. Thrale in According to Queeney. The victims of chance, her protagonists are also victims of man’s cruelty and stupidity to man. The only mystery is how we can feel unbroken, devoted love, such as that felt by the orphaned Myrtle for her adoptive “brother” George.
“I don’t suppose I saw him as he really was, and never had,” Myrtle says bleakly, of Master Georgie and Dr Potter, observing her obsession comments “If ever there was a woman with fairy dust in her eyes, it was she.” When Myrtle is left after the battle of Inkerman, broken-hearted behind a carefully composed photograph in which the dead George is (as she was) merely a prop, her own story has come full circle.
For all their sorrow and bleakness, Bainbridge’s novels always contain scenes of hilarity, usually revolving around sex. Taff Evans feeling Captain Scott’s erection against his leg when both are in mortal danger (briefly averted) at the start of The Birthday Boys is wholly unexpected. When Naughton in Master Georgie attacks a young man in the uniform of the 11th Hussars at the opera, believing him to be Myrtle’s fictitious fiancé, we can see what is going to happen long before our pompous narrator Dr Potter does. Equally, when poor, romantic Morgan sneaks into Wallis’s cabin to retrieve the love letter he has slipped under her cabin door in Every Man For Himself, only to find himself forced to listen to her vigorously copulating with Scurra, it’s a classic farce. Misunderstandings shade into lies, and if the great test is how we face up to annihilation, the joke is that none of us is likely to be loved as we would wish, even by our mothers. “She needed an audience and he a home,” as Queeney observes tartly of her mother’s relationship with Dr Johnson. It’s not even sex or genius, just self-interest.
“Have you not learnt that it is every man for himself?” the cynical Scurra asks our narrator Morgan., in the exchange that gives the novel its title. That this is also the cry that goes out in a doomed vessel is another layer of irony, because Morgan, disassociated from the privilege of his fabulously wealthy uncle’s world, is the one character who behaves with decency and courage to others, even when the Titanic begins to sink.
As with Muriel Spark’s fiction, Bainbridge’s could be mistaken for novellas, but their slimness is due to a fierce compression, and intensification of surprises and revelations. The reader needs to concentrate on every sentence in order not to miss crucial information. Real life is given an oddly slanted angle of observation that is like the tilting decks of the doomed Titanic. You need to re-read them to pick up tiny clues. There is a crime, a puzzle or a secret at the heart of each, hidden in chaos, misunderstanding, random accidents and lies. In both Master Georgie and According to Queenie, characters contradict each other’s account of what happens, rendering truth ever more murky. Or as Queeney realises,
“She thought of Dr Johnson’s dictum that it was advisable to acknowledge from an early age that life was a masquerade, and to mistake an impression for reality was to court madness.”
Only death is truth, and the great gift Bainbridge has is to make this mercilessly comic instead of mercilessly cruel.
“There is no way of knowing how one will react to danger until faced with it. Nor can we know what capacity we have for nobility and self-sacrifice unless something happens to rouse such conceits into activity,” Morgan says in Every Man For Himself.
It is a lesson that would be too bitter, if it were not laced with so much laughter and originality. At her best, Bainbridge feels close to Beckett, exhilarating even when she is most desolate. It is this honesty, however hard and at times unpalatable, that makes her fiction true, and worth rediscovering for what it is: a tale for all times.