An Awfully Big Adventure, by Beryl Bainbridge
Beryl Bainbridge is an exceptionally funny writer, but she’s also a very cruel one. Being a character in a James M. Cain novel would be no bundle of laughs, but given the choice between that and being a character in a Bainbridge novel it’s no contest at all.
Bainbridge’s great trick is to place the extraordinary, the grotesque even, in an utterly prosaic setting. In The Bottle Factory Outing a works’ day out becomes a bitterly black comedy of desire and death. In Awfully the setting is a provincial repertory theatre company in Liverpool in 1950, but once again Bainbridge spins the situation out until it becomes both terrible and terribly funny.
Stella Bradshaw is a local teenager. She lives with her uncle and his wife, who fill in as her parents and run a cheap boarding house for travelling salesmen and other flotsam. Her father is unknown; her mother apparently long dead. Stella’s both wilful and contrarian (‘I never doubt myself,’ she said. ‘Only other people.’) Uncle Vernon has the idea that she may be better suited for the stage than a more ordinary life, and so gets her an interview with the local theatre company.
We know it all goes wrong, because the prologue chapter opens with Stella arguing that she’s “not old enough to shoulder the blame. Not all of it. I’m not the only one at fault.” The man interrogating her is disgusted though we don’t know why. After she’s left he asks another character if they’ve got “through to the wife” and whether the “note … shed any illumination?”
At this point you don’t know what the story will be, but you know it won’t end well. Of course, you probably knew that the moment you saw Bainbridge’s name on the cover.
Bainbridge doesn’t waste a moment of her 200 or so pages, launching straight into a comedy of manners and the absurd. When Stella arrives at the theatre for her interview she’s shown into a crowded props room to meet handsome producer Meredith Potter and stage manager Bunny.
There was a curious smell in the room, a mixture of distemper, rabbit glue and damp clothing. Stella lounged against a cocktail cabinet whose glass frontage was engraved with the outline of a naked woman. I’m not going to be cowed, she thought. Not by nipples.
She starts reciting a prepared audition piece, but they aren’t interested and take her for tea and cake instead. It’s an opportunity for keen social observation:
When Bunny removed his mackintosh the belt swung out and tipped over the milk jug on the table nearest to the hat stand. The pink cloth was so boldly starched the milk wobbled in a tight globule beside the sugar bowl. Bunny didn’t notice. The occupants of the table, three elderly ladies hung with damp fox furs, apologised.
I love that detail of the ladies apologising when Bunny was at fault; it’s incredibly English. Stella has to keep her coat on throughout the tea – she hadn’t expected to be going to a cafe and her clothes underneath are old and worn. She doesn’t eat because she’s afraid they’ll ask her to contribute to the bill. A lesser writer might just have said that Stella lacks both social experience and money, but Bainbridge is the master of showing instead of telling.
Stella becomes one of two juniors at the theatre, along with a nephew of a member of the governing board who “had recently left a military academy after firing a gun at someone he wasn’t supposed to.” He has money and education, but none of Stella’s native sharp wit so allowing Bainbridge to explore the interaction of class, ability and opportunity without overburdening the book.
The rest of the company is a mix of the mediocre and the provincially successful. It’s not the West End, but there’s local pride and they take their art seriously as well as their various rivalries and ambitions. Stella is soon one of them, taking her further than ever from the uncomprehending Uncle Vernon and her home where they have a bath once a week using the “family towel” and where propriety is what matters, not art.
Part of what works so well here is that none of these characters are villains. Some of them aren’t terribly likable, but none of them are really unpleasant. Uncle Vernon for example is staid and in his own way fairly naive, but he loves Stella and he cares for her enough to put her future first even though he knows as she grows closer to the theatre she’ll inevitably leave him behind. Many you could even say are good people (perhaps Uncle Vernon most of all).
Stella isn’t a bad person either. Whatever happens in the end she’s right to say that she shouldn’t shoulder all the blame. What Stella is though is a catalyst. With her dangerous mix of innocence and raw intelligence she’s a slightly plain stick of dynamite thrown among the company. She sees more than she should, but she doesn’t necessarily understand it. She’ll repeat things a wiser person would have left unsaid. She’s a slightly pugnacious agent of chaos who doesn’t mean any harm, but who causes plenty of it all the same.
Awfully is packed with comic moments. There’s lovely running jokes such as Uncle Vernon’s regular calls to local shopkeeper Harcourt to order soap and candles and suchlike in which he pours out his thoughts and asks Harcourt his opinion. Harcourt’s never met Stella, but thanks to Vernon’s calls he knows everything about her and Vernon duly reports back to his wife Harcourt’s comments and words of advice. Meanwhile, Stella has fallen desperately in love with Meredith, completely unaware that he’s gay and so totally misreading him.
When he spoke to her she could scarcely hear what he said for the thudding of her lovesick heart and the chattering of her teeth. Often he told her she ought to wear warmer clothing.
It’s affectionate and warm and it’s easy to get pulled into the challenges of the new production of Peter Pan and Stella’s burgeoning romance with a much older actor and the other romantic tensions within the troupe, but the prologue means that at the back of your mind there’s always a nagging sense of disquiet. The reader knows it will all end badly from the first page. The only question is how.
There are other seemingly discrepant notes, such as Stella’s habit of regularly calling her supposedly dead mother to tell of the day’s adventures while her mother just says “the usual things” in reply. Throughout there’s a dark undercurrent. I’ve only read two Bainbridge’s so far but they have in common a slight sense of something rotten lurking under the surface of the everyday.
Awfully would make a near perfect introduction to Bainbridge. Like Bottle it’s tightly plotted to the point of improbability, but here the balance between the comic and the horrible is perhaps better judged. Stella is a marvellous character, and the ultimate story revelations work well paying off in full the unease set up in the prologue. This is a good example of why Bainbridge has so many fans.
Oddly none I can see, but I’m sure I’ve missed some. Please let me know in the comments.
I’m going to be offline for around three weeks, to mid-July. During that time I probably won’t be able to respond to comments, but will when I get back. In the meantime, there’s a link in the sidebar that if pressed directs you to a random post in the archive. If you feel like leaving comments on a random post from my past I’ll be delighted to receive them.