Category Archives: Bainbridge, Beryl

Emotions weren’t like washing. There was no call to peg them out for all the world to view.

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.

Awfully Big Adventure

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.

Other reviews

Oddly none I can see, but I’m sure I’ve missed some. Please let me know in the comments.

Holiday

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.

14 Comments

Filed under Bainbridge, Beryl

She walked on in television serials very occasionally, either as a barmaid or a lady agitator.

The Bottle Factory Outing, by Beryl Bainbridge

Beryl Bainbridge is one of those writers who seem to slip out of fashion, never quite given the recognition they deserve. She was nominated five times for the Booker, never winning (except for a rather bizarre consolation prize for which nobody else was nominated). Since her death she’s remained in print, but I see relatively little discussion of her online.

Today her books are firmly marketed as women’s fiction, a category largely made up by marketers which helps shift units but at the same time pigeonholes a wide range of female authors by implying their books are essentially entertainment. There’s nothing wrong with entertainment, and there’s no dichotomy between being serious and being entertaining (several of the books I’ll soon be writing up are both). Still, if a book comes with pretty pastel covers, or faux-vintage photos of vaguely 1940s/50s-ish people against a black and white background, it’s sending a message about the contents. Much the same as if a book comes with big bold letters and a picture of a gun, helicopter or other piece of high-tech hardware.

Why do I care about all this? Well, partly because I’m a Guardian reader of course and it’s the sort of thing we care about, but mostly because while it does undoubtedly help sell books it also blocks certain books off from certain readers. So, if anyone reading this has been put off Beryl Bainbridge by the covers (the one below features two women nothing like those in the novel, and is utterly misleading), the blurbs, the impression given by all that of her work, here’s the important bit: she can write.

bottle

The Bottle Factory Outing opens with Brenda and Freda, two flatmates who decided too hastily to live together and have long since found out they have little in common. Brenda is a mouse of a woman, constantly cowed and put upon (“As a child she had been taught it was rude to say no, unless she didn’t mean it.”) . Freda is near her opposite, voluptuous and full of rather theatrical life.

They had gone once to a bureau on the High Street and said they were looking for temporary work in an office. They lied about their speed and things, but the woman behind the desk wasn’t encouraging. Secretly Freda thought it was because Brenda looked such a fright – she had toothache that morning and her jaw was swollen. Brenda thought it was because Freda wore her purple cloak and kept flipping ash on the carpet.

They share a North London bedsit and work together in a bottle factory, bottling Italian wine. Rossi, a manager, gropes Freda every day (“He had a funny way of pinching her all over, as if she was a mattress whose stuffing needed distributing more evenly.”), she doesn’t like it but she doesn’t like to say no either and she can’t get Brenda to pay enough attention to help her out. Brenda anyway is too preoccupied with the handsome Vittorio, who she is determined to have a grand romance with.

Does it sound prosaic? Initially it is. It’s also though beautifully observed and painfully funny. Here’s an example of Brenda and Freda’s domestic arrangements:

Brenda had fashioned a bolster to put down the middle of the bed and a row of books to ensure that they lay less intimately at night. Freda complained that the books were uncomfortable – but then she had never been married.

Bainbridge crafts each sentence perfectly. She has an extraordinary talent for small and cutting observations. Both Brenda and Freda are brilliantly captured. I believed in them and to an extent sympathised, which given they’re comic characters and arguably stereotypes is no small achievement. Bainbridge also has a knack for language that illuminates the everyday, but from unexpected angles (such as at one point where she describes a “block of flats, moored in concrete like an ocean liner.”, an image I adored).

Freda has organised an outing for the bottle factory employees. A van is booked, picnic lunches packed and the absent factory owner has contributed two barrels of wine for the day. Everyone is looking forward to it, everyone except Brenda who’d rather not go but doesn’t want to put anyone out.

At this point in the novel I was expecting a light observational comedy. I’d already noticed a black vein to the humour, but it was nothing compared to what followed. Obviously I won’t spoil what happens for those who may read it, but it’s fair to say that by about the half-way/two-thirds mark I was wondering what Bainbridge was trying to achieve. The essentially realist opening turned increasingly surreal as the day of the outing unfolded; the plot became less likely, the tone more vicious.

Stick with it though and Bainbridge does have a plan. Looking back the cruelty, uncertainty and bleak irony were always there, right from the beginning. Here’s the novel’s opening:

The hearse stood outside the block of flats, waiting for the old lady. Freda was crying. There were some children and a dog running in and out of the line of bare black trees planted in the pavement.

‘I don’t know why you’re crying,’ said Brenda. ‘You didn’t know her.’

It’s a collision of romance and brutal reality, as is the whole novel. Freda is self-indulgently moved by the death of an old woman she didn’t know “‘I like funerals – all those flowers – a full life coming to a close …'”. Brenda notes that the dead woman’s life didn’t look that full, seeing as she only left behind a cat and had no mourners. Brenda’s life is rather miserable, and while perhaps Freda’s is too Freda certainly doesn’t see it that way. Brenda is escaping a past, Freda is looking forward to a future even if it is one that’s largely founded on self-delusion. Of the two, if I had to choose, I’d rather be Freda.

In case there’s any lingering doubt I thought this was superb. It’s funny, disturbing and exceptionally well written. It won’t be my last Bainbridge. Thanks are therefore due to Guy Savage of His Futile Preoccupations, who turned me on to Bainbridge in the first place. Were I to compare her to any other author it would be JG Farrell, who can also make the reader laugh while showing them terrible things (I reviewed his Troubles here,  if you like one its worth trying the other).

For some other reviews of The Bottle Factory, I’d recommend this rather excellent review by Savidge Reads, this from the bibliolathas blog (particularly good for quotes) and this review by Gaskella which seems to have inspired a lot of different people to read the book.

10 Comments

Filed under Bainbridge, Beryl, Booker