Sunday, 4 July 2010

Beryl Bainbridge RIP

Beryl Bainbridge, Mordant Novelist, Is Dead at 77
July 2, 2010

Beryl Bainbridge, whose sparely written, mordant novels, often with a dark comic edge, made her one of the most distinctive and admired voices in postwar British fiction, died on Thursday in London. She was 77.

The cause was cancer, said Kent Carroll of Europa Editions, her American publisher.

Ms. Bainbridge, a former theater actress, emerged on the fiction scene in the 1960s with a series of taut, often bleakly funny novels that drew heavily on her experiences growing up in a shabby-genteel household in Liverpool during and after World War II.

This background lent a pungent, unmistakable flavor to her fiction, a drab dreamland populated by plodding characters whose lives, through missed meanings and missed opportunities, swerve suddenly out of control. Violence is always on the menu. The jolly company picnic in “The Bottle Factory Outing” begins with a series of comic misadventures and ends, inevitably, with a death.

Reviewing “A Quiet Life” (1976), about an ordinary couple struggling along in postwar Britain, the novelist Anne Tyler pointed to Ms. Bainbridge’s “knack for depicting ingrown worlds (people entangled at close quarters, bitter and desperate, gnawing away at each other) and her ability to pounce on the startlingly comic underside of the most hopeless situation.”

In her later novels, Ms. Bainbridge tended to use historical events as her starting point. She first employed this approach in “Young Adolf” (1978), the imagining of a visit Adolf Hitler may or may not have made to Liverpool in 1912, and went on to develop a substantial inventory of fictions rooted in incidents as varied in time and subject as the voyage of the Titanic (“Every Man for Himself,” 1996) and the final years of Samuel Johnson (“According to Queeney,” 2001).

Usually less than 200 pages, the novels arrived with clockwork regularity. “We have come to expect our yearly Beryl Bainbridge,” the historian Richard Cobb wrote. “It is an addiction and one that she alone can satisfy.”

Beryl Margaret Bainbridge was born in Liverpool. Although most sources, including her Who’s Who entry, give her birth date as Nov. 21, 1934, her birth was registered in early 1933, The Associated Press reported.

Her father was a salesman who went bankrupt in the 1930s. Her mother, nicknamed the Duchess, made it clear to one and all that she had married beneath her. The home atmosphere, tense and claustrophobic, turned out to be a rich source of material for Ms. Bainbridge.

“I write to make sense of my childhood experience,” she told The New York Times in 1981. “Everything else you grow out of, but you never recover from childhood,” she continued. “So I go over it again and again.”

At 14 she was expelled from Merchant Taylors’, a private girls’ school, for illustrating a dirty rhyme. She briefly attended a stage school and then began acting in repertory theater, with only modest success.

After marrying Austin Davies, an artist and scenery painter, she began writing a novel based on a newspaper article about two New Zealand girls who murdered one of their mothers. (The case later inspired the film “Heavenly Creatures.”) “Harriet Said,” completed in 1958, met with rejection on the grounds of its unsavory subject and frank treatment of teenage sexuality.

“What repulsive little creatures you have made the central characters, repulsive beyond belief,” one publisher wrote to her. The novel was not published until 1972.

Discouraged, Ms. Bainbridge stopped writing and raised her children, a task made more difficult when she and her husband divorced in 1959. After moving to London, where she lived the rest of her life, she briefly worked in a wine-bottling factory pasting on labels, an experience she put to use in “The Bottle Factory Outing.”

Gradually, she returned to writing. “A Weekend With Claude” appeared in 1967 and “Another Part of the Wood” in 1968.

In 1970 a friendly editor, Anna Haycraft, the wife of the owner of the publishing company Gerald Duckworth, took an interest in her work despite having hated the first two novels. The Haycrafts found her a clerical job at the company, published “Harriet Said” and encouraged Ms. Bainbridge to rewrite her first two published books, which were reissued in the early 1980s.

Quite quickly, Ms. Bainbridge hit her stride with artfully sinister novels like “The Dressmaker” (1973), “The Bottle Factory Outing,” “A Quiet Life” and “Injury Time” (1977).

One of Ms. Bainbridge’s most richly comic novels, “Sweet William,” about a single woman in London who embarks on a disastrous affair with a rake, was made into a film in 1980, with a screenplay by the author. Sam Waterston and Jenny Agutter played the lead roles.

The enthusiastic critical response to “Young Adolf” encouraged Ms. Bainbridge to pursue her particular brand of historical fantasy, atmospherically recreating historical events through the eyes of fictional characters.

In “Watson’s Apology” (1984) she used court depositions and newspaper accounts to reconstruct both a Victorian murder and a marriage. The Crimean War was the setting for “Master Georgie” (1998), and Scott’s expedition to the Antarctic was the starting point for “The Birthday Boys” (1991).

“An Awfully Big Adventure” (1989), a comedy of misadventures about a brooding teenage girl who joins an acting company in Liverpool in the 1950s, marked a return to her early manner. It was made into a film, released in 1995, with Alan Rickman, Hugh Grant and Georgina Cates.

Ms. Bainbridge is survived by two daughters, Jo-Jo Davies and Rudi Davies, and a son, Aaron Davies, all of London, and seven grandchildren.

At her death, she was at work on “The Girl in the Polka-Dot Dress,” a novel about the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy. By chance, Ms. Bainbridge had been in Los Angeles when the assassination took place.

Ms. Bainbridge, who was made a Dame Commander of the British Empire in 2000, struck an unassuming pose about the art of fiction. “I am of the firm belief that everybody could write books, and I never understand why they don’t,” she told the reference work “Contemporary Novelists” in 1976. “After all, everyone speaks. Once the grammar has been learnt, it is simply talking on paper and in time learning what not to say.”

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for this -- i hadn't known of her & still wouldn't if you hadn't flagged the obit. Looking for sumpin' to read at the moment, so the timing is perfect for me, albeit not for her, as she was in mid-book