Posts Tagged ‘Beryl Bainbridge’

Beryl Bainbridge is well known for her psychologically astute novels of working class life, novels like The Bottle Factory Outing and Harriet Said… However, she also wrote several historical novels – using some fascinating periods and events as inspiration. Whatever time period she writes about, Bainbridge explores her characters’ motivations and frailties with precision and understanding. It must be what makes her enduringly popular with readers.

I recently discovered that I had two copies of the exact same edition of Watson’s Apology on my tbr – and with the feeling that I might have had at least one of them for quite some time, I decided it was time I read it.

Watson’s Apology is a fictionalised account of a real life Victorian murder. The actual murder of Mrs Anne Watson by her husband took place in Stockwell toward the end of 1871. At first glance I suppose, it could be seen as just one more, tragic domestic murder. Yet, Beryl Bainbridge weaves a story of a marriage around the known facts. An author’s note tells us that the story is based on a true story, and that some documents that are presented have been edited – but of course much of the story comes from the imagination of a novelist. Despite the fact there must surely be quite a lot of fictional license taken with the true events, the story does have a feeling of authenticity; these characters feel very true to life.

The novel begins with some letters, letters from John S Watson to Anne Armstrong. Watson is a former cleric and has recently been appointed as a headmaster at a Propriety school in Stockwell. Anne is living in very reduced circumstances with her sister in Dublin. The sisters, who squabble continually, share a squalid room in a lodging house. Anne often bitterly reflects on the life their family used to have. Anne Armstrong and John Watson met once briefly seven years earlier – a meeting that John Watson remembers with some misty eyed fondness, and which Anne has totally forgotten. It is this very brief, social encounter years earlier that prompts Watson to begin writing to Anne with a view to marriage. The two finally meet some time later, and Anne accepts Watson’s proposal – naturally seeing in it a welcome escape from her dreary, poverty stricken life.

“Watson, for one brief moment, saw an insignificant little woman standing there with a handbag dangling from her wrist. Then he moved forward to greet her and took her hand in his, and she looked at him without smiling. Perhaps she was fuller in the face than he remembered, and bulkier in figure, but her eyes were unchanged and when she spoke he recognized that same husky intonation of voice which he had picked out above all others in that crowded drawing-room in Marlborough Street.”

However, this is not destined to be a happy marriage, it is clearly a marriage of two people who aren’t well matched. This is something Bainbridge clearly recognises, the depiction of this often poisonous relationship is brilliant, sad but at times quite darkly, humorous. The Watsons’ life is not an easy one, there’s as much hardship for Anne as she ever had in Dublin. A series of unsatisfactory homes, little for her to do, or lose herself in and a husband more interested in his books and the school than in her. There’s a wonderful, though excruciating holiday to Hastings, years after they are first married – which highlights beautifully how miserable they are making each other. In time Anne’s only real pleasure is in baiting her husband, criticising, and nagging, and then later the poor, unhappy woman turns to drink.  

Throughout their marriage, John Watson’s great pride, and main interest is in his very learned books and his job as headmaster. He is dedicated to this role in a way he was never dedicated to his wife – and Anne sees that, and resents it thoroughly. Watson is a man who cares what people think, so he tries hard to shield the people around him from the truth about his marriage, the arguments, his wife’s drinking, and his own unhappiness at home. Their servant Ellen Payne is of course privy to all the domestic unpleasantness – and will become an important witness.

It is John Watson’s pride and dedication in his headmaster role that is part of the problem – when after almost thirty years he is suddenly relieved of his duties, his anger and confusion knows no bounds. He is desperate to be reinstated, sharing his grievances with anyone who’ll listen – and at home all day, he has no escape from Anne’s tongue and her drinking.

“He was on the landing, on hands and knees, when Ellen Pyne came back. He called out to her that she must wait. He was dipping a rag into a basin of water and wiping the skirting board clean. But she didn’t hear, and knocked again, louder than before.”

Anne’s death happens off camera – so to speak. Bainbridge doesn’t show us the exact moment – though there is more discussion of that moment later during the trial. Up until this part of the book I was thoroughly enthralled, so well written, the story of this horribly mismatched couple is compulsive reading. However, after Anne’s death about two thirds the way through the novel the style changes.

The remainder of the story is told in a kind of reportage style – using witness testimonies from Watson’s trial, letters, and newspaper reports – based I am sure on actual records. Bainbridge uses the vernacular of the times, but surprisingly this is all really very dull. There is a bit of repetition, and the compulsive nature of the book is lost, such a shame because the first two thirds was excellent.

I am still glad I read this, it is such a fascinating story, and Bainbridge is a fantastic writer – I just wish the final third had been written in the same way as the majority of the book.

One thing I was particularly interested in was who Bainbridge felt the most sympathy with – her sympathy – and the law’s in some ways – seem to have been with John Watson. Yet we must remember a woman died brutally – she wasn’t a nice woman, but she was also a very unhappy woman, a woman who had wanted love and didn’t get it – who had no agency and no useful thing to do.

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the birthday boys

For my 1993 (bear with me) slot of A Century of Books I chose my second Beryl Bainbridge of the year; The Birthday Boys, which is Bainbridge’s take on Scott’s ill-fated expedition to the South Pole. It was a book I was a little uncertain about before I began. I knew that is was a very different Bainbridge to those of hers I have read before. Also, a novel about people who really lived – and are already widely written about – can be problematic. However, this is a novel reviewed very positively by lots of people – and it was my only book for 1993 so it was worth taking a chance on. Then!! While writing this review – I discovered it was first published in 1991! So not only needn’t I have read it – but now I have slid back one year in my race to the end – so, so massively depressed by this I can’t tell you. How did I manage to make such a mistake? Just realised it wasn’t the only book I had for ‘1993’ either – I checked my trusty spreadsheet and there was another. Absolutely fuming with myself.

I have always been strangely fascinated by the men who chose to set off on such perilous and uncertain expeditions, in times when they could only rely on themselves. To set off for years, journeying into such inhospitable environments with no guarantee of return, what drives people to do that? I am similarly fascinated by the men who tried and then succeeded to conquer Everest.

In five chronological first-person narratives, Bainbridge tells the story of Captain Scott and the four other men who set out to conquer the South Pole with the Terra Nova expedition. Bainbridge gives each of the doomed men a voice, Edgar (Taff) Evans, Dr Edward Wilson, Capt. Scott himself, Henry Robertson Bowers and Capt. Titus Oates, relate their experiences, thoughts and feelings. Through good and bad, arguments, relationship breakdowns, thoughts of home and frostbite.

“It wasn’t all misery. On one of our halts we lay spreadeagled on the ice and stared up at a sky blazing with the glory of the most wonderful aurora I’d ever witnessed. I groaned beneath the splendour of those silken curtains, yellow, green, and orange, billowing at the window of the heavens.”

The novel opens in 1910, before the Terra Nova sets sail, with the testimony of Petty Officer Taff Evans – a large Welshman, who isn’t always popular with his colleagues, but who ‘The Owner’ Capt. Scott has a particular liking for. Taff has a wife and children, he is a proper sailor with a love of the sea, and a hatred of being too hemmed in. He is ready to give up the sea however after this two-year expedition, when his dream is to open a pub in Wales.

“I left him and went up on deck to look out at the slithering city, its glitter of street lamps fizzy under the rain. There’s something wrong about a ship in dock, something pathetic, like a bird fluttering in a spill of oil. The Nova was tethered to her berth by ropes and chains, caught in a pool of greasy water. I could feel her shifting under my feet, tugging to be free.”

In Taff’s company we first meet the other men who – in 1912 – Scott will select for the final push to the pole. He shares his thoughts about his colleagues, Scott’s wife and the terrible state of the Terra Nova. Taff’s account was my favourite, so much so, I was rather sorry to move away from him, and it took me a while to settle into the other narratives. When Taff, the most physically strong of the men, finally begins to break down it makes for hard reading.

Throughout the other narratives Bainbridge shows the heroism and patriotism that drove these men on. We see Scott’s rage when letters arrive informing him that Amundsen’s expedition is headed for the pole too – it is known that the Norwegian has a large number of dogs to assist the men – something which Scott had chosen not to have on his expedition. The psychology of these men is deftly explored – the delicately balanced relationships, jealousies and terrible hardships as the conditions inevitably begin to take their toll. All Bainbridge’s descriptions of landscape are glorious, you really feel the bitterness of the cold – the dreadful blizzards that almost halt their progress.

We know of course what happens before we start the book, yet Bainbridge does manage to tell the story of these men as if we don’t. There is a real poignancy to their fate – their efforts were heroic, their fate so horribly tragic – we can picture those families waiting two years for them to come home. We have witnessed their dreams, imagined along with them the glory of their successful home coming. It all went so horribly wrong – their dejection when they see the Norwegian flag ahead of them at the pole – is gut wrenching. In, The Birthday Boys Bainbridge writes sensitively and with an obvious fascination and understanding for these men. What she has produced is probably as close as a novel can get to a biographical account. This is not my favourite Bainbridge novel, but I enjoyed it, well written and researched with this novel she really showed her versatility.

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winter garden

Beryl Bainbridge is always an interesting writer – she takes a slightly alternative view of working-class people, their habits and domesticity cast in a darker hue. In Winter Garden there is plenty that is odd, unexplained or ambiguous, though it is its setting of Moscow that sets it apart from other Bainbridge novels that I have read.

“If she had uttered one single word of reproach, Ashburner might have made a clean breast of things. Even now, when it was obviously too late, he longed to experience that same heady sensation of martyrdom which had prompted him as schoolboy, accused of some group misdemeanour, secretly to approach his housemaster and claim sole responsibility for a breach in the rules.”

Douglas Ashburner is an ordinary middle-aged man, little given to intrigue one would think, yet as the novel opens he leaves his wife comfortably tucked up in their bed and sets out on a peculiar journey. Ashburner’s wife – obviously little bothered that her husband is heading off on a trip without her – thinks he is going fishing in Scotland. However, soon after closing the front door of the home he shares with his wife, Ashburner is checking in for a flight to Moscow.

He is accompanying three artists, guests of the Soviet Artists’ Union, he is the official companion to Nina St Clair – with whom he has been conducting an affair. An affair we come to suspect is all on her terms, Ashburner little more than a devoted lap dog trailing along behind her. His adoration of Nina, verges on the obsessively paranoid – especially once they land in Moscow. The other two members of the party, Bernard and Enid, are friends of Nina’s rather than Ashburner, and so he is liable to feel threatened by them.

“Bernard had never known anyone like Ashburner – not to spend time with. The man looked and spoke like a civil servant; yet he was obviously insanely romantic. It wasn’t so extraordinary after all that Nina had taken up with him, She was basically a rather bossy girl who should have married somebody inadequate and produced a crop of children. Art didn’t do anything for her. She only mucked about with it because the brain specialist was a total egotist and she was left too much on her own. Perhaps Ashburner was made for her.”

With Winter Garden being published in 1980, we know that the Moscow visited by Nina, Ashburner, Bernard and Enid is the Moscow of the cold war. That adds a little frisson of mystery to the novel – as neither we nor the characters themselves never entirely know what is going on.

Ashburner’s luggage goes missing upon arrival in Moscow – and he can’t help but worry that the airport will contact his wife should it turn up – the wife who believes he is fishing in Scotland. In the company of their interpreter – whose side they are never able to leave – the party are conducted to their hotel where afternoon tea comprises vodka and caviar.

In the coming days odd things seem to happen – although things always seem to happen just to Ashburner, and we begin to wonder what is real and what the paranoia of a man out of his depth and obsessively smitten. Alone in his hotel room late that night, Ashburner receives a peculiar phone call:

“‘I am your brother.’ Shouted the voice. ‘It is Boris. Listen to me please. Tomorrow night there is an exhibition of Zamyotov’s work in the people’s Institute behind Bolotnaya Square. You will go there. I have fixed it all. Do not listen to them when they tell you something else is specified. Tell them to jump in the lake, yes? Beforehand there will be a lecture. Unfortunately I myself cannot be there until later. You will like the etchings, I think. Have you understood?’”

Minutes later Ashburner has convinced himself he had received a message in code – and when at four o’clock in the morning he tries to confide his worries to Bernard he is given short shrift. Bernard sensibly suggesting it was a wrong number.

Within forty-eight hours of the group’s arrival in Moscow, Nina has apparently vanished and Ashburner is beside himself with concern. Olga, their interpreter has a perfectly rational explanation for Nina having left – which is happily accepted by Bernard and Enid – but with no one else to corroborate Olga’s story Ashburner is not entirely convinced.

As the official itinerary of events continue – more peculiar things happen – as the depleted group pay visits to other artists. Ashburner’s luggage re-appears though it appears to have been rifled – heightening Ashburner’s sense of things not being quite right. There’s a disturbing and unsolicited sexual encounter on a train bound for Leningrad – which Bernard laughingly declares must have been a dream. Though Ashburner is particularly upset when he is taken to watch an operation. It’s at this point that Ashburner begins to imagine he sees Nina – on the operating table – in the audience at the theatre – all of which adds to the surreal atmosphere of the novel.

The reader can never really be sure what is real and what a figment of Ashburner’s over active imagination. There is an atmosphere of fear tinged with absurdity about the whole novel – and we can never entirely trust Asburner’s point of view which is hysterically overwrought at times.

I can’t say this will ever be my favourite Bainbridge novel that I have read, but it is certainly one of the most intriguing. I’m still not entirely certain I know what on earth was going on.


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a weekend with claude

My second read for Beryl Bainbridge reading week, which I have had to rush to review – wanting to squeeze it to the final day of the week. What I neglected to mention in my review of A Quiet Life the other day are the excellent introductions to these recent Virago editions by Linda Grant. I always read introductions after the novel – the introduction in this book concern Beryl Bainbridges’s two early novels, this one and Harriet Said… which I read not long ago – a book group choice – and my favourite Bainbridge of the four I have now read.

A Weekend with Claude was Beryl Bainbridge’s first published novel, the novel was heavily revised by the author in 1981. It is a darkly comic story of friendship and failure in 1960.

“Claude looked across the stone courtyard to the open door of the house and saw Julia pass quickly in red slippers, going into the kitchen to prepare lunch. Against the wall, pressed close to the dried stem of the wisteria, was his youngest son’s pram. It was a big pram, an expensive pram, with the edge of a white pillow showing at the hood. He remembered that his other sons had slept out their milky days in a second hand pram bought for seven-and-six in Camden Town. A thrifty woman, Sarah, in many ways. Bending her golden head, heavy under its weight of hair, she had laid their children one by one in the cheap carriage on the soiled pillow and gone, melon-hipped and honey-mouthed, away from him into their house. Always away from him.”

The novel opens with the framing story of a couple coming to Claude’s antique shop, the shop in the barn of the house Claude bought originally for his wife and children. In the drawer of a desk they are interested in buying the woman finds a letter dated 1960 and a photograph. The photograph taken a few years earlier, depicts a group of people in the gardens of Claude’s house. The couple become strangely interested in the photograph, and with Claude inviting them into the house for coffee, bit by bit they learn about the people in the photograph, and the weekend they spent with Claude and his partner Julia. The people in the photograph are: Lily, Norman, Shebah and Edward.

Claude was of course the host of the weekend, a man still bemoaning his desertion by his wife Sarah, he now has Julia for comfort, a passive young woman whom we never really get to know as well as we might like to – she seems to be the only really likeable character – and I wondered more than once what on earth she was doing with Claude. It is primarily for Claude’s friend Lily that the weekend invitations have been issued. Lily, deserted by her former lover, finds herself pregnant, and it is Edward – who in the photograph stands a little apart – who has been selected as an unwitting candidate for her child’s father. Everyone else is on the secret. Also present are Victorian Norman, (so called due to the collars on his shirts) who has lived in a room in the same house as Lily. Norman describes himself at one point as a wolf in sheep’s clothing – he certainly is. Predatory, and selfish, he has little conscience, pawing unpleasantly at Julia in sight of his host. The final guest is Shebah, an ageing Jewish woman, a former actress, who in the photograph can be seen wearing a bandage around her leg, following an accident with an air rifle on that weekend with Claude.

There were aspects of this novel, particularly in the characters’ relationships to one another, that reminded me a little of some Iris Murdoch novels. Claude seems to be the flame around which this odd assortment of people flutters – though they don’t really seem to like him that much.

The story of that weekend is told in three voices, those of Lily, Norman and Shebah, with the framing story told in the third person, though the point of view is very much that of Claude. Lily is fragile, an old friend of Claude, as a girl she had attended a school close to Claude’s house. Before the weekend at Claude’s house Lily had been living in a house in Liverpool in which various people have lodged, including Victorian Norman. Lily has been abandoned, then reunited then abandoned again by Billie, finding herself pregnant – she sees Claude’s friend Edward as her way of providing a father for her unborn child.

“I don’t know whether I’ve had a nice time or not, though I suppose that wasn’t the object of the exercise. Anyway, it’s settled now, though it may be foolish to believe anything is really settled. This morning when I first got up, before Shebah was shot, I felt wide awake. Now I feel tired and would like a bath. I could have one, but it would mean walking away from them down the garden and into the house, and Edward would follow in case I was being molested by Claude, so it’s not worth it.”

Norman, as I have said is an unpleasant little man, his pursuit of Julia is rather unsettling, as Lily’s lodger he appears to be more Lily’s friend than Claude’s. Norman, self-educated, a factory worker, has a girlfriend who we never meet, though this doesn’t stop his roving eye. Shebah is a kind of ineffectual mother-like figure to Lily, they squabble a lot. No longer the attractive woman she once was, hair growing across her top lip Shebah is reluctant to reveal her age. So from these various viewpoints , we see that weekend with Claude. Each perspective, naturally adds something new to the story of the events of that weekend.

Though the novel has little plot, it’s a superb character study – the writing is excellent, intelligent and sharply observed, and although I don’t know how it differs to the original – a very good first novel (although technically it wasn’t her first – she had already written Harriet Said…).

Thank you to Annabel for hosting this Beryl Bainbridge reading week – it has been great seeing other reviews too – I have a few more titles added to my wishlist.

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a quiet life

Reviewing slightly out of order – so that I could sneak this into the beginning of Beryl Bainbridge reading week hosted by Annabel.

A Quiet Life is only the third Beryl Bainbridge novel that I have read, and already I am becoming familiar with her dark humour. The other thing that Beryl Bainbridge does particularly well is to recreate a certain kind of English domesticity – the small frustrations and daily occupations of a family. Bainbridges’s economy of style is particularly impressive, she manages to convey in just a couple of pages, a whole world, within a small insignificant seeming scene – reveals so much. It’s this type of observational writing that I appreciate.

We first meet Alan as a middle aged man, waiting in a café to meet his sister Madge. They haven’t met for fifteen years. Madge had escaped from the conventional, claustrophobic world in which they were brought up in. Their mother has recently died, and Alan has been instructed by his wife – whom we never meet, not needing to – we know her type – to get Madge to take some of their mother’s stuff off their hands. In their first conversation for many years it becomes quickly obvious that they each remember the past rather differently.

From here we return to the domestic world of their adolescence – when Alan is seventeen his sister two years younger. The Second World war has ended, but there is not much sign of peace in their suburban home. Their father is war damaged, embittered by an unhappy marriage, seemingly unable to earn a living – he leaves the house each day for some unspecified purpose – which doesn’t earn him any respect at home.

“When he came home in the dark from his music lesson, the hall light shone through the circular window of the front door, lighting the lower branches of the sycamore tree. His father’s car blocked the path. If he went over the grass, his mother would be bound to see the tyre marks on her flower beds. With difficulty he steered the bicycle along the side of the fence, scraping the handlebars across the wood. His father, changed now into his battledress, struggled in the shadows of the brick porch to rewind the hose. He’d been issued with the uniform during the war when he was supposed to be an air-raid warden, going from house to house to make sure everyone had drawn their black-out curtains. Mostly when the siren went. He’d hidden under the dining room table. Madge used to say A.R.P meant air-raid Pa, not air-raid precautions.
‘Mind the blasted fence,’ Father shouted. He’d been washing the car in the dark.”

There are vague hints at financial problems, and gradually we realise that when they were first married they had enjoyed a much better standard of living, living in a larger house before the war. Alan and Madge’s mother is particularly concerned with how things look, their small house crammed with the furniture of better days, the front room kept perfect for guests – who never seem to come. With a wardrobe full of lovely clothes, their mother pursues her own escape, leaving the house in the evening – to her husband’s great suspicion, never saying where she goes, though Madge knows. Nearby lives Auntie Nora – Alan’s father’s sister – who he runs off to see pretty often.

Alan prefers a quiet life, likes to avoid a row, but there are uneasy tensions in his house. Alan sings in the church choir, has a music lesson and regularly attends the youth club. Quietly lusting after Janet – Alan manages to spend quite a lot of time out of the house. When at home, poor Alan is often on the receiving end of his family’s frustrated irritation.

“Madge was barely fifteen and she did as she pleased. Nothing stopped her, neither Mother’s suffering nor Father’s bullying. She went carefree as a bird, in her school raincoat and her old panama – as if it was high noon in an Indian summer – towards the railway crossing.”

At home while Alan is the reliable one, his sister Madge is less conventional, frequently choosing to go barefoot, she creeps off to meet a German POW – who will soon be repatriated to Germany. Janet becomes Alan’s official girlfriend, helps him search for his wayward sister in the woods and among the sand dunes. One day Alan spots his sister lying in the dunes with her German POW – there she is two years younger, more assured, becoming more experienced, while he can barely find his way inside Janet’s blouse.

There is a feeling that the family are headed toward some kind of crisis – there is little domestic harmony within this dysfunctional family. Plenty of things go unsaid, there’s searing resentment toward Alan’s father in particular, and Alan feels his mother greatly prefers his sister to himself.

There is a wonderfully taut, domestic atmosphere in this novel – which is just what I might have expected from Beryl Bainbridge. However, I had expected more of the unexpected – a bigger kind of twist perhaps. This novel lacked a little of the compelling nature that Harriet Said… had or The Bottle Factory Outing – the only other two Bainbridge I have read – but it is still a very good read. Not sure yet – but I might just squeeze another Beryl Bainbridge book in this week, though I won’t get it reviewed this week too I don’t think.

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Harriet Said… was Beryl Bainbridge’s first written novel, although not published until 1972 following A Weekend with Claude and Another Part of the Wood. As Linda Grant says in her introduction to this Virago edition Beryl Bainbridge is a writer whose books have “a black heart to them, in a comic chest.” An apt description I think. This is however, only the second I have read – The Bottle Factory Outing was my first, read for a Beryl Bainbridge reading week in 2012 and had certainly intended to read more Bainbridge before now. I suggested this title to my second, small book group – and I’m so glad I did – we shall have lots to discuss.

Harriet Said… is set in a Liverpool suburb close to the sea and the sand dunes of Formby a few years after the end of the Second World War. It is the long summer holidays, and our unnamed narrator, a thirteen year old girl, returns from the boarding school her parents can’t really afford, and awaits the return of her friend Harriet from a family holiday in Wales. Harriet said… is a frequent refrain, as we learn from Harriet’s friend about their friendship and the balance of power between them. Harriet, slightly older at fourteen, is a too knowing, manipulative girl, she tells her friend what to wear, what to do, what to write in the shared diary kept in Harriet’s room. Her friend, stout and a little clumsy obeys her adored, delicate little Harriet without question. In the days before Harriet’s return, the girl, reacquaints herself with the Formby sand dunes, and the sad, disappointed men who can sometimes be found there. Mr Biggs – the Tsar as he is called by Harriet and her friend is one of these, a golfing buddy of Harriet’s father – a middle aged married man.

“I rolled all the way down the slope and reached the bottom covered with sand, breathless, not from exertion but because the Tsar was sitting by the tadpole ponds with his back to me. I was shy.
The ponds were no more than long puddles of rain-water set in the grass. In winter the rain fell endlessly, the pools thickened, mud formed. When the frost came, the ground hardened, the edges of the pools shrank, the ice pinched closer; the low bushes snapped at a touch, the tall dune grasses froze in clumps. Once, in the centre of the largest pool, Harriet and I saw two frogs, dead, bloated with water floating, white bellies upward, like pieces of bread. Now in summer the water was warm to the touch. I crouched down in the sand and trailed my fingers back and forth waiting for him to speak first.
‘Aah,’ he said, letting out a sigh, as he lay back with his head in the grass, his trilby hat, which he never wore, beside him, its brim dripping in the water.”

formbysanddunesFrom the opening short chapter we know that something has happened, the girls race back to their homes at the end of the summer – although even this is carefully co-ordinated between them. Gradually the story is revealed as we return to the start of the summer holidays when Harriet arrives home.

With Harriet’s return from Wales the girls are thrown together again through the long summer days of school holidays. Harriet has tales of her adventures in Wales, while her friend tells of her meetings with the Tsar. The Tsar is fascinating and repulsive – an object of constant speculation. Pretty, scheming Harriet draws her friend into her plan to humiliate the Tsar. The two girls watch the unhappily married Peter Biggs (the Tsar) and his wife, they chart their progress in the diary – where Harriet leads her friend is quick enough to follow. The consequences of their malevolent games are shocking.

As readers I think we always want to know exactly who the transgressor is – who the victim, fascinatingly, the lines between the two are not so clear here. Biggs is a predatory man – his behaviour is utterly reprehensible – and although never likeable, there is something rather pitiful about him. The reader is not comfortable seeing him in any sympathetic light – we are almost relived when he does something we can despise him for. Harriet is the more malevolent of the two girls; there is a nastiness to her that her friend seems perfectly aware of. Harriet calls her mother Little Woman, speaks in code to her friend over her unsuspecting mother’s head, beguiles the adults around them, and deals with her friend’s mother’s dislike of her with practised calm. Readers who don’t enjoy reading about unlikeable characters will probably not like this book – I rather enjoy reading about unlikeable characters – and Harriet and the Tsar are shudderingly disturbing.

The girls rather over reach themselves – and even Harriet is shocked by how her friend interprets her instructions.

“There were but two weeks left of the holidays. As before at school I had counted the days to the end of term, willing the hours to pass quicker, so now I waited for summer to finish. Shadows of fatigue darkened my face though I went to bed early and slept late each morning. My mother said twice I looked poorly and hoped I was not going to be ill.”

There is a definite feeling that Harriet’s friend begins to want the business of the summer over with – and their destruction of the Tsar is part of that – then things can go back to how they were the summer before, but the genie is out of the bottle – childhood is well and truly over.

This is the kind of book which will divide people – Bainbridge herself struggled to get it published at first – due to the disturbing nature of the characters, but I really enjoyed it. Enjoyed seems the wrong word – yet there is so much to admire in Bainbridge’s writing – a feeling of unease pervades this short novel, which is psychologically very astute – so once started it is difficult to put down.


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This was the first ever Beryl Bainbridge novel I have read. Gaskella’s Beryl Bainbridge reading week has given me a perfect excuse to read a new to me author.

gaskella’s blog

  Sometimes when approaching a previously unread author’s work, I have some idea of what I might expect, with Beryl Bainbridge I had no preconceived idea at all. I found it quite exciting to come to something so completely new to me.

The Bottle Factory Outing is a difficult book to describe. It is a rather farcical black comedy – some of the story being almost unbelievable. Beryl Bainbridge’s writing though is excellent – and that she has managed to pack so much into a fairly slim volume is testament to this. I actually enjoyed it immensely and will I am sure read more of her work.
Brenda and Freda are work colleagues at an Italian bottling factory in London. They share a small bedsit – and indeed a bed, a bolster made of books separating them at night. Freda and Brenda are quite different characters, Brenda is less sure of herself than Freda, quieter, nervous, having run away from the country and her husband. Freda, a little younger is big, blowsy, loud and confrontational, has romantic aspirations of Vittorio, heir to the bottling factory. It is Freda then who conceives the plan for The Outing. The Outing looms large – there is a feeling of doom and a definite tension that haunts the beginning of the novel, the reader knows something will happen on that day – and of course something does.

“Mercifully it was not raining. There was even a faint gleam of wintry sunlight. Brenda wore a black woollen dress, black stockings and green court shoes. Freda had hidden the tweed coat the night before; she insisted she borrow her purple cloak. Brenda didn’t want to wear the cloak, but neither did she want to annoy Freda. Protesting, that it was too long, she draped it about her shoulders and looked down at the green shoes and an inch of stocking. Freda in a mauve trouser suit, a sheepskin coat gaily worked in blue thread down the front, and a lilac scarf casually knotted at the throat, wrapped two chickens in silver foil and placed them in the basket. There was a tablecloth embroidered in one corner with pink petals, a lettuce in a polythene bag, some French bread and two pounds of apples. In a small jar previously containing cocktail onions, she had poured a mixture of oil and lemon and crushed garlic.”

Beryl Bainbridge’s characterisation is brilliant – her characters are flawed – but real. The sense of time and place is wonderful –sad little bedsits, the cold bottling factory, the camaraderie of the Italian workers. The expectation of a day out in October, all wonderfully portrayed. I am so glad that the Beryl Bainbridge reading week gave me a nudge to read this surprising little novel.

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