Marinated in whiskey and cured in cigarette smoke, Beryl Bainbridge’s ravaged, masklike visage—the most memorable since Auden’s—was familiar to every literate Briton. Over there, she was a personality, holding court in her ramshackle London home, recounting her misadventures, lamenting and excoriating the changes—architectural and otherwise—that had made her native Liverpool unrecognizable (not to mention the changes in the Roman Catholic Church after Vatican II), reviewing theater for The Oldie, and repeatedly landing on the Booker shortlist without ever winning the prize. Not so on this side of the Atlantic.
When she died on July 2, at the age of 77, Bainbridge was largely out of print in the United States. She rarely shows up on undergraduate or grad school reading lists; her novels don’t fit any of the competing agendas driving the curriculum these days. But maybe that’s a blessing: no motive for reading her at all beyond the promise of instruction and delight.
She liked to say that, no matter what the ostensible subject of the novel at hand, she was always writing about her own experience, especially her childhood in a fractious household. This was but one of many deceptive bromides she served up to interviewers. (Before she was a writer, she was an actress.) It would be truer to say that, whether she was writing about a weekend with Claude or the sinking of the Titanic, a bottle factory outing (she worked for a short time putting labels on wine bottles) or the Crimean War, a narcissistic womanizer or Robert Scott’s fatal expedition to the Antarctic, Bainbridge maintained a detachment, an aesthetic distance, that unsettled many readers.
She wasn’t Oprah material.
That detachment was evident in the first novel she wrote, although not the first to be published: Harriet Said, about two schoolgirls who conspire in murder. When it was finally published, in 1972, the flap copy gleefully quoted from a publisher’s letter of rejection:
Your writing shows considerable promise, but what repulsive little creatures you have made the two central characters, repulsive almost beyond belief! And I think the scene in which the two men and the two girls meet in the Tsar’s house is too indecent and unpleasant even for these lax days.
What gave offense was the very quality that attracted a faithful following, always waiting impatiently for the next Beryl Bainbridge novel. The distance she maintained was the condition for her distinctive humor, for pity and wonder at the sheer strangeness of our common lives. If you constantly prattle about “wonder” in a chummy way, as some religious people do (joined by certain New Atheists who proclaim the wonders revealed by science), you kill wonder. If you make a profession of commiseration, you kill pity. If you are desperate to provoke a laugh, you kill humor.
Conjoined with the severe discipline that made Bainbridge an artist (however much she pooh-poohed any lofty conception of what she did with her life) was a deep anarchic streak. Her first historical novel, Young Adolf (1978), was based on an apocryphal account of a five-month period in 1912-13 which Hitler allegedly spent in Liverpool with his brother, Alois, and Alois’s wife, Bridget, whose “memoir” was the source of the tale. Despite her comments about the plausibly mundane quality of Bridget’s account, it is clear that Bainbridge really didn’t care whether the story was true or not. She says she “intended to base the character of Adolf on that of my own father, a minor dictator in his own way even if he never came to power.” (She adds a bit later: “I have never felt the necessity for invention, life itself being stranger than fiction.”) She knew quite well that in treating Hitler this way (the faux-naïveté of her comparison between the Führer and her father is characteristic) she would outrage many custodians of propriety.
Hitler in Liverpool! Who could resist the conception?
Her last published novel, According to Queeney, on Dr. Johnson’s sojourn with Henry and Hester Thrale, appeared in 2001. It is one my favorites. With my fellow readers I kept an eye out for news of its successor. Several years ago, a new Bainbridge showed up on Amazon as forthcoming: The Girl in the Polka-Dot Dress, the story to be tied in some way to the assassination of Robert Kennedy. By the time the announced date of publication had arrived, a later date was listed. And so it went for three or four years. Assorted obituaries report that the book was nearly finished when she died. I for one am eager to see it. I just hope that the publisher will not see fit to have the ending tidied up by another hand. The author, I feel sure, would not approve.
John Wilson is the editor of Books & Culture.