Beryl’s early life was marked by event. Born in 1934, Lancashire, Bainbridge was educated at the Merchant Taylors’ school in Liverpool.
She hinted during later interviews that her family life was both unhappy and unconventional. Sharing a bedroom with her mother, whilst her brother and father shared a separate room, Beryl spoke of her childhood being ‘blackened’ by her father’s volatile moods; his frequent swings to anger and frustration, but never quite violence.
But nothing is ever black and white – even in a novelist’s world – and Beryl’s family were supportive of her education, complimenting her studies with extra lessons in German, Latin and music.
On the playground, Beryl earned herself the nickname ‘Basher Bainbridge’ with her fondness for getting in fights. Her nose for trouble didn’t stop there. Aged 14, she was expelled from the school after a (largely platonic) relationship with a German prisoner of war, Harry Franz. Beryl’s mother found a ‘smutty rhyme’ penned by Bainbridge in the girl’s uniform pocket and Beryl was hauled up before the head teacher for misconduct. Labelled a ‘corrupting moral influence’, Beryl left full-time schooling and went to the Arts Educational School at Triny, Hertfordshire. She left at 16 with no qualifications.
Her salesman father managed to pull a few strings on his daughter’s behalf, and got Beryl a job as an Assistant Stage Manager at Liverpool Playhouse. Bainbridge, with her delicate, bird-like features and enormous eyes, ended up on stage and even got a tiny role as a barmaid in Coronation Street. Her experiences at the theatre heavily influenced her third book (out of five) nominated for a Booker. An Awfully Big Adventure (1990) took Beryl’s theatrical background full circle when it was made into a film starring Alan Rickman and Hugh Grant.
Beryl gave up a promising career as an actress when she met art student Austin Davies. They were married in 1954 and had two children shortly after; son Aaron and daughter, Jo-Jo. The marriage was not a success and Beryl and Austin divorced five years later. Bought by Davies for the family to live in, Beryl moved with the children to Albert Street in Camden Town after the divorce. It was the house she would spend the rest of her life in.
Drama, however, continued to follow Beryl. Shortly after moving into the house at Albert Street, her elderly former mother-in-law arrived unexpectedly. Opening the front door, Beryl saw the old woman pull a loaded gun from her handbag. She aimed at Bainbridge and fired. Luckily Beryl anticipated the shot and escaped without injury. This extraordinary incident went on to form one of the most famous scenes in Beryl’s novel The Bottle Factory Outing, which went on to win the Guardian Fiction Prize.
Her short career as an actress served her well in pursuing a literary life: her gift for observation made Beryl a natural novelist. Everything she saw or heard became legitimate material; with friends and family often taking centre stage in her earliest books.
Even when that resource had been spent, and Beryl turned to history for inspiration, facets of her personal life crept into view. In her fictionalised account of Captain Scott’s last – and fatal – expedition to the Antarctic, ‘Birthday Boys’, the character of Scott is said to be partly modelled on Beryl’s own father.
In fact, Beryl’s career experienced a second wind when she began to look at periods of history to populate her work. Some of her best novels, Birthday Boys (1991); Every Man for Himself (1996) and Master Georgie (1998), were centred on moments where characters are tested almost beyond human endurance. The Crimean War, the sinking of the Titanic – Beryl used these events and made them personal by reminding us that at the core of these stories are human beings not so very different to ourselves. Events we feel we know inside out are retold through a narrow lens. It was what Bainbridge did best: scrutiny and sharp focus made old things new again.
For a writer who so heavily depended on autobiography to fuel her writing, Beryl Bainbridge was a fiercely private individual. It is safe to say that no-one, excluding the very closest of friends and family, knew who the ‘real’ Beryl Bainbridge was. Famous for her lively presence at parties; sociable, a good talker, her vivacity hid from view the side of her that only came to light when the subject of books and literature was brought up. The woman accused by journalist Lynn Barber as being deliberately ‘daffy’ and ‘harmless’ became at once an authority, talking with great insight and wit.
Equally famous for her short works, including essays, short stories, reviews and columns, Bainbridge never read any modern fiction (preferring to stop at Graham Greene) but worked in a very modern way. Approaching her fiction like a cadaver, her method of editing was brutal and swift, cutting down and perfecting her prose until there was not a single word wasted. This almost surgical application of the editing knife appealed to Beryl’s sense of brevity: when asked why her books were so short, she quoted Voltaire, saying, ‘I didn’t have time to make it shorter.’
Her technique, applied from the very beginning of her career, gave Beryl’s writing an intensity that is unique; there is little chance of mistaking a Bainbridge sentence for anyone else’s.
In what was to be her most modern move, Beryl edited her own character for public consumption. Always a step removed, no one interview or conversation told the complete story. She created roles within herself, shielding aspects of her personality she felt to be unpalatable.
But no writer works alone: Beryl often gave thanks and credit to Duckworth managing consultant, Colin Haycraft, who with wife (and Beryl’s first editor), Alice Thomas Ellis, helped to mould and shape Beryl’s career.
She may not have won the prizes many thought due to her, but her greatest work – the autobiographical fiction, the historic epics in miniature – shine as examples of quiet, disciplined genius. The lack of prizes may have in fact been her greatest gift: she created and developed her talent independent of accolades and without expectation.
Beryl was not afraid to take chances; her boldness is what made her one of the most unique writers of a generation. Her fearless approach to writing and appraising what she wrote kept her truthful and honest, and very often, her own toughest critic.
‘It was easier when I was young, because I had no standards – I would just write,’ Beryl said during an interview with The Guardian in 2007. ‘It gets worse the more you know – your standards go up and up, and you realise that you can’t reach them.’
It is a sentiment that will remind readers of her work why they love her, and will miss her. To those who have yet to discover her, I could think of no better recommendation.
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