Under her somewhat demotic exterior, Beryl Bainbridge is concerned (which hardly seems the right word) with myths. Her dealings with them, virtually invisible, are unportentous in the extreme, perhaps too unportentous for her own good – though not for theirs. They need invisibility, being commonly regarded as ancient prescriptions, commandments and warnings, bullying and surely obsolete, for leading our lives. Probably Bainbridge (how hard it is not to call her Beryl!) feels a nervous sympathy with a remark made by the producer of Peter Pan in her previous novel, An Awfully Big Adventure: ‘I don’t want any truck with symbolic interpretations.’ Characteristically, she doesn’t want to look serious, and people who don’t look serious tend not to be taken seriously. (She is generally praised for nippy evocations of milieu, including speech habits, and for her adept detail – things expected of any novelist; also for black comedy, as if these days comedy is likely to come anywhere near whiteness.) Such is our habit, understandable enough, more than usually pronounced in a smugly sceptical age, of discounting, of ‘cutting down to size’, even those who make no claims to any form of grandeur.
The subject of The Birthday Boys is Scott’s expedition to the South Pole of 1910-12, an awfully big misadventure, or more truly the members of the expedition. While allowing five of them to speak for themselves in distinctive voices, she follows selectively the accounts given by Scott in his journal (published with an introduction by J.M. Barrie) and Apsley Cherry-Garrard in The Worst Journey in the World; what distinguishes her version is a freshness and even buoyancy unexpected in so well-known and appalling a story, a pertinent (and not impertinent) insight into her people’s minds, a dovetailing of action and reflection. That in the course of two years the team members should have at least one birthday apiece is not surprising; nor that they should remember their birthdays. In Scott of the Antarctic Elspeth Huxley noted that Dr Edward Wilson’s 39th occurred during a side-trip to study the emperor penguins: ‘quite the funniest birthday I have ever spent’. In the novel, when Petty Officer ‘Taff’ Evans mentions his birthday in an attempt at emotional blackmail, Scott dismisses him briskly: ‘Birthdays are hardly our first priority,’ thus deflating the novel’s title, rather as the title itself is deflatory in the manner of Injury Time, Harriet said ..., Young Adolf. Technically the birthdays are simply a device for dividing the narrative into five chapters, set at different times in different locations.
So much for the title. The ‘bitterly ironic fury’ which one reviewer has found in the novel escapes me, likewise the assertion that the author ‘guts the romance out of every aspect of the trek to the Pole’: what romance would that be? The sledge dogs ‘snarl spitefully’: dogs do, and these had more reason than most. Penguins are slaughtered for blubber: that’s true, and seals as well – my brother-in-law, a member of the French expedition to Adélie Land in 1950, remarked that the killing of these trustful animals was the job everybody tried to dodge, but the dogs, spiteful but necessary, had to be fed. If there were to be expeditions at that time, that was how things had to be. It would have been foolish of Bainbridge to subvert her subject-matter through latterday moralising. (Documentary accounts of the expedition have their humorous moments: a small penguin, snatched from a dog’s jaws, turned on its rescuer and pummelled his shins with its flippers; at an opportune moment someone killed a seal and found 36 fish in its stomach, still edible.) Scott hated cruelty. Suffice it to have one character ponder that the worst torments in the Buddhist hell were reserved for the killers of animals.
Captain Scott was indecisive, touchy, quick to blame, not invariably competent: at one historical point he forgot the Union Jacks Queen Alexandra had given him to plant at the Pole and somebody had to ski back for them. But his team respected him, even (if one dare say so) loved him, and were ready to follow him, as some did, to the bitter end. Bainbridge indicates the men’s quirks and limitations, she is engaged yet detached, sharply observant but disinclined to pronounce judgment; to have represented her characters as ‘stunted and ridiculous, the very stuff of heroes’ – which is how the reviewer already cited sees it, or expects it to be – would have been a peculiarly sterile exercise.
Irony may be felt to hover around Scott’s reflections on the dogs who fell into a crevasse: ‘Even while they dangled, howling in agony, they still continued to bite and tear at one another. Such uncivilised behaviour went some way towards dulling compassion for their plight.’ They were offending against human principles. But the larger irony was recorded by Elspeth Huxley: while the expedition had been underfinanced from the start and was in debt at the end, the fate of Scott and his companions brought the cash flooding in: a public that had declined to support the living was generous in commemorating the dead.
Horseplay and poetry go together, both of them kept under control. Gazing up at an aurora, ‘Birdie’ Bowers groans ‘beneath the splendour of those silken curtains, yellow, green and orange, billowing at the windows of the heavens’. And ‘What conversations we have!’ – on the pronunciation of ancient Greek, the power of the Jesuits in the 16th century, the aspirations of women and of workers, and other modern inventions. Despite antagonisms, resentments, class unease, and the occasional flare-up, what emerges is a shared Conradian ethic of duty. ‘I felt there was something splendid, sublime even, in pitting oneself against the odds,’ Bowers muses. ‘Abiding by the rules is a great help, you know,’ says Wilson, ‘it does away with introspection, leaves one free to get on with the game’; and when Cherry-Garrard asks,‘Is it nothing more than a game?’, Wilson busies himself with his pack, deeming it best to drop the subject: ‘One can never be sure where such conversations may lead.’
After ‘the worst journey in the world’, the near-fatal excursion to a rookery of emperor penguins, Bowers reflects that though its purpose was to advance science by collecting eggs, ‘we’d unravelled a far greater mystery on the way – the missing link between God and man is brotherly love.’ The ethic, or the religion, seems to have departed this world as surely as the Boy’s Own Paper has disappeared from the newsagents’ racks. That Bainbridge is able to convey it without the trace of a sneer is remarkable; that she is able to do this without encouraging any such trace on the reader’s face is even more so. Any sneers that do arise are self-induced, the product of an ideology considerably meaner than the expedition’s.
Captain ‘Titus’ Oates is afraid to remove his sock lest his gangrened toes come with it. ‘Do you reckon a man without feet could still ride to hounds?’ he jokes, and is rewarded with a drop of brandy. Suicide, though they have the means for it, isn’t done, so ‘I’m just going outside, and may be some time.’ On the last page, Oates stumbles out into the blizzard – a small step for him, a large one for myth – and, in a recall of a picture that had hung in his nursery, he meets Queen Victoria, seated on a piebald pony and attended by John Brown. (The expedition’s ponies had suffered atrociously.) ‘ “Happy Birthday,” sang the man holding the bridle. And oh, how warm it was.’ This may strike us as well over the top, uncharacteristic of the author, an afterglow from Peter Pan. Yet it could have happened (or is this no excuse?) in some such way. If you’re not afraid to believe, clap your hands.
At times, less here than elsewhere, it is hard to tell whether Beryl Bainbridge is being discreet (the better part of literary valour) and stopping short of a gesture that might be thought too grand, larger than life, or simply growing uncertain, even incurious, and taking the easy way out. True, many novelists, however strenuous their gesticulations, take the easy way in. One may wish that, rather than abide in a seductive dottiness, or dot-dot-dot, she would try just a little harder. Still, what one wishes of some novelists is that they hadn’t tried at all.