All through Beryl Bainbridge’s latest novel, characters dwell on chance and fate, and the string of coincidences that link their lives. These aren’t new preoccupations for Bainbridge; one of the striking things about her earlier novels was the rather ambivalent way in which chance was used. There were random, grotesque accidents and sudden deaths, involving incidental characters who had no relevance to the plot until the moment of their intrusion into the narrative – a boy tripping forward into a pane of glass and dying instantly on the pavement (An Awfully Big Adventure); an unknown man staggering towards the narrator, to die in his arms (Every Man for Himself). Sometimes these episodes turned out to be significant; sometimes they were allowed to drop away altogether. In the same way, remarkable coincidences surfaced, but they tended to be unimportant or related to the past. Characters ascribed them to the workings of God or, having failed to explain them, decided they must be purely random.
In the first few pages of Master Georgie a character sees a Punch and Judy show collapse, kicked at by a startled horse. The illusion is shattered, the mysterious operator revealed for the first time. The analogy isn’t pointed up but it does seem to relate to the way Bainbridge’s characters often encounter death when they’re most self-absorbed, most taken up with the temporary distractions of life. Chance tears through this false reality, revealing a world of instability and mortality.
In some ways, it isn’t surprising that these themes are more prominent in Master Georgie than they have been before. Two thirds of the novel is set around the Black Sea during the Crimean War, and the chaotic conditions in the camps there, as well as the number of people Bainbridge suggests travelled out for reasons other than actual fighting, mean that there’s more scope for chance to seem to have a dominant role. The plot, especially in its early stages, is a series of coincidences.
George Hardy – a young medical student, the elusive ‘Master Georgie’ of the tide – takes an unusual route home from town one afternoon, distracted after an argument with a friend. Myrtle, the 12-year-old servant girl who’s expected to accompany him around Liverpool, running back to the house occasionally to check and report on his neurotic mother, follows him through the ‘mouldering disarray’ of the city’s poorest backstreets. A woman appears in a doorway, screaming. On an impulse, George goes to help her. The house, it emerges, serves as a brothel. Upstairs, a corpse lying half-naked on the bed turns out to be George’s father, dead from a heart attack. A boy – whom Myrtle noticed earlier in the day returning a stolen duck to its owner – happens to turn up. With his help, George and Myrtle take Mr Hardy home and put him in his own bed, so avoiding scandal. A van, belonging to the Punch and Judy show Myrtle saw earlier on, is hired to transport the corpse. Years later the same van appears in the Crimea, and with it the ‘duckboy’, Pompey Jones, now a photographer’s assistant.
Myrtle herself is linked to the Hardy family only because Mr Hardy was persuaded to take her in as a child when an outbreak of smallpox prevented her being sent to the orphanage. As witnesses to the real circumstances of Mr Hardy’s death, she and Pompey Jones are treated more carefully by George. Myrtle is sent to a posh boarding school to be ‘made into a lady’. Pompey Jones becomes a regular visitor to the Hardy household, on the pretext of doing odd jobs for George, but is sent away when one of his mysterious re-arrangements of the household furnishings causes George’s pregnant wife, Annie, to fall – happening to come down late at night, she’s startled by a tiger-skin rug draped over a chair – and miscarry. Incapable of carrying another child, Annie allows Myrtle to have George’s children and passes them off as her own. From then on Myrtle is treated as an equal, a daughter of the house.
In 1854, just before the war starts, George travels to Constantinople, hoping to be of use as a surgeon. His whole family accompany him, returning home when fighting breaks out. George, Myrtle (who is desperately in love with him) and Dr Potter, George’s brother-in-law, a self-styled ‘observer’, remain. George finds work in a hospital but is transferred to the 2nd Division following the death of its surgeon from cholera. Pompey Jones, happening to visit the regiment’s camp, meets the others and the four travel together.
This cycle of coincidences seems incredible to some of the characters themselves. Dr Potter, for example, decides that ‘Myrtle is an interesting subject – in regard to whether fate or chance holds the upper hand. The ifs are numerous.’ His own view is that ‘chance and destiny are interdependent, in that the latter cannot be fulfilled without the casual intervention of the former.’ There’s nothing in the novel to suggest that Bainbridge agrees with Potter, but whatever her view, it’s likely that the coincidences aren’t just fictional devices: I suspect that she wouldn’t see them as all that improbable, even if she felt unable, or unwilling, to explain them.
‘I myself have never really written fiction,’ Bainbridge wrote a few months ago in the Observer: ‘What would be the point? What is more peculiar, more riveting, devious and horrific than real life?’ On the South Bank Show that evening, she said that her early novels had been heavily autobiographical. Writing about history, she explained, was just another way of writing about real life. Private and public experiences merged in the process: male heroes like Captain Scott of The Birthday Boys tended to be modelled on her father. Imagination and an awareness of her own mortality allowed her to understand what it must have been like to stand on the deck of the Titanic, waiting for it to sink.
Master Georgie has been described as Bainbridge’s best novel. It’s certainly more successful than the two historical novels which preceded it, Every Man for Himself and The Birthday Boys, both of which were closely based on stories whose outcomes were already well-known – the sinking of the Titanic, and the first British-led expedition to the South Pole. Though the interest there was not so much in the retelling of famous events as in the reinvention of characters, and in the tracing of relationships within a given group of people, there were always facts that had to be accommodated; and there was often a sense of strain in the reconciliation of the personal histories of individuals with the larger structures of fact. Sometimes, too, the research intruded laboriously into the narrative, making the dialogue seem self-conscious.
Master Georgie is much more loosely placed in its historical context. It begins in 1846, eight years before the onset of the Crimean War, and for a long time the story centres on the Hardy family, and on Myrtle’s obsession with George. The war gradually becomes more important during the second half of the novel but at first it is a background to the more domestic story. News of its outbreak reaches the Hardys on the day Myrtle sees a collie pup torn to pieces by a pack of wild dogs and is, Dr Potter feels, of almost secondary importance – ‘depending on whether one considers things personal rather than universal to be of paramount importance’. Throughout, there’s the same sense that was evoked in The Dressmaker, a much earlier novel, of war as a time of personal challenge and opportunity. George himself feels it will give meaning to his life, will ‘hold him upright’.
What we see of the war is fragmentary. The central characters all attach themselves to a single regiment, and none of the three narrators is a soldier. The appalling conditions in the camps, the dirt and disease and lack of food and medical equipment, are vividly described, but tactical mismanagement means that the regiment itself is isolated and news of the war is sparse. There are rumours and hypotheses and characters occasionally argue about politics, but no one is ever quite sure what’s happening elsewhere. Confused and conflicting orders leave the 2nd Division stranded for weeks without clear instructions. As a result, they are always on the outskirts of the fighting. The effect is entirely realistic, but this fractured approach also gives Bainbridge more control over the plot and leaves her freer to explore other issues.
The book is made up of six sections, narrated alternately by Myrtle, Pompey Jones and Dr Potter. Each is based on a photograph taken at some point during the story it tells, and preceded by a title or description of that ‘plate’, but though the photographs seem to summarise or represent what happens, several distort reality. Pompey Jones, commissioned by an ‘important newspaper’ to take pictures illustrating ‘the good times the troops were enjoying’, deliberately misrepresents the war. It’s pointed out by another character that ‘it was likely those captured by the camera would shortly be dead,’ and the prophecy is darkly echoed by the last photograph, taken by somebody else, in which George is propped up, minutes after he has been killed, as part of a ‘posed group of survivors’. Pompey Jones’s other job – collecting studies of wounds for the Royal College of Surgeons – produces evidence of another version of reality, but he believes this must remain hidden – it ‘would only cause alarm to ordinary folk’.
The photographs relate only to short periods of time, and the sections are moulded around them. Where several years elapse between plates there are gaps in the story, and information is lost. Small mysteries are gradually cleared up thanks to a word, a stray remark or an implication, but it rakes a while to make the connections which explain what has silently occurred in the meantime. Situations and relationships are rarely as simple as Bainbridge first makes them seem, and our understanding of them changes continually. Just before a group photograph, for instance, and in the hope of making himself seem more attractive, Dr Potter picks up one of the children, ‘careful to let its petticoats dangle over my belly’. It cries; George tells him to give it to its mother, ‘who was already clutching the younger infant to her breast’. Two sentences later, the photograph is described, and we see that it’s Myrtle who’s holding the children. This occurs halfway through the novel, and it’s the first indication that the children are Myrtle’s. Other easily overlooked clues gradually reveal that the entire Hardy party knows that Myrtle is having an affair with George, and that they also know he’s really attracted to men, not women.
Illusions are set up – George leads a persistent admirer to believe that Myrtle is engaged to a captain of the Light Brigade – and others dissolve. Many years after Myrtle sees him replace the stolen duck, Pompey Jones admits that the ‘Christian act’ on which she’d based her whole understanding of his character was ‘nothing but a street trick’: ‘They worked in pairs and split the money. One boy did the thieving, another the retrieving. Even if the owner didn’t cotton onto what had been lost, ten to one a passer-by with more bobsticks than sense, noting the return of property, would hand over a few coppers – as a reward for honesty.’ Myrtle is horrified, torn between conflicting reactions – admiration, deep down, because it’s ingenious and she knows what it’s like to need money, and a more superficial, self-righteous anger, which is pretty much the reaction of the class to which she now belongs.
Notions of class are indissolubly tied up with perception in this novel. Myrtle’s position makes the division between upper and working class interestingly precarious. Like the orphans and abandoned children in many of Bainbridge’s previous novels, she has been pushed by chance into a situation different from the one she was born into. Though she is accepted without question as a Miss Hardy by everyone the party meets, she is conscious of her background, and George finds ways to remind her of it. While dealing with that on a private level, she also has to maintain the outward pretence that she’s his sister. Pompey Jones, whose father, as he will remind anyone who’ll listen, was a gentleman, but who has grown up in poverty, seems to be in the opposite position. Perhaps because of this, he refuses to submit to the limitations of poverty. He’s scornful of the whole idea of class, and particularly of Myrtle’s education, which he sees as ‘spouting a foreign language and learning how to swoon when dogs barked too loud’, a needless submission to oppressive social structures.
As the battles close in on the party, Myrtle and Dr Potter both start to lose their grip on reality. After witnessing the horrific death of a young drummer boy, Myrtle sits staring into space, drumming the air in front of her. Potter holds conversations with his absent wife, and at one point, she makes a ghostly appearance during a funeral service for a group of men who have died in combat. This isn’t just an interesting exploration of the effects of war on the mind: the ghostly Mrs Potter is actually visible in a photograph taken at the funeral. No further comment is made. What had seemed like an acute observation of extreme psychological stress has become something mysterious. The existence of the ghost has effectively been proved by being caught on a photographic plate, and because this is so whimsical and bizarre it weakens some of Bainbridge’s ideas about perception. Until this point, the camera has been used to explore the ways in which truth can be distorted; introducing a supernatural element complicates things. But then nothing about this novel is simple or easy, though its brevity, and the fact that it’s so readable sometimes make it seem both.