Brendan King starts with a difficulty: Beryl Bainbridge’s writing. It makes everyone else’s prose look flabby. But he also has an advantage: his particular knowledge of her life. King worked with Bainbridge for more than twenty years. He looked after her admin and edited her last novel for publication after her death. Diaries, letters and lovers have been open to him. He is in an ideal position to evoke as well as analyse.
What he has actually done is annotate and explain. This is the least mimetic of biographies. It is a long book about a writer of short fictions. It is full of stodgy sentences about someone whose phrases were like darts. King, close to his subject, is determined not to be bamboozled by her. Particularly by her claim that she didn’t see the point of making things up: that she drew on her family and childhood for her early novels and historical data for her later work. He overdoes it. He often seems to be fighting an imaginary adversary: a reader who thinks that fiction is a code, who opens a novel and gets cross if an autobiography doesn’t spring out.
Liverpool – Bainbridge was born on its outskirts in 1932 – provided the background to her early books. But in the view of George Melly, also from the city, it left her and her prose with something more fundamental: a specific flavour. As a jolly man who loved to sing the blues, Melly, not quoted here, was in a good position to assess a particular Liverpudlian trait: that of ‘cheerfully expecting the worst’.
Her father was a shipping agent who was declared bankrupt the year before his daughter was born. Her mother had been to a finishing school in Belgium. Their daughter – she had an older brother – went to a private school, and got a scholarship to Merchant Taylors’. She was known there as ‘Basher’, having squared up to her form in a fight. King, who cannot see a suggestion without underlining it, explains that it is ‘easy to imagine Beryl’s subversive sense of humour enlivening a boring lesson’. In her diary, from which King richly quotes, the 13-year-old noted: ‘Must not bite my nails. Wish I was on stage, married or an artist.’
Her dreams came true. She went to the Arts Educational School in Tring and worked at the Liverpool Playhouse, where she cropped her hair to play a mathematical prodigy (boy, of course) and got spanked with a rolled-up newspaper when she went into an actor’s dressing room to call overture and beginners. In Coronation Street, she was Ken Barlow’s Ban-the-Bomb girlfriend, using poster paint as eyeliner. The influence of her acting on her writing is generally underestimated, the dramatic and literary worlds being so cagey with each other. It is stamped through her books: in her easy way with dialogue, in her unusual sense of space and of what it is to manoeuvre in cramped conditions. Her characters seem not described but embodied.
Acting came in handy off the page too. She knew how to cut a dash, draw the gaze, and deflect it. An air of vagueness – and a celebrated stuffed buffalo in the hall of her house – fed into constricted ideas about women who write books. Big brain or scatterbrain? Bainbridge had a fringe and was skinny; she looked like a chanteuse. Bingo: she was one of the dippy ones. She colluded with this, in her writing and her speech, presenting tragedy as comedy, disappointment as dishevelment, reflection as absent-mindedness. But she crisply pointed out that you couldn’t really be a thorough-going eccentric while bringing up children and writing novels.
‘Love by all sorts of means’ are the words from Bainbridge by which King steers his book. He has written not a literary biography but the story of a series of romances. They began with her mother, to whom she wrote on a teenage birthday card:
I know ’twould kill me
If we were to part.
King comments, po-faced: ‘Extravagant expressions of love between a child and parent are not uncommon, but the notion expressed here … is a convention more commonly used between lovers.’ Actually, she was in training for a life of intense feeling, in and out of her novels. As a teenager she kept a long list of boyfriends, trainspotter-style. She walked on the dunes with her dog in order to have groping, sentimental meetings with a German prisoner of war. Similar excursions – wild flights from domestic claustrophobia – are at the centre of one of her early marvels, A Quiet Life. An admirer-cum-stalker called Mr Gopsill wooed her with gifts of a cactus, a velvet duster and a copy of Rob Roy. And a strange flirtation with an older man was echoed in her 1972 masterpiece Harriet Said. This is as powerful an account of corruption as The Turn of the Screw, a tale of temptress girls who string along a middle-aged married man, willing him to have sex with one of them. It ends in murder. The terrible twist is that it is told from a child’s point of view, both bewildered and steely. It is sleek but sometimes choked with emotion.
King carefully picks apart the different strands that went into the plot. There was a fantasy life with a schoolfriend; there was a later flirtation. And there was a notorious New Zealand murder, extensively covered by the Liverpool Echo in 1954. In Christchurch a woman had been bashed to death (brick in stocking) by her teenage daughter and her daughter’s chum. The case was the subject of Peter Jackson’s film Heavenly Creatures. It is one of the few things Bainbridge had in common with her contemporary Angela Carter, who in the 1980s wrote a screenplay about the murder. An early version of Bainbridge’s novel was turned down by several publishers, mainly because the heroines were such ‘repulsive little creatures’. It looks explosive in a different way now. The girls are so predatory and so unexcused. The lexicon of victimhood and abuse is absent.
The striking thing about Bainbridge’s adult love affairs is not the number of people she went to bed with but the ease with which she fell in love. With Austin Davies – an artist in a duffel coat, whom she married. With Don McKinlay, a painter whom she fell for over a bottle of vodka when he was brown in white trousers. With Alan Sharp, a novelist and playwright:
Alan arrives at 6.30. A hearty discussion on Anglo-Saxon dictionerys. At eight a meal. Bed. Then chat on the novel in English life. Then Salvation Army lore, then a whole two hours of Scottish singing. Then tea. Then bed. Then a sermon on Oliver Cromwell and his approach to God. Then tea. Then bed.
Sharp was the main inspiration for the title character of Sweet William, a multi-tasker in the sex department. I thought this novel her ‘sunniest’ when it was published in 1975. Yet it ends in loss and chaos. Bainbridge effects an extraordinary trick of the light: the gloomy bits of plotting are scrambled together, so that they scarcely seem to count. Without being instructed, you feel the radiance of William’s presence rather than the dire consequences of his actions. The reader, like the heroine, has been charmed.
King summons Bainbridge’s imperious, elfin voice to give a glimmer to some of her attachments: ‘You don’t ring and you don’t write. Stuff you. I love you very much. U should be here to stuff me.’ But the cycle of attachment, anxiety and separation becomes dully repetitive. Save in one case – that of an extraordinary affair of love and revenge. Anyone around at the time won’t be surprised by the liaison itself, but the background King has uncovered wasn’t widely known. Its symmetry and coincidence might be thought novelettish.
In 1952, Davies, with whom Bainbridge had been living but from whom she had separated, had an affair with one of his art students, Anne Lindholm. She became pregnant, and, after much soul-searching, had an abortion. Feelings ran high on all sides. Davies complained that Anne was ‘lazy, unstimulating, cowlike’. She found the termination traumatic; she was to become a devout Catholic. Bainbridge was tormented by news of the affair, which didn’t last long. Soon afterwards Davies and she were married.
In 1967, separated from Davies, she moved to London with her children. And then a chance telephone call revealed that Anne lived round the corner from her in Camden Town. One of her sons was a friend of Bainbridge’s eldest child. Now married, Anne Lindholm had become Anna Haycraft. She was the mother of many and worked at Duckworth publishers, which her husband, Colin, ran. Did Bainbridge have any unpublished novels? She did. Duckworth took her on. Anna Haycraft became her friend. Colin Haycraft became her lover. It seems that none of them spoke about the liaison. The two women are pictured seated together with wine and cigarettes at the Haycrafts’ house. Unsmiling, apparently complicit but challenging.
It would have irritated Haycraft to think that he might now be thought of as trendy. His office, along the road from his dark, bottle-green house, was in the vanguard (an expression which he might have used) of loft conversions (a phrase which would not have fallen from his lips). The old Piano Factory – ‘paino factory’, Bainbridge called it – was marvellous, spacious, flooded with light, reached by a long iron staircase. Lethal cocktails were generously doled out at parties. I remember them as being great gulps of brandy and champagne but wouldn’t, having drunk them, trust my memory.
King is indulgent about Haycraft’s unconventional payment arrangements, which seem to have resulted in Bainbridge getting a smaller percentage of royalties the more copies her books sold. He ascribes much of her financial difficulty to Bainbridge’s muddle and lack of interest. He is in a position to know about this: he was, after all, on the spot, with her papers. I think, though, he underestimates the casual disregard for authors that held sway among many publishers in the period when the business was thought to be run by ‘gentlemen’. Not that they didn’t like them, or lunch them; not that they didn’t savour their adjectives. But appreciation of writing went hand in hand with a lack of interest in how the person who produced it might support herself.
Haycraft was better than many. He didn’t publish with his eye on sales. He found original books and some startling talent. He had the reputation of being a ‘maverick’: in other words, he was plumb in the middle of the establishment against which he was apparently kicking. King points out that he can be seen, in disguise, on the back flap of The Bottle Factory Outing, spick and span, like a gangster in three-piece and dark-rimmed specs: not something most publishers would do nowadays. He was squat. He was mischievous. He wasn’t shy about being clever. It wasn’t easy to know whether his bluffness was bluff or double bluff. He was a model of what was considered educated in England: he could conjugate amo; he was apparently no-nonsense sceptical; he wasn’t earnest. He was male.
One of his most celebrated, least cherishable remarks was that fiction was a ‘branch of gynaecology’. I would be hard put to say whether he really looked down on this branch of his publishing, or whether he wanted this to be passed off as the remark of a man who was obviously too clever actually to believe it. What is one to make of the scene described by a Duckworth novelist who, invited for supper at the Haycrafts’, found himself seated with Colin at the table, while Anna Haycraft and Bainbridge waited on them, and were never asked to sit?
That incident isn’t in King’s book, but he has come up with some spectacular examples of entrenched misogyny. They are the more striking for having been delivered so casually. His flattish prose comes into its own here and takes on a sheen of deadpan. Bainbridge wasn’t much cop at cooking or cleaning, and ‘much as Austin wanted to focus on the significant things in life – his art, philosophical ideas, social engagement – he couldn’t help regretting the little home comforts that, as a man, he’d come to expect.’ Davies didn’t distinguish himself in his response to an incident in London when Bainbridge, going back to the flat of a chap she’d met at the movies, got knocked down and ‘sprawled on’. It might be an episode from one of her early novels. The chap tried to put ‘it’ in, ‘but I pushed my knee up, and he cried out, and it went soft like a white worm.’ Davies decided that this was ‘just a thing that happens to lots of girls’. Most pyrotechnically poisonous of all was an architect friend who came up with a suggestion for a new living arrangement when she and Davies separated. Bainbridge would look after the children and house, while Davies paid twice weekly visits and had affairs. ‘But what do I do?’ Bainbridge asked. ‘Sublimate yourself in the children.’ When she said she needed some sex, he explained that ‘in 32 years I’ve never heard a woman say that.’
These are Bainbridge’s accounts: the worm incident in a letter, the Davies arrangement in a diary. King has cast her from the beginning as an unreliable witness. He has patiently tweezered out inconsistencies from some of her indelible early memories. Yet he often takes what she says in her diaries and letters as accurate testimony. It is an almost paradox that recurs through his biography: he is in thrall to a mass of archival material, recording rather than interpreting it, but also poised to catch his subject out in autobiographical storytelling. At times he seems even to hold her spelling – which was ropey but not alarming – against her as another kind of fib. Still, it seems to me he is right to roll with these accounts. They register Bainbridge’s feeling about what was happening. She took an apparently crusty attitude to feminism, but she knew what it was about. King’s book contains a chronicle of sexual inequality. It is one of its strongest suits.
One of its weakest is his fussing about the Booker Prize. Bainbridge was five times shortlisted but never won. At least King avoids the nauseating ‘Booker bridesmaid’ tag: has any male writer been labelled the ‘best man’? And he is hardly alone in his fussing. The BBC’s report of Bainbridge’s death, which mangled the title of one of her most famous books (‘The Bottle-Opening Factory’), treated the fact that the award had ‘eluded’ her as if this were a defining characteristic and a moral test. It was, the obituary claimed, ‘a situation she accepted with typical good humour’. She might have been Captain Oates walking out into the snow. Of course she would have preferred to have won – who wouldn’t? Apart from anything else, the money would have come in useful. But how enraging it must be for writers who have never been shortlisted for anything to hear of the agony of the shortlisted – as if nearly ‘winning’ were worse than getting no recognition.
There is a sentimentality about Bainbridge which presents her as being more neglected than she was. Which was scarcely at all: it was more subtle than that. She was a great talent pushed to the side of a literary culture that was pre-eminently male and in thrall to the big volume. She always had supporters. Karl Miller, the founder editor of the LRB, was an early and trenchant advocate of her writing, as King points out. He was unusual in expressing admiration not only for her much applauded dark comedy but for the depth of her feeling. He was rueful about his tussles with his co-panellists Mary McCarthy and Edna O’Brien when chairing the Booker in 1973. He had wanted The Dressmaker to win. J.G. Farrell’s The Siege of Krishnapur – incidentally, the only book by a man on the shortlist – got the award.
When I was on the panel in 1990, I wanted An Awfully Big Adventure to get the prize. Hilary Mantel was also an admirer. But it didn’t win. The dexterity of the plot, based on Peter Pan, hasn’t always been recognised. It responds to the darkness of what J.M. Barrie has to say about parents running off and being two-faced. But what sings out are passages of such fluidity and intensity that they take your breath away. There is nothing of the set-piece about Bainbridge’s writing. Yet in an apparently straightforward description of a flock of pigeons rising from the streets of Liverpool she can capture a leap of the heart, a change of mind.
I have never been able to detect in her books any sign of the Catholic faith to which she converted as a young woman and which seemed to come and go: she wondered if she might be able to bring her children up as Catholics without her husband noticing. King makes a good case for the main transfiguring force in her life being romantic love. But there was something else too, that I – perhaps not she – would call ‘visionary’.
In the 1970s I thought Duckworth was establishing a new tradition in fiction. Short, sharp and written by women. There was Caroline Blackwood, Helen Hodgman and Anna Haycraft, who wrote as Alice Thomas Ellis. Their work had little to do with the great social explorations of Doris Lessing or with the ludic excavations of Angela Carter. Or with Philip Roth, Gabriel García Márquez or Kingsley Amis. What now seems striking is how utterly beyond this Bainbridge was. If she is to be seen as part of any tradition it is one that is long-standing, wide-ranging, little considered. The wits. I would put her alongside Ivy Compton-Burnett, Stevie Smith, Charlotte Mew and Penelope Fitzgerald. All unflinching, elliptical, self-disguising.
King quotes well from a terrific essay in which Bainbridge describes the surprise she got when she attended her brother’s funeral. She hadn’t realised he had been a coroner. So: they did, after all, have something in common. They both had ‘an interest in death’. When she was 15 she ached, she told her mother, ‘to be old and wonderful’. She was certainly wonderful, but not old enough when she died in 2010. She was right: ‘we go out so quick, like little lights.’