Beryl Margaret Bainbridge wrote about a working-class world whose inhabitants are colorless and ineffectual. She was the daughter of Richard Bainbridge, a salesman, and his wife, Winifred. Although her father achieved a measure of success, he never forgot his working-class roots. He believed that, despite the illusions of the pleasures of home and family, working people are alone; when they die, nothing is left but a few tattered possessions, and even the places where they were born, their rented flats, and their factories, are eventually swept away by the rich.
With interruptions, Bainbridge attended the Merchant Taylor’s School in Great Crosby, England, between 1943 and 1956. She became an actress and appeared in the Liverpool Playhouse, London’s West End theaters, and repertory theaters in Windsor and Salisbury. She worked in television as host for the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) series English Journey in 1983 and Forever England in 1986. She also wrote and read stories for a children’s radio program in Manchester. In 1954, Bainbridge married an artist, Austin Davies, with whom she had three children before their divorce. She called herself a socialist, a “lapsed Catholic,” and “something of a recluse.” She eventually settled in Camden Town, London.
Bainbridge’s novels are populated with the lonely, unlucky, and discontented. They look for respectability and acceptance but often end in desperation. While the story of the elderly Jewish woman Shebah is told and retold in A Weekend with Claud, the characters betray one another and drift apart rather than find solace in community. The young boy Roland, one of the few vital characters in Another Part of the Wood, dies of a tranquilizer overdose, alone and forgotten. In Sweet William, Ann, a single girl living in Hampstead, interacts with other characters so bland and nondescript that they are hardly discernible.
The characters constantly face alienation and can find no way to escape it. At the end of Harriet Said, the girl who has been seduced by the czar is surprised that he has some affection for her. To the girl, his was a meaningless act of little emotion or consequence. Freda and Brenda in The Bottle Factory Outing live together in a threadbare flat, sleeping in a double bed with a row of books between them to cut them off from each other. In A Quiet Life, Alan’s mother leaves the family’s flat each evening and sits in a train station because her husband repulses her. After twenty years of marriage, Watson, the emotionless headmaster in Watson’s Apology, decides to leave his wife.
These novels also reflect a comic irony that at times can be inhumanly savage. Freda, who tries to seduce Vittorio and is murdered in The Bottle Factory Outing, is propped up in the back seat of a car while her roommate and other coworkers drive through the Windsor Safari Park on the company picnic. The roommate, Brenda, is in shock and chooses not to report the crime, even as the dead Freda is stuffed and pickled in spirits in an old wine barrel to be thrown overboard at sea. All is accepted as normal. After Ira is stabbed in the neck with a pair of scissors in The Dressmaker because Nellie is “annoyed” with him, she uses the same pair of scissors to help sew his shroud because it is “the least she can do.” The Quiet Life is a novel of great domestic anger and frustration, but when Alan’s father dies of a heart attack caused by this domestic pressure, Alan relates the event matter-of-factly. In Injury Time, Binny and the robbers who have barricaded themselves in her apartment play an imaginary game of Ping-Pong before the window to convince the police outside that all is normal. There are no rules for the Ping-Pong game, or for the lives of the characters. Television, Binny comments, is more real than their lives.
In Young Adolf, Bainbridge portrays the young Hitler visiting relatives in Liverpool. He has no clothes except those on his back, and he suffers indignity after indignity. In Winter Garden, Ashburner, a boring, conservative lawyer, tells his wife that he is going to Scotland. Instead, he travels with his mistress to Moscow and loses her soon after they arrive. All of this is told so plainly that the horror and comedy scream at the reader.
Bainbridge was at her best describing the trivial and commonplace surrounding her characters. Wet and rusty toilets work sporadically if at all. Shins are painfully skinned on unknown objects in dark hallways. Rubenesque ladies are hot and breathless as they cram themselves into the back seats of cars. Half-smoked cigars are brought home to be cherished and slowly savored. These fictions are set in worn flats, old bottle factories, and huts in the woods that are uniformly described in flat monotone. Not much happens in the worlds of Bainbridge’s characters, except those fleeting moments of horror that are best forgotten. An exception is According to Queeney, a fascinating re-creation of the friendship between Samuel Johnson and Hester Thrale seen through the eyes of the latter’s daughter, who provides a crisp, unsentimental portrayal of this eighteenth century liaison and a sidelight not available in James Boswell’s classic biography of Johnson.
Bainbridge was a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and in 1986 received an honorary doctorate from the University of Liverpool. She was nominated for the Booker Prize for The Dressmaker in 1973 and for The Bottle Factory Outing in 1974. She received the Guardian Fiction Award for the latter, and in 1977 the Whitbread Award for Injury Time. She was once described as “one of the half-dozen most inventive and interesting novelists working in Britain.”
Bainbridge died in London on July 2, 2010.