Saturday, 3 July 2010

dame beryl bainbridge

Very sad to hear of the death of Dame Beryl Bainbridge. Here is a review I wrote of her hugely enjoyable and admirable novel Master Georgie. It was originally published in the Evening Standard on Monday 27 April 1998.

Beryl pulls off the perfect Crimea

Master Georgie by Beryl Bainbridge (Duckworth, £14.99)

Is Beryl Bainbridge incapable of disappointing her readers? With this historical novel, she has pulled off a scintillating hat trick. Its predecessors, The Birthday Boys and the Whitbread winner Every Man for Himself, focused on two defining moments in 1912--painful blows to post-Victorian self-esteem: Captain Scott's tragic expedition and the sinking of the Titanic.

These are not naturally cheerful subjects. Nor, on the face of it, is the Crimean War against which this novel is set. More than ever, Bainbridge embroils herself in historic failure and the stench of death. The plot should be dismal. It concerns George Hardy, a Liverpool surgeon, and several members of his household who make an ill-fated humanitarian journey to Sebastopol. Yet this is far from a morbid book. On the contrary, the tone is irrepressibly vivacious.

Bainbridge embellishes her themes like a virtuoso. George, it turns out, is also an amateur photographer and the plot is structured around this art-form and how it can be used to distort the truth. At the very least, as one of the narrators observes: "It appears to hold reality hostage, and yet fails to snap thoughts in the head." Added to which, George and other characters are incapable of taking a picture without tweaking the image (plus ├ža change). This discrepancy between appearance and reality extends, with great wit and playfulness, to questions of who exactly each person is and what they are up to.

And the characters themselves are splendid creations, especially those who take turns to narrate the different sections, or photogenic "Plates" as they're called. First, there is Myrtle, a spirited foundling, who has been brought up by the Hardys and who, somehow without devaluing herself, is utterly devoted to George--cruelly unaware though he is; next, the true object of his affections, Pompey Jones, a sort of amalgam of the Artful Dodger and an Angry Young Man--assistant to a Roger Fenton-like war photographer; finally, the vain failed academic, Dr Potter, endearing when you least expect it, and married to lustful Beatrice, George's sister.

The first two Plates, set in Liverpool, show the Hardys to be one of those beguiling but rather gothic, almost proto-Addams Family households found elsewhere in Bainbridge's work. George's over-possessive mother goes in for china-throwing; the housekeeper likes beating children.

Once they are on their travels, the full complexity of each character emerges subtly through their responses to the new locations and by the changes in narrative viewpoint. By almost subliminal suggestion, the reader ends up with a fascinating 3-D view of the private arrangements these people negotiate around surrogate motherhood and bisexuality.

The book's approach to history is captivating, particularly when considered alongside the two earlier novels. In all of them there is a vividly realised sense of an era coming to an end. What Bainbridge seems to be implying is not only that the Victorian Age took a long time to die but that change is always a much slower process than we tend to imagine.

This is a wonderful book: it delights in history and in the eternal vanities, foibles and eccentricities of human nature. The ironic surface of its language is as teasingly ambiguous as shot silk. It is one of the most enjoyable novels I have read in a long while.

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