Beryl Bainbridge

July 5, 2010 at 8:28 pm (books, Remembrance, Uncategorized)

Dame Beryl Margaret Bainbridge, DBE: 1932 - 2010

Yesterday’s Washington Post brought news of the passing of British author Beryl Bainbridge. In the course of her writing  life (she was an actress first), Bainbridge was nominated for the Man Booker Prize five times. She never actually won and, as a result, was sometimes referred to as a “Booker bridesmaid.”

She did, however, win other literary awards, most notably the Whitbread – twice – for Injury Time and Every Man for Himself. I really enjoyed the second title. In Every Man for Himself, Bainbridge takes us on board the Titanic and places us among the doomed vessel’s passengers and crew members. You may think there’s no opportunity to create suspense here, but you’d be wrong. Yes, we readers know what’s going to happen, but  the characters, of course, do not. You want to cry out a warning. I’m reminded of a scene in Robert Harris’s novel Pompeii in which the aquarius, Marcus Attilius Primus, is riding his horse up the slopes of Vesuvius. I wanted to grab the reins and shout, “Be afraid! Turn this horse around and ride like the wind in the other direction!”

(This serves to remind me that a little over a year ago, I was in a tour  bus riding up the slopes of Vesuvius. I and my fellow travelers then got out and hiked a further way up the mountain. Was I fearful? No – I was exhilarated. On the way up, we saw lovely houses with pantile roofs and gardens nurtured by the rich volcanic soil. This is the so-called Red Zone. People live here because it is a beautiful place affording stunning views of the Bay of Naples. The mountain is, for the time being, quiescent. The scene put me in mind of spectacular dwellings I’ve seen magnificently and precariously perched on the steep hillsides of California.)

My favorite Bainbridge novel is According To Queeney. In it, the author vividly depicts eighteenth century England as she tells the story of Dr. Samuel Johnson and his intense, rather strange friendship with Hester Thrale, wife of a wealthy brewer. I read this book a awhile ago, but I still recall Hester’s repeated childbearing. Unfortunately, her infants tended to be frail and did not live long after their birth.

Bainbridge practiced the less-is-more method of writing historical fiction.  Her novels are short. With a few masterful strokes, she brings the past to life. Sometimes a well placed detail can be more evocative than a grand, broad canvas. While it’s true that I loved every word of Hilary Mantel’s magisterial Wolf Hall, I love several much shorter historical novels just as much. There are the two by Beryl Bainbridge, discussed above, and these marvelous masterworks by Penelope Fitzgerald:

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Click here for a complete list of works by Beryl Bainbridge. Her name also appears on a list of  “The 50 greatest British writers since 1945,”  compiled by the Sunday Times of London in 2008. Don’t know about you, but the names of a fair number of my favorite authors appear on this list.

2 Comments

  1. Thomas at My Porch said,

    I started reading a BB novel last year but had the hardest time getting into the swing of it. I don’t recall the name at the moment, but I am going to have to try again.

    • Roberta Rood said,

      Thomas, in all honesty, I’ve tried several that didn’t work for me, either. But as I said, I really enjoyed According to Queeney – aprtly because of Bainbridge’s memorable portrayal of Dr. Johnson.

      Are you managing to stay cool down there in the District? Up here in MD – it’s all air conditioning, all the time!

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