Beryl Bainbridge’s ‘major phase’
STODDARD MARTIN burns incense to a great 20th century chronicler, and her literary mentors
The second half of the 20th century had no ‘Bloomsbury Group’ as such. In his first book, The Movement, Blake Morrison tried to define a circle of poets of the ’50s as working and thinking in a group sort of way. Some, like Kingsley Amis, may slop over into identity with the Angry Young Men, who set a tone in theatre in the later part of that decade; but neither group, if either quite existed, had the range or impact of one stretching from Lytton Strachey in historiography to Maynard Keynes in economics to Virginia Woolf in letters and her sister in painting. Was there any circle in the Elizabethan half of the century that had comparable reach, living and dining and loving as one in the manner of precursors of the Georgian epochs?
A candidate might be what we could call a Duckworth cenacle, centred on the publishing house set up by Woolf’s step-brothers and run from the later 1960s until his death by Colin Haycraft. Situated at the Old Piano Factory not far from Haycraft’s home in Gloucester Crescent, Camden Town, Duckworth made the name of novelists such as Beryl Bainbridge and Caroline Blackwood and earned praise for works on the classics, philosophy and psychology by scholars such as Hugh Lloyd-Jones, Freddie Ayer, Richard Gregory and Oliver Sacks, to name a few. The parties Haycraft and his fiction-editing wife threw – she who wrote novels and columns in The Spectator under the pseudonym Alice Thomas Ellis – were legendary in their day, and much came from liaisons between principal players, not least between Haycraft and Dame Beryl, as she would become, whose rivalry with Anna/Alice went back to art college in Liverpool of the ‘50s.
Scholars may wish to define a territory in literary and intellectual history belonging to this group, but its boundaries in fiction may not reach far beyond its two principal women. Beryl started producing novels in the later 1960s and had her first success at Duckworth with Harriet Said in 1972. That and five books which followed, all mid-wifed by Anna, traced autobiographical material of growing up in lower middle class Liverpool, migrating to North London, engaging in affairs à la mode, being a single mother and having a not very satisfactory love life, mostly adulterous. Black comedy and menace typified these books, culminating in the tidy tour de force Injury Time, whose backdrop – also typical of the decade – involved a botched IRA heist. The baton of contemporary topicality passed to Anna as she began publishing her ‘Alice’ fictions in 1977 and over the next fifteen years produced a dozen witty novellas skewering hypocrisies of the church, politics, a so-called New Age, marriage, the counter-marriage of adultery, teenage fecklessness and home life. During this period, as Alice’s star rose, Beryl’s did not shine so bright, at least not in the type of fiction her early books had pioneered. Between the spoof of Young Adolf in1978 and return to Liverpool youth in An Awfully Big Adventure in ’89 stretched a chasm filled largely by work recycled from before Beryl had come to Duckworth, as well as two works of non-fiction based on projects for the BBC. Her sole major new fiction in a period when she confessed to writer’s block on TV to psychiatrist Anthony Clare was a historical novel about a celebrated Victorian murder, Watson’s Apology.
This portentous book, longer than any other Beryl or Anna would write, was different in kind: serious to a point of solemnity, highly researched, attentive to older, more traditional values. Though far from her most popular work, Watson prefigured a genre Beryl would concentrate on in later years – her ‘major phase’ to use a phrase F. O. Matthieson applied to the later Henry James and his last three completed novels. Beryl’s equivalents of The Ambassadors, The Wings of the Dove and The Golden Bowl were Every Man for Himself, Master Georgie and According to Queeney. I won’t stretch the parallel to link James’ last unfinished novel, The Ivory Tower, to Beryl’s last attempt, The Girl in the Polka Dot Dress, ‘finished’ after her death by her long-time secretary Brendan King; but clearly the three last books completed in her lifetime return like James’s to themes of earlier work, only in richer guise, with more complex content and style. Indeed, when set against her romans à clef of the 1970s, or even her first outing in the historical vein, the density of Beryl’s late work is analogous to that of James: ‘rendered’, to use his term, with new roundness, ellipsis, nuance, layering. It is often observed that the ‘difficulty’, ‘obscurity’, even ‘unreadability’ of James’s late work may have had to do with a shift from pen to dictation, and one might posit that the touch of opaqueness which enters Beryl’s late books is a result of some new self-consciousness or reflection linked to working with a secretary or on a word-processor. This too is a matter for scholars to come. What concerns us here is what Beryl was attempting in relation to an era she was now growing old in.
Haycraft’s death in ’94 knocked a prop out from under her, professionally and personally. Another support was eaten away by the coolness Anna/Alice progressively showed towards her: rivalry, jealousy, genuine difference in style and opinion; elements in evolution of a friendship also too speculative to go into here. Such supports removed, Beryl was more on her own as writer and otherwise; and her quest for direction, like that in the spirit of her time and place, involved gazing back toward perceived greater days – moments of empire when British values had been at their zenith as norm, to find not only what was right in them but where hubris lurked. Every Man is foregrounded on the sinking of the Titanic; Master Georgie on the Crimean War, According to Queeney on the circle – cenacle, as it was – around Dr Johnson. I leave out The Birthday Boys, based on the Scott expedition, published before Haycraft’s death and arguably a prelude to Beryl’s final phase rather than full-blown part of it, though like Watson it prefigured a new sharp-eyed focus on what had been ‘true grit’ in British values. Beryl’s relations with the Haycrafts stand behind the late books, which are in one way or another all homages to Colin, the fascinating Scurra in Every Man memorializing his voice, Myrtle in Georgie being a caricature of Beryl’s persona with him and Johnson in Queeney exploring a principal model for his career, continuation in altro of the sole book he authored, The Sayings of Dr Johnson, under the pseudonym Brenda O’Casey. The calamities against which Beryl fixes her narratives reflect aspects of failures she associated with him, and each provides an occasion for her to reveal aspects of what she saw as the malaise plaguing her ‘New Elizabethan’ era and to indicate possible cures for it.
Anna/Alice told an interviewer in 1998 that she had begun to write because “the world had gone mad” and continued to do so out of anger and to excoriate the mess. Beryl also saw the age she lived in as fallen but was concerned less with laying blame than with finding jewels in the muck – values to get on with, means to cope. While Anna ended in despair about man and yearning for union with God – a rather unforgiving deity in her version, many thought – Beryl in her late books would offer pity for individuals struggling in situations they had not chosen, presided over by what Somerset Maugham dubbed “our betters”: masters, would-be guardians, businessmen, politicians, military leaders; gods in a Homeric sense whom few mortals can glimpse or know, though they must twist in the wind of their passions, rivalries, fickle rages and neglect. The Bruce Ismays, the Lord Raglans – someone above has not done what he ought to have; maybe many haven’t. Mere mortals in consequence must swim for their lives or slog through mephitic sludge, and most will die of chill or the dysentery. None will get out of the greater struggle alive: the ‘awfully big adventure’ of Death. So: how to face it? Beryl had watched Colin try to stare down professional reversal, creditors, lawsuit, marital strife and physical collapse. She had inspected his corpse in the morgue and the grave into which his coffin was lowered. Her lifelong curiosity into death was met by an intimate fact of it, and she knew that figuratively hers was next. How to conduct oneself in view of this fatal sentence is at the heart of her late books and why they are more focused on fortitude and the like – values she saw as belonging to those greater eras – than the sexual mores, interpersonal japes, deceptions and pranks that had been hallmarks of books of her relative youth, when Life had been the big issue.
Her New Elizabethan era continues in the shadow of decline identified by Angry Young Men. Watch It Come Down had been the title of the Osborne play which closed the National Theatre in the decade when she made her name. It was a heyday of Pinter, Howard Brenton, Trevor Griffiths, John Arden and Margaretta D’Arcy; of working-class Marxists not quite enbourgeoised; of subscribers to a historical dialectic by which an old order was debunked and soon to be gone, if not dead already. For Beryl, who began her career as an actress and occupied her last years as theatre-critic, this was an undeniable state-of-Britain, if far from a happy one. Nostalgia she had a-plenty, but turning the clock back was not a real option, except in fiction. No Thatcherite, she nonetheless filled her books with a call-to-arms for ‘Victorian values’ – or more precisely, the best in Edwardian (Every Man), Victorian (Georgie) and Augustan (Queeney). Can we define them?
The Birthday Boys shows characters meeting the tests of endurance thrown up by their blind odyssey in team-work, everyman doing his duty, fellowship, conversation, taking care of one another, sloughing idle gossip and tetchiness. The vision attending their catastrophe is a hallucination of John Brown leading Queen Victoria on a pony ride, by which we construe a message to ‘be British’ – a natural one for a World War II child – and throughout are strewn homilies to fill a good soldier’s chapbook: ‘The cold will snap you in two if your heart isn’t whole’; ‘Abiding by the rules does away with introspection [and] leaves one to get on with the game’; ‘Bravery is a conscious act of discipline’; ‘Willpower overcomes all adversities’; ‘There is something splendid, sublime even, in pitting oneself against the odds’; ‘The missing link between God and man is brotherly love.’
Similar precepts surround the messages of Beryl’s final three novels, yet set with irony, qualification and an eye towards what the five doomed narrators of The Birthday Boys cannot achieve: survival.
The sole narrator of Every Man for Himself is an orphan who is also a privileged nephew of J. P. Morgan. He learns in the course of his voyage on a ship owned by his uncle not only courage and compassion required by disaster but also insight into how to overcome the follies of class. Around him are naïveté, sycophancy, envy, bitchiness, phony enthusiasm regarding love, sex, friendship, fun, career – attributes of an enclosed order based on wealth and rank. Contrasted to these are forms of excellence: diligence in duty by a ship’s designer, analysis in talk by the polymath Scurra, craft in creation by a Jewish tailor, passion in performance by an opera-singing, abandoned mistress. Common to each is concentration: absence of the sort of drift that threatens to leave the narrator in a permanent eddy as to what constitutes a lived life. Even before God walks in in the form of the Titanic hitting ice, he undergoes a re-education, correcting or stripping away givens of his partly Hooray Henry background. It is not a question of scuttling the politeness, gentility, kindness or other virtues native to the best of his kind, but of adding to them or at least not subtracting from them a sense of truth and fairness such as found equally among denizens of the underdeck. A man must stand up, as Scurra’s final gesture from the sinking ship indicates: whether in dinner jacket or grimy as a stoker, he must, as illusions of Edwardian safety swirl away, ‘be a man’ in such senses as that formula has traditionally connoted – physical strength, mental clarity, focus on the object, awareness of environment, luck, faith, intuition, resourcefulness, application, desire and dogged work.
That such conventionally ‘masculine’ values are not restricted by gender is shown in the next of Beryl’s books. Its heroine, Myrtle, also an orphan, though in her case brought up in a middle-class home, embodies them to a point of obsession, nor does she have to strip away false education to realize them. She has clung since rescue from slum origins to the book’s eponymous hero, a photographer and physician of ambiguous sexual inclination and inconstant attention to her, hardening herself with the mantra ‘All my life… I will stand by your side.’ This vine-like attachment leads her to commit deceptions for Georgie, to have his children when his wife turns out barren, to follow him to Crimea when he signs on as doctor and to reject advances from his sometime assistant and catamite, Ptolemy Jones, a scamp who claims similarity to her and has his own version of survivor values. ‘A man, so long as he keeps concentration, can will himself into staying alive,’ Jones posits in the midst of the Crimean débâcle and manages to do so by promising himself a future in which he will rise in his profession, marry a down-to-earth woman, pursue no more wealth than he needs, provide for his children and grow old surrounded by them. To this agenda, which could also be hers, Myrtle adds: don’t worry about where you come from, only where you are going; rate obsession over mutual love, as the latter tends to burn out; ignore perceived betrayal and turn the other cheek; blunt the senses when dealing with death, lest you go mad; focus on birth, which lifts the spirit, because life otherwise is so ‘portentous’.
These two of the book’s three narrators survive, though Georgie, who binds them together and sets a course for their lives, does not. The third narrator, Dr Potter, is of different ilk: well-educated and without history of deprivation. Unlike his friend Georgie, he is no leader; his skill is to observe and reflect, though without the cynicism of Scurra in Every Man or any directly educative intent. Potter nonetheless embodies a principle of education. A classical scholar, he sees all via how the ancients might have seen it and ascribes the miseries of the Crimean misadventure to lack of similar perspective among its leaders. He deplores the contempt in which aristocratic warlords hold foreign cultures and ‘adulation of rank’ which allows them to stay in place. To their faults he adds an ‘abasing impulse to profiteering’ and a ‘nauseating display of patriotic fervour’ in their lieutenants. The second calls to mind Dr Johnson’s famous quip about patriotism as refuge of the scoundrel; and in his insight, introspection and melancholy Potter anticipates the hero of Beryl’s last finished novel. Concerned with vagaries of literary life, According to Queeney is far from the coruscating denunciation of war which is Master Georgie; but it shares with that book, as with Georgie’s predecessor, focus on how individuals interact in groups under stress. With characters as vividly painted as Beryl’s, it is possible to miss the extent to which her portraits are collective; but especially in these last books, her genius lies in part in the care taken to balance disparate personalities and principles while avoiding undue favouritism to any.
Every man has his own nature, not least the troubled Johnson. Every man needs a support system, however grand; nor can it be made up solely of yes-men. In a constant interplay between individual and collective, unequal abilities must be taken into account. Lead figures are essential, but all have human frailty; and whereas in her early work – The Bottle Factory Outing, for instance – Beryl showed how supposed friends could play pranks and harm one another, in these late books she demonstrates more often how they may be kind and do good. Again one is reminded of the later James, whose characters and situations are much the same as in early books but ethics and intentions are refined. One is put in mind too of the loose-structured films of Robert Altman, with their repertory of actors, most of whose roles are granted equal weight – films which depict how societies function as units, individuals being singular yet emphasis rarely accorded to a sole charismatic one. This is an aesthetics of democracy. In According to Queeney, it exists in tandem with the presence of a charismatic individual – a Celtic gelfine, as it were. Beryl’s sensibility gravitates naturally towards nostalgia for a leader, God or ‘monarch’ in a literal sense, while the order she has lived in has been moving towards not quite chaos but an arrangement more fundamentally multi-polar. The final analogue she presents for her ‘new Elizabethan’ era proceeds in a realm both Hogarthian and Augustan: the gods, albeit in human disguise, performing as in Homer – loving, bickering, subjecting each other to inappropriate fancies – yet also suffering to an extent that gods rarely do. It is an apt final nod to her most sturdy inspiration, the classicist Colin Haycraft and his Duckworth cenacle of the halcyon days in which she grew to become its most memorable figure.
Dr. STODDARD MARTIN is a critic, editor and novelist. He has taught at Harvard, Oxford, Lodz and Warsaw universities and writes reviews and articles for The Times Literary Supplement, The Jewish Chronicle and Quarterly Review. He is an associate fellow of the Institute of English Studies, University of London