Beryl Bainbridge is one of Britain’s best-loved novelists. She has twice won the prestigious Whitbread Prize and has been shortlisted five times for the Booker Prize, most recently for Master Georgie, her sixteenth and perhaps most accomplished novel. When the strongly favored book didn’t win, the cry of “Foul” from the literary arena echoed through the land.
Bainbridge’s early novels were broadly autobiographical, based on her family history and set in her native Liverpool and London. They include A Weekend with Claude (1967), Another Part of the Wood (1968), Harriet Said (1972), The Dressmaker (1973), The Bottle Factory Outing (1974), Sweet William (1975), and A Quiet Life (1976), among others. Then, in her mid-fifties, she embarked upon a new creative journey—the imaginative exploration of certain emblematic historical events that are seared in the collective memory.
The Birthday Boys (1993) told the story of Captain Robert Falcon Scott’s fatal journey to the Antarctic in 1912, while Every Man for Himself (1996) recounted the sinking of the Titanic a month later, through Morgan, a young American survivor. These two events marked the end of an era—La Belle Époque in France and the Edwardian period in England—and foretold far greater disasters ahead: the First World War, the Bolshevik Revolution, the rise of Nazism, and others. With these two novels, Bainbridge finally crossed the Atlantic. The publication of Every Man for Himself coincided with the release of the film Titanic and became a best-seller. “They probably thought it was the book of the film,” was the author’s reaction.
In Master Georgie, Bainbridge goes further back in history, to the Crimean War of the 1850s. It was a time of scientific discovery and new inventions—among them, photography, which Bainbridge constructs her narrative around, employing it as a metaphor for ambiguity and chance, often using it to distort truth or at least give a partial account of it. At the time of this interview (December of 1998), she was about to begin her most recent novel, According to Queeney (2000), based on the life of Samuel Johnson.
Since the 1960s, Bainbridge has lived in a comfortable house with a charming garden in Camden Town, North London. Inside, it is filled with quantities of heterogeneous objects. In the entrance, a stuffed buffalo almost bars the way. Once one has squeezed past it, one is welcomed by a life-size statue of Jesus that is on the stairs. The front room is divided into a kitchen on the garden side and a small sitting room overlooking the street. Statues of the Virgin and assorted saints mingle with bric-a-brac and domestic objects in happy confusion. One wall of the kitchen is covered with photographs of Bainbridge’s children and grandchildren, and several of herself at various ages. We sit at a large round table strewn with papers by a fire she keeps ablaze by periodically adding coal.
Petite and vivacious, with dark, straight hair and bangs, wearing a black dress and net stockings, she puts me in mind of certain pictures of Edith Piaf. Evidently others have remarked on the likeness, for she shows me a photo from the wall of herself as a young woman in which she looks more like Juliette Greco, a resemblance she clearly prefers.
Famous for her warmth and generosity, Bainbridge speaks in a melodious voice somewhat darkened by years of heavy smoking. “I have cut down,” she says as I express concern, “Only thirty a day now, very mild ciggies.”
You said once that you were discovered by your publisher, the late Colin Haycraft, the owner and director of Gerald Duckworth and Co., and that he was very important in your development as a writer. How did you meet him?
I wrote my first novel, Weekend With Claud, and sent it to what was called in those days New Authors Limited, which was an offshoot of Hutchinson Publishers, and they took me on. But they only published first books, so when the following year I produced a second novel, Another Part of the Wood, I was taken into the big firm—Hutchinson’s proper. I thought I’d walk down the street and everybody would know I had written a book. But nobody took any notice of these two novels, and I stopped writing. I felt uneasy for about three years.
Then, one day my son was playing with another little boy, and his mother rang asking for him. As we spoke she said, I recognize your voice. What is your name? I gave my married name, Beryl Davies, and she said, What was your name before? When I told her Bainbridge, she said, I’ve read your two books; they are pretty awful, but have you got anything else? And that was Anna Haycraft, Colin Haycraft’s wife, who became my editor at Duckworth for about six years. Without Anna, I don’t think Colin would have taken me on, because he was an academic publisher and wasn’t interested in fiction. That was in 1971. Later, Anna became a novelist herself—she became Alice Thomas Ellis.
Anna and Colin operated in an old piano factory, and they even employed me to wrap up my own books. But Duckworth didn’t make any money—ever—because Colin was not bothered about it; his idea was the you printed two thousand copies and if the libraries took half, that was fine, you could go on to the next publication. He didn’t bother about money. As a result I never made any money—indeed I never knew that one could make money out of books. But the Haycrafts knew everybody who was anybody in the literary world, and they used to give parties to which they all came. Being at Duckworth meant that you met all these interesting people, and I had a good memory, having been in the theater, and I always remembered people’s names and things. I was fortunate in that respect, because Duckworth never had a publicity department—the idea of it would have made them laugh—and you did your own publicity. Colin was also very good for novelists, being academic and rigorous about clarity. He trained his writers. And Anna would say, Stick to what you know, to your own life, which was what at the time I was interested in anyway, except that there had to be a plot.
Then, six years ago, Colin died and in a terrible sort of way it released me; it enabled me to have confidence enough to do research and write about history or about those subjects which he knew so much better than I. I would never have had the nerve to do it if he was still alive, because he was so learned and clever. I was conscious that I had to do something else, as I had used up everything I knew about my own life. So I went off to write novels based on historical facts.
Why didn’t you leave Duckworth sooner—to be released, as you say?
It didn’t occur to me to leave Colin and Anna; I was treated the right way and I was very happy. For example, all my books were published in America at a time when American publishers stopped taking English novels because authors had become too greedy, demanding better advances. I was shortlisted for the Booker and won the Whitbread. On Booker night our table was always the most cheerful, because we didn’t expect to win. You had to print extra copies in case you won, but Colin wouldn’t bother. So we enjoyed ourselves while everybody else on the shortlist was anxiously waiting with bated breath. Only once did I begin to believe the hype about winning. There was that dreadful moment when the cameras were ready and the announcer says, And the winner is . . . , whereupon the cameras pan onto the winner. At that moment the cameras came to our table and we all froze, and then they all swept past to Seamus Heaney, who had won. That was two years ago. I have to admit that I had begun to make some calculations on bits of paper as to what I would do with the money, how much each of my children would get.
You mentioned the Haycrafts’ literary parties. What were they like? Who was there?
Very jolly and with much drink. Philosophers, writers, politicians, professors.
Let us now go to the beginning. You were born in 1934 and grew up in Liverpool. It was the 1940s and 1950s, before the Beatles made the city famous and a focus of attention.
My husband, Austin Davies, taught John Lennon at Liverpool Art School. In fact, the night we separated, my husband had a party in our house to which the Beatles, John Lennon, Stuart Sutcliff—the one who died—and I can’t remember who else, came. The party went on for three days and nights; I moved out down the road to a friend’s house with the children, and later we divorced amicably. I never saw the Beatles again.
In your early books the milieu you depict is lower middle class, whereas in fact your family was quite well-off. How do you explain the discrepancy?
This is what English society doesn’t understand—I mean, what was accepted as middle class then isn’t necessarily what is seen as middle class now. For example, in An Awfully Big Adventure the girl wants to have a bath and fusses about it. One or two reviewers said, What a seedy background, not realizing that there was no central heating then, that you got pneumonia if you had a bath before trying to heat up the house. It wasn’t that people were dirty, just that it was a different world. In Liverpool lots of middle-class people had outside loos. My aunts, for instance, had an outside loo, but they subscribed to the local library.
So what was your own family life like?
My father was very intelligent, a beautiful reader and writer, although he had left school at age ten. He became an entrepreneur whiz kid in shipping and property. Then, with the collapse of the gold standard and the depression, he lost everything. He struggled for a while and eventually became bankrupt. My mother came from a different class; she went to a finishing school in Belgium, her father was a director of a paint firm and he was much more middle class than my father, who was a self-made man from the working class. But in those days the working class were different. They were proud, read books, used a tablecloth, didn’t dream of putting a sauce bottle on the table—something we certainly did. So my family was an odd mixture.
When my father went bankrupt, my maternal grandfather bought us a house for six hundred pounds in Formby, a few miles down the coast from Liverpool. I was six months old and my brother a few years older, and we grew up in that house. Both my parents wanted us to go up in the world, through education. I went to a very good private school, and I had elocution lessons, piano and tap-dancing classes, and my brother had extra Latin. God knows how my father paid for it all, being bankrupt. It was important then to speak properly. Now, I walk around Camden Town and see all these beautiful young people, with lovely skin and hair, dressed in the latest fashion—but when they open their mouths it is just horrible. When my mother went out she was called the Duchess, but in the house she changed instantly and put on a torn slip and slippers while my father changed into an old jacket and a beret from the Home Army and my brother and I were just in rags because you had to keep your good clothes.