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Telling Tales

Julia O’Mahony

Beryl Bainbridge: Love by All Sorts of Means: A Biography, by Brendan King, Bloomsbury Continuum, 564 pp, £25, ISBN: 978-1472908537

Beryl Bainbridge approached storytelling much as one might set to work on a scrapbook. She fashioned, she borrowed, and she stole from magazines and newspapers; weaving together a narrative comprising events and characters, both real and imagined. She would treat the truth around her own beginnings as no less malleable than her art, and though she may have sometimes served as an unreliable narrator within her prose for literary effect, she was equally untrustworthy in telling the tale of her own life beyond the margins. Her biographer, Brendan King, is quick to propose evidence for such a claim in his recent book about the author, for whom he worked for twenty years. He has a ready stock of examples which perhaps betray some of his difficulty as her biographer: her mother not having been injected with hypodermics full of raw liver, her father not having been in Dublin for the 1916 rising, both claims somewhat at odds with her assertion to Melvyn Bragg in 1998 that “I don’t see the point of making something up.” Bainbridge’s technique of blending real life with fiction, is not a new one, and though she admitted stealing plot lines from newspapers, what seems to frustrate King is her subsequent presentation of the emotional content of her stories as purely autobiographical.

Love by All Sorts of Means sets out to demonstrate that Bainbridge’s novels are not simply a mirror image of the relationships and circumstances of her own life, but in doing so focuses perhaps a little too much on the relationships and not enough on the body of work. It does, however, successfully navigate much of the constant blurring of fact and fiction at which Bainbridge was so adept. In labelling Bainbridge, King opts for Janet Malcolm’s term, an “auto-fictionaliser”, dismissing the novelist’s claims that she had total recall of her past.

King does not suggest that Bainbridge is duplicitous, merely that she is incapable “of realising the damage she could do to other people’s reputations by unguarded and inaccurate statements ... offered off the top of her head in order to make a dramatic point about herself”. Though often indeed motivated by a desire to portray a more favoured or more dramatic self-image, there is also an extent to which Bainbridge’s habit was an unconscious one. “Auto-fictionalising” seems to suggest an immediacy that points to Bainbridge very much imposing a narrative on her life as it unfolded, not altogether surprising considering the wealth of letters she wrote in her lifetime. Dating from her earliest experiences of romantic relationships, Bainbridge had written about, and indeed exaggerated this aspect of her life to her childhood best friend, Lynda South, over the course of many letters. One might wonder if the schoolgirl in her was still consciously crafting a narrative for the benefits of her peers throughout her life, and simply trading the recipients of her latest melodrama for larger and less personal audiences when it came to writing up the most recent instalment.

Mercifully, King has additional sources at his disposal, and so at times it is possible to corroborate some of Bainbridge’s experience of events with the experience of those around her, most notably, her husband, Austin, whose diaries are a welcome inclusion, despite King perhaps overlooking some conclusions that might be drawn from them when overlaid with Bainbridge’s recollections of the time. Both parties are conflicted in the run-up to the wedding, Beryl, citing “somehow and most illogically, A and I are bound ‑ however we may strain and part. But I am so full of anger!” and Austin noting a year after they were wed “I do not yet know if I shall regret this.” Given the tumultuous nature of their relationship, their parting is perhaps unsurprising, but King’s reduction of Bainbridge’s claim that the “notion that their break-up led to her becoming a novelist” is another in a series of “neat dramatic narratives” seems a little misguided. Certainly, it was when Bainbridge was pregnant, and still with Austin, that she seemed to apply herself more seriously to writing. However, if the pair’s various diary entries are to be trusted at all it indicates that they may have dully accepted that the end of their relationship was in sight long before they parted. It might be a fairer assessment to suggest that these “neat dramatic narratives” are in fact acts of self-defence ‑ particularly when they involve Bainbridge’s most painful emotional experiences.

This attempt at self-preservation through writing may well have been a psychological necessity; it is a subject on which Jeanette Winterson has written extensively. Though twenty-seven years Bainbridge’s junior, the pair were born in neighbouring counties in the north of England and share a propensity to incorporate their own lives in their texts. Winterson first became known for her novel Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, which tells the story, superficially at least, of “an evangelical household and a young girl whose world is overturned because she falls in love with another young girl”. Though the novel’s greatest merits lie in its treatment of wider questions than those pertaining specifically to the plot, Winterson has no qualms describing the work as semi-autobiographical, and its protagonist even shares her Christian name, Jeanette.

Life, for Winterson, like art, is part fact and part fiction, at once accurate and misremembered. She wrote her way out of her own story ‑ one which was too painful to bear. In rewriting it, she included benevolent characters who had not been present in reality, but were solid and reassuring in her prose. For her, the act of storytelling is ultimately compensatory ‑ it serves to soothe, appeasing the silent narrative beyond the margin of the text. The notion of storytelling as catharsis is age-old, but the allure of exercising such control over one’s own past and present, was surely particularly appealing to Bainbridge, who so wished to have been “someone less born to be made miserable”.

Quite often, King seems to suggest, Bainbridge’s relationships with men turned swiftly into dramas of her own making, with characters dutifully assuming their roles and making almost divined choices within the context of her take on events. So used was she to being rejected that she virtually expected it whenever the stakes were high and she felt most in love. As a consequence then, of both her circumstances as a young, separated, single mother, and perhaps her temperament (King points to her as having an “almost pathological inability to say no to anyone”) Bainbridge was described as a sitting duck for predatory men looking for casual relationships. Certainly, this was a disastrous predicament for someone who found their own longing to be loved the greatest barrier to finding a love that would last, and one of which the playwright Alan Sharp would take full advantage. Sharp brought Bainbridge some of the most profound moments of happiness and heartbreak that she had felt since her marriage to Austin had ended, but his influence on her writing habits was ambivalent. Though he encouraged her to write, found her an agent, and suggested publishers, his impact on her writing style was, according to King, an area in which his influence was less than desirable.

The novel A Weekend with Claud sees Bainbridge attempt to reduce and insert a more “literary” element into her style, resulting in a manuscript “littered with lists of obscure words, together with their definitions, ready to be inserted wherever necessary”, and one in which the plot is was recounted by a number of narrators, three times over. Bainbridge would later concur with much of the criticism the novel received at the time, and cite her early works as not “the same sort of thing at all” as those which eventually brought her success. “They weren’t very good I don’t think. I mean, they had a lot of words in them. I used to think that writing was ‑ as many adjectives as you could crowd together.”

It is perhaps unfortunate that Love By All Sorts of Means does not dedicate as ample a space to the genesis and creation of some of these later works. If anything, King’s commentary on Bainbridge’s rise in reputation and eventual publishing successes feels a little hurried, and seems vastly overshadowed by his interest in her publishers, Duckworth, and her affair with Colin Haycraft. There’s certainly quite a sad symmetry to the pair’s eventual romance ‑ Anna, Colin’s wife, had crossed paths catastrophically with Bainbridge on a previous occasion, before her marriage to Austin. Though they were able to reconcile for a period, Anna contributing a great deal to Bainbridge’s literary success, it is clear that the affair with Colin caused a great deal of hurt ‑ Anna even writing to The Daily Telegraph in the wake of her husband’s death to reject the claim that he had been a “Svengali-figure” to Bainbridge.

There is a very real sense of Bainbridge’s personality in King’s book, and perhaps even a betrayal of the sensitive and vulnerable woman that Michael Holroyd, following her death in 2010, described as existing concealed “under a cloak of eccentricity”. It is apparent that King was close to Bainbridge, and this perhaps goes some way to explaining why he cannot completely detach from her personality to judge her body of work, or why, for the most part, he avoids any discussion of her relationship with her children. Though he is quick in some instances to acknowledge Bainbridge’s flaws, there’s a sense in which he too might be leaving more painful truths beyond the manuscript. He chooses instead to echo Bainbridge’s playfulness ‑ selecting suitably wry chapter titles which alone hint at the disarray of a chaotic and considerable love life, “A Knight in Tarnished Armour”, “The Return of the Wild Colonial Boy”, and “Goodbye Mr Chips” among them. Perhaps the more fitting tribute, Love by All Sorts of Means marks Beryl Bainbridge as having carved out her own hybrid myth of truth and lies, of borrowed plotlines and real experience, and as a woman who buried her need for love deep within a very self-conscious sort of life.

1/4/2017

Julia O’Mahony is a writer, living and working in Dublin. She currently contributes literary features to Totally Dublin magazine, as well as pieces on current affairs, book releases, and cultural goings-on in the Dublin area. She is the winner of the Pete Walsh Award for Critical Writing.

 

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