Authors in person often seem utterly different from what their work might lead one to expect; and with Beryl Bainbridge this is the case in spades. Those familiar with her exactingly written, p tic and often harrowing accounts of people caught up in famous historical moments would never envisage the warmly chatty person who comes to the door of her small row house not far from Regent's Park in London.
Not that things are entirely staid and bourgeois in Bainbridge land. The first thing a visitor encounters inside the front door is a life-size plaster statue of St. Patrick with his staff broken (by an overeager grandchild, of which Bainbridge has several) and an enormous stuffed buffalo whose horns are so wide one has to turn sideways to make it through the narrow hallway and into the bright little living room, where a fire burns in the hearth on a mild October morning.
After seeing many pictures of her in which she seems to be hamming it up for the camera as Edith Sitwell used to do, with strange hats or peculiarly gloomy expressions, Bainbridge in person is -- well, fun. She has a cheerfully self-deprecating manner, lively eyes and a fund of gossip, and even in her mid-60s, she still cuts a handsome figure.
At the moment she seems to be very much the flavor of the month. At the time of PW's visit, her latest novel, Master Georgie, published stateside by Carroll &Graf this month (Forecasts, Aug. 10), was the favorite for the highly prestigious Booker Prize -- for which she had been shortlisted no less than four times previously. (In the voting, two weeks later, she lost narrowly to Ian McEwan.) Bainbridge has been the subject of a number of recent newspaper and magazine interviews; socially, too, her life has become somewhat of a whirl. The very week of the interview there was a big, dressy party for the centenary of her long-time publisher, Duckworth, a reading by the Booker shortlist authors, a reception for the Booker's 30th anniversary, a show of paintings by her former husband and a TV shoot.
"It's feast or famine, isn't it?" she declares with a sly gleam in her eye. She is talking from the viewpoint of what one enthusiastic reviewer of her work called "an older, tougher Britain," one in which she grew up. She was born in Liverpool in 1934, Depression days, "and you can imagine the conditions we lived in." Indeed: unheated homes but for pungent and smoky coal fires, baths once a week in water heated on the stove. It tends to build a certain stoicism in the face of today's often imagined hardships, says Bainbridge. "I think the biggest change for most people in my lifetime, more than the Pill or the fact that now nearly everyone has a car and a TV, is reliable hot water, and being warm."
Hers was no rapid plunge into the writer's life. Bainbridge left school at 16 to go on the stage, playing small ingenue roles and touring the country, as repertory theater groups did in the 1950s and 60s. In one role she remembers having to shave her head to appear as a boy -- perhaps one reason her hair today remains long and luxuriant, with a fringe that recalls the early-60s beat look. Then came marriage, to artist Austin Davis, and two children to bring up, then a liaison with writer Alan Sharpe and another child, before she could start to think about writing, which she began simply as a way to help make ends meet.
Her first novel, A Weekend with Claude, was published in 1967 under the Hutchinson imprint, New Authors Ltd., which brought out only first novels. A year later, Hutchinson published Another Part of the Wood. "I got 25 pounds for the first one, and I imagined people would stop me in the street." She laughs, and chokes a little on the latest cigarette; she has been chain-smoking, lighting them from the fire. "When the next book was turned down and nothing else happened I got a bit uneasy and stopped writing for a time."
Blunt Advice From an Editor
Then one day she got a phone call from Anna Haycraft, wife of Colin Haycraft, the publisher of the venerable firm of Duckworth. "Your stuff is pretty awful," she remembers Haycraft saying, "but there's something there. What else have you got?" What she had was Harriet Said, which became the first of her titles with the house that remains her primary publisher to this day. Anna's advice to her as a writer was succinct: "Write about what you know, get yourself a good plot and cut out all the adjectives." Colin too had his own notions: "He didn't really like fiction, and he made me think about every sentence; he was incredibly strict about using the right word. I had to keep looking things up in the dictionary."
Under this stern regime she produced a novel a year for the next six years, including The Dressmaker, Sweet William (both later made into movies), The Bottle Factory Outing, A Quiet Life, Injury Time and Young Adolf (which fantasized a visit to Liverpool by the Nazi dictator as a teenager). All this time, she said, she was getting no advances, and earning only very small royalties, and life continued to be the sort of struggle where she often had to borrow to get through the week.
With the U.S. publication of Harriet Said in 1973, George Braziller became her regular American publisher, and Bainbridge and Braziller became close friends. (The walls of her house, which is crowded with family pictures and odd mementos, bear several pictures of them together, with her children, in happy visits to New York and elsewhere.)
Then, around the time of The Birthday Boys, her first real breakthrough success, they had a rather painful falling out. Bainbridge, who still calls Braziller "a lovely man," said she gave him a copy of the manuscript when he came to London, "then when he got back to New York he sent a letter saying, `It's not my kind of thing,' almost as if he had never known me." That was nearly five years ago, and they haven't been in touch since, though she regrets it, and wishes she could pluck up the courage to call or write to find out what went wrong.
Braziller is equally fond of Bainbridge, and blames the coolness on Haycraft (who died five years ago) and on the agency Braziller admits he introduced Bainbridge to, after years of being unagented -- the John Johnson agency, where Andrew Hewson represents her. "Colin was very possessive of Beryl, and wanted $40,000 for `Young Hitler,' which isn't the sort of money I could afford, but I paid it to keep her," he told PW. "Then at the time of Birthday Boys, I heard it was being offered around by her agents' American representatives, as if I didn't exist. Then they asked for the American rights to all her earlier books. I knew she needed the money, so I let them have them." But, he said, he didn't want a continuing breach between them, and was determined to write Bainbridge and seek a reconciliation.
In the event, it was Kent Carroll of Carroll &Graf who snapped up The Birthday Boys, and who has been doing very well by -- and out of -- her ever since. She is deeply loyal, and despite many offers from bigger publishers on both sides of the Atlantic, would not think of leaving her current stalwarts. "I want to stay with the people who wanted me in the first place. Anyway, I prefer smaller publishers; you feel more at home there."
The Titanic to Dr. Johnson
That her real recognition as a writer came only after a long string of quirky novels based on a strongly comic sense of character still surprises her, as d s the moment of change. "It's strange how fate works, very peculiar," she says. "Colin Haycraft had just died, and my son needed a big lump sum to buy a house, which I couldn't afford. Then Robin Baird-Smith, the new president at Duckworth, came around and asked me what I wanted that would persuade me to stay. Just like that, I said `A three-book contract,' though I'd never had one before. Off the top of my head I said I'd write about the Titanic, the Crimea and Dr. Johnson." She wanted to go back into history, she says, " I felt I'd used up my childhood in all the other books."
The Birthday Boys, her dazzlingly brilliant fictional account of Captain Scott's ill-fated Antarctic expedition, gave her the idea of writing about the great ship. "Scott died in March 1912, and the next month the Titanic sank. It was all somehow related, and I felt I was really getting to know the period."After stellar reviews on both sides of the Atlantic, The Birthday Boys became a big seller in paperback, and the book on the Titanic disaster that followed, Every Man for Himself, sold strongly from the start. "The film didn't hurt, of course," grins Bainbridge. "I think a lot of people thought my book was a novelization." Master Georgie, which takes three odd Liverpudlians on a journey into the hell of the Crimean War but is also about early photography, undying love, deceit, illusion, courage and the benefits of a classical education, was chosen as (never mind the lost Booker) one of PW's Best Books of the Year, and seems likely to receive critical hosannas here not unlike those it received in the U.K. earlier in the year.
It has been often pointed out how brilliantly the famous Charge of the Light Brigade, which is what most people remember from the Crimean War, takes place very distantly offstage in Bainbridge's novel, in the same way that the sinking of the Titanic is incidental to a number of human dramas in that novel. "There's no point in writing about what everybody knows, and I don't want to have any hindsight. I pretend I'm there, at the time, like the people I'm writing about, and I can't let them know what they wouldn't know."
She d s prodigious research -- her tables are piled with books on Dr. Johnson and his period, ready for her next foray. "I could never have tackled subjects like this with my old publisher," she confides. "He'd have questioned everything. But everything you want is there. You just have to read up on it."Her writing methods are drastic, a form of total immersion not many writers could sustain, and which perhaps helps account for the starkness and grip of the resulting vision. "I'm not one of those people that can just write a few hours a day and have a normal social life the rest of the time." She shuts off the phone, draws the curtains, and for five months -- roughly the time it takes her to write a new book -- she plunges without interruption into her fictional world. She writes until she can write no more, stays in her nightgown, sleeps on her couch, sends out for takeout food, and if inspiration fails, takes a tumbler of Scotch. "I have to be careful, though, because I find one drink tends to lead to another." Also, "I spend half my time calculating how big the pages are, how many words on each, so I'll know when I've done enough." That's one way of ensuring her books' remarkable brevity and concentration. Another: "I throw away 12 pages for every one I finish. I cut like mad, all the time."
Her new book is due in March, and already, with an October lost to the social and publicity whirl, she feels she's fallen behind, since she can't start without a title, and so far hasn't come up with one she likes. An Afternoon at Mrs .Thrale's is one she has toyed with, "but would enough people know who she is?" (She was Dr. Johnson's landlady, and Bainbridge has unearthed some material that hints that she sometimes had to lock him in his room when the mad fit was on him. "Did she whip him?" she asks, with mock-prurient glee.)
Despite the flagrantly outrageous decor of her house, where towels ostensibly from the Titanic hang in the bathroom alongside Crucifixion carvings, Bainbridge likes to portray herself as a grandmotherly figure whose main concern is for the future of her children and grandchildren. "I want to get together all my documents and papers for them against the time I die." Success, she finds, though very slow in coming, "is very nice, even late in life. I never had expectations, you see. I think struggle is probably good for the soul, as long as you don't go under."
She remains unperturbed by the oddball reputation that seems to cling to her. "People say I'm eccentric, but I don't see how you can be eccentric and still write hundreds of words a day, and pay the bills, and own a house, and baby-sit for six grandchildren every week."