Every Man For Himself by Beryl Bainbridge
My first review for BBRW 2016 is a re-read for me – but no ordinary re-read. The Folio Society has produced a gorgeous new edition of this novel which includes Beryl’s own paintings, the first time her text and paintings have been published together.
Every Man For Himself was published in 1996, five years after another icy story – her novel about Captain Scott, The Birthday Boys. EMFH won the then Whitbread Prize, The Commonwealth Writer’s Prize and was shortlisted for the Booker.
The fateful maiden voyage of the RMS Titanic is seen through the eyes of Morgan, a rich young American related to J.P. Morgan, the banker. Morgan, 22, is an orphan, having been brought up by his aunt since both his parents had died by the time he was three. The story begins with a portentous event though, when a man dies in Morgan’s arms of a heart attack in a London street. Rather than motor down to the ship with his friend Melchett as planned, Morgan decides to take the train, grabbing a bag – and takes a painting from his uncle’s house too.
On board, Morgan has a devil of a time finding his berth, but finally gets there and moans to the steward who replies:
‘Very mysterious, sir,’ he said, ‘seeing we’re at full muster and fewer passengers than expected owing to cancellations. Mr Vanderbilt, sir, telegraphed only yesterday, although his baggage and valet are already aboard. I gather his mother, Mrs Dressler, has an aversion to maiden voyages.’
Morgan goes to explore and we begin to meet some of the other passengers and staff, including Captain Smith, the ship’s designer Thomas Andrews and the owner of the shipping line, Mr Ismay, as well as the Duff-Gordons – all of whom were real and on the Titanic. Then there are Morgan’s friends and acquaintances, plus some other interesting characters who are on their way to New York, including the young socialite Wallis Ellery whom Morgan will fall for. Concentrating mainly on these first class passengers, the novel paints a portrait of an insular group with an impressive array of vices. The title of the novel says it all – “Every man for himself” – and there is plenty of selfishness, silliness and snobbery on display here, all lubricated with plenty of booze.
Bainbridge has done her research about the Titanic thoroughly. In the first half of the novel there are several references to a fire in the coal bunker, which the crew were struggling to contain and put out. This was indeed true – and adds to the tension as the bright young things and rich old things cavort above, not knowing a thing about it.
The event that precipitates the sinking, striking the iceberg doesn’t happen until page 148 of 188 in my edition – in part five of the novel (one part for each day of Morgan’s journey). Even then the impact is understated:
Ginsberg had ordered a whisky and Charlie and I had just won three tricks in succession – when suddenly the room juddered; the lights flickered and Ginsberg’s cigarette case, which sat at his elbow, jolted to the floor.
They all go out to see what’s happening, unaware of impending doom – and then they all carry on. Morgan though, having worked for the ship’s designers, is taken to the bridge as he may be useful, and told to put warm clothes on. Morgan himself is basically a decent young chap, and does his best to look out for his friends as the disaster unfolds its course; ultimately he manages to save himself too.
This is not a long novel, nor does it need to be, as every word has its place. Re-reading it was an even better experience.
Firstly I could appreciate the level of detail – about the ship and how it worked; about all the characters and how they dressed, how they moved, how they behaved, how they spoke – Beryl packs so much into 188 pages. Once you’re past the short prologue, which flashes forward to the end, she takes you straight into the story in her typical style.
Secondly, reading the new Folio Society edition, I got to experience Beryl’s paintings alongside the text. She was an accomplished artist and as you can see had a unique style. You can read more about her art here in my review of Psyche Hughes’ book about Beryl and her art. Hughes writes the introduction to the Folio EMFH.
As the third of Beryl’s history novels, which marked her mid-career change in writing from dramas with their roots in her own life to events that fascinated her from history, Every Man For Himself sees Beryl reaching another peak – which would be sustained over her next few titles. I love this book! (10/10 again).
* * * * *
Source: Own copy.
This book crosses off the category ‘Reread something’ on my Bookbingo card.