The Booker Bridesmaid & the Best of Beryl

I wrote this piece for Shiny New Books’s Booker Celebrations week – coming to you at the beginning of July, where it’ll be included in a post about many of the wonderful novels that were shortlisted for the Booker Prize but didn’t win. I thought I’d share it here first though…

Beryl Bainbridge – Shortlisted for the Booker Prize  in 1973, 1974, 1990, 1996 & 1998

Only Margaret Atwood has now surpassed the late, great Beryl Bainbridge in Booker Prize shortlistings, also amassing five, but Atwood went on to win with The Blind Assassin, leaving Bainbridge as ‘the Booker Bridesmaid’.

After her death in 2010, the Booker Committee decided to make a posthumous award to the ‘Best of Beryl’. Her five nominated novels were put to the public vote, and her last shortlisted novel, perhaps read more recently by many, Master Georgie won. At the time I voted for Every Man For Himself (1996), her Titanic novel, but I was yet to discover the dark comedic joys of The Bottle Factory Outing (1974) – which I read after the Best of Beryl Booker; that’s the one I would vote for now.

Let’s take a quick tour of the five shortlisted novels. Her first three shortlistings were all informed by her own life. During her later years, Beryl turned to historical novels, having mined her own life for inspiration for so long.

The Dressmaker (1973) was inspired by a relationship Beryl had had with a soldier while she was a teenager, and two of the other characters were based on her aunts. This is a dark psychological drama about family strife, and it’s compelling reading, uncomfortable even, knowing it is so autobiographical, when you read about sisters Nellie and Margo bringing up their niece Rita, who has an affair with a GI.

The Bottle Factory Outing (1974) (reviewed here)is rather different. A full-on black comedy informed by Beryl’s experience working as a cellar girl in a bottling factory after her divorce in 1959. Brenda and Freda are young women, chalk and cheese, light and dark, who share an awful bedsit. They work at an Italian wine bottling factory, where Freda yearns for Vittorio and Brenda wants to stay out of the clutches of Rossi. The factory outing to Windsor turns into pure farce, and for the first time shows Beryl’s ability to keep the comedy flowing, whereas before she’s kept it to little touches here and there.

An Awfully Big Adventure (1990) shows Beryl at her most romantic in a novel based upon her own experiences working at the Liverpool Playhouse in her youth. Set in the early 1950s, it looks at sexual politics seen through the eyes of Stella who goes to work at the theatre and falls for an older leading man, then takes up with the replacement Captain Hook when he is injured. This being Beryl, love never runs smoothly, and there is comedy and tragedy aplenty in this much-loved novel.

Every Man for Himself (1996) (reviewed here) – Forget Kate and Leo! Bainbridge presents a searing portrait of the upper classes on board the Titanic as seen through the eyes of a rich young American, Morgan, who having worked for the ship’s designers, has privileged access around the ship. Long before the ship hits the iceberg – which doesn’t happen until the latter quarter of the book, we find out about a fire in the coal bunker as the rich young things cavort in the ballroom. Bainbridge squeezes so much detail into under 200 pages while building up the drama, it’s truly masterful.

Master Georgie (1998) is Bainbridge’s sad tale of George Hardy, a surgeon who volunteers to work in the Crimean battlefields. His story, however, is told by those who accompany him, Myrtle, his adopted sister who adores him, Pompey Jones, a young rascal and photographer’s assistant who runs errands for George, and provides sexual tension all round, and Dr Potter, a geologist, and George’s brother-in-law. It’s unbelievable that soldiers and volunteers would take their families to war with them, but it happened. This is a complicated and hard-hitting novel with many levels, full of tragedy, and as always with Beryl, told in her special, no words wasted, style.

Of these five superb novels, maybe An Awfully Big Adventure and Every Man for Himself are the most straight-forwardly accessible, but once you’ve read any of Beryl’s novels, you’ll want to come back for more – there are such riches in store for you.

You can find out more about Bainbridge’s work on my dedicated Reading Beryl page.

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