Sweet William by Beryl Bainbridge
I was thinking of an apt title for this post and was planning on calling it ‘The man who loved women‘ after the celebrated François Truffaut film, but then I remembered the Stephen Stills song ‘Love the one you’re with‘. It seemed to encapsulate Bainbridge’s 1975 novel in a nutshell. (More of Stephen Stills below).
I bought a used copy of this book, not knowing which cover would turn up; and I love the Beryl Cook painting on this edition. But when I opened it up, I had a wonderful surprise…
Ann is a secretary at the BBC. She is engaged to Gerald, but he’s just got a job in America and she won’t be able to join him until later. Ann’s mother is staying with her in her rented London flat and when they get home from Gerald’s leaving party at work, she worries about her mother, while the slightly drunk Gerald has other intentions…
When he brought her home he pushed his way into the flat and tried to make her take her clothes off. She wouldn’t remove all of them, in case her mother came out of the bedroom. He bent her over the sofa and made love to her standing up. It didn’t work very well because he was too drunk; every time he lunged forward she was pressed against the upholstered arm, and dust filled her nose. They couldn’t lie down because the floor creaked. Gerald became terribly irritated by her lack of co-operation, but there was nothing she could do. Mrs Walton started moving about in the other room and coughing and calling out for cups of water. In the end Gerald swore and made a dreadful noise going downstairs – a sort of howl like a dog on the end of a chain. It was astonishing Mrs Walton didn’t come out in her while nylon nightgown and confront them both. She wasn’t a coward.
Ann’s mother is soon off back to Brighton, not standing for having to listen to her daughter’s noisy love-making; she is a product of a different era and doesn’t approve of Ann’s permissiveness. No sooner is Gerald off to the USA, than Ann finds herself being picked up by William McCluskey at the school harvest festival of all places. William is a larger than life, golden-haired playwright.
William sweeps her off her feet, and soon beds her, and Ann is suddenly deliriously in love. When Ann’s cousin Pamela arrives, pregnant and needing a (still illegal) abortion, William is on hand to comfort, and soon he’s moved in. He persuades her to write to Gerald to call it off, and even jack in her job at the Beeb so she can devote herself to him. But as soon as he moves in, he starts disappearing at odd times, and the phone starts ringing with women wanting William…
You’ve guessed it – he just can’t keep his pants on, and doesn’t appear to realise the chaos that occurs in his wake. Every woman he meets seems to fall for his charms. He’s a philanderer with a big heart, but his conquests don’t know the scope of his attentions, as he weaves a complicated web of obfuscation and lies to cover his roving.
Although it all seems a bit 1970s, in that some of the attitudes are a bit dated – notably those of Ann and her mother, there are definitely William types still around, (I fell for one once!). Womens’ lives and aspirations may have moved on, but we’re still suckers for love – I have a sneaking suspicion that I would have fallen for William too, (although his love of Scottish footballer Dennis Law might have put me off!).
According to her obituary in the Daily Telegraph, William was modelled on the chap she had a relationship with when she moved to London after her marriage broke up in Liverpool. The article quotes: “I didn’t exaggerate his character” recalled Beryl Bainbridge of her muse. “If anything I toned him down.”
I really enjoyed this black comedy of a romcom, always hoping that Ann would begin to stand up for herself, and that the loveable rogue William would get his comeuppance. In its 160 pages, it moved at the pace of a West-End farce, never letting the action drop and ramping it up towards the end. Great and wicked fun. (9/10)
As you can see from the selection of covers above, there’s a film tie-in one. The 1980 film had a screenplay by Beryl and starred Sam Waterston and Jenny Agutter. You can see more about the film here at IMDB. There are many familiar names from British telly in the cast – Arthur Lowe, Anna Massey, Geraldine James, Tim Piggott-Smith, Peter Dean (Pete Beale from Eastenders), and oddly Melvyn Bragg as himself! I’ve not seen it, but suspect it’s low budget and very much of its time…
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If you’d like to hear Stephen Stills singing ‘Love the one you’re with‘ – click through to Youtube here.
The song is from his self-titled debut solo album released in 1970. I discovered CSNY in the late 70s, and loved this album.
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Source: Own copy.
Sweet William by Beryl Bainbridge, new VMC pbk, 192 pages.