The most gruelling, the most pure fantastic hell…

Richard Lee

Beryl Bainbridge, whose latest novel Master Georgie has been shortlisted for the Booker prize, recently gave a talk at Dillons, Exeter. Richard Lee soaked up the words of wisdom.


“Try and imagine the scene of an educated man called Doctor Potter – not medical – a geologist, a man interested in the earth and the structure of the earth – and he suddenly hears of a book called The Principles of Geology by a man called Charles Lyell, in which it says that the earth did not just appear in seven days, it took thousands, millions of years. And it changed. The rivers changed, the mountains changed, the rocks changed. And sooner or later the earth will change again and man will become extinct – and even worse, Lyell added, it will be deserved.

“Imagine what it must have been like for a man who was religious – not over religious, but with a faith. Just later Darwin suggested men were not born on two feet, but crawled out of the ooze. A book like that had immense effect on some people. Not the great mass – they wouldn’t read a book like that. But for some, they would be shaken to the foundations.”

Beryl Bainbridge is a fluent but diffident speaker. She uses lots of ‘sort ofs’, and if she makes a bold statement she likes to qualify it at once – “not over religious”, “not the great mass” etc. She has an easy rapport with her audience; she gets you on her side. She is at pains not to be a daunting author. But if her style is diffident, the overall impression is not of fragility at all. It is of a writer who knows the kinds of books she wants to write, and is confident in her skills. Also, pleasingly, she is full of eagerness. One has a great sense that the books are still coming, the ideas are still there. For a writer at the top of her profession – and any assessment would deem her at the very top – Beryl Bainbridge is surprising in her freshness, in her sense of excitement about her books.

It is an excitement matched by the critics. As I write this article, Master Georgie has just been short-listed for the 1998 Booker Prize – the fifth time Beryl Bainbridge has been short-listed, and this time she is the bookies’ favourite (the award will be announced at the end of October). Other books have won her two Whitbread Prizes (most recently in 1996 with Every Man for Himself) and a Sunday Express Prize. In other words, she is the darling of the literary establishment. She has ridden the changes in fashion over four decades, and maintained her quality of output throughout.

Only with the last three books, though, has she turned to history. As she explained, there were two reasons for this. The first, a pragmatic one: “if you write about your own experience, sooner or later you use it all up.” The second is more subtle. “I don’t think of it as history,” she says. She returns to this point several times in the evening, and it is clearly an idea that is important to her. “I get the facts right as I can, but I still – you know – Doctor Potter’s got bits of my father in. Certainly Captain Scott [in the Birthday Boys]. Certainly I put bits of my dad in – not that my father would even have gone outside if it was raining. You see, I don’t even believe in imagination – you know, something you’re born with like blue eyes. I believe that all that imagination is is accumulated, you could call them snapshots in the head of things you take in from the moment of your birth. Dimly heard voices. Words you don’t understand, songs, things you’ve read, bits of cinema, views looking out of a train – that’s what imagination is.”

In other words, there is no system about what can be included and what can’t. The historian is limited but also guided by the archives and sources that he uses. The novelist has no such helper. For the novelist there are times when the history will work, and times when it won’t. The governing principle is nothing so simple as accuracy or fact; it is the sensibility of the author, in reaction with the magpie-like collections of his experiences.

“In Master Georgie, the bit about the goat giving birth [she has just read this to us] happened two years ago on New Year’s Eve in Egypt, when some friends and I were in a village, and this woman was baking bread, and suddenly she said “Quick! Quick! Quick!” and we rushed over – she was baking bread at the same time – and the goat gave birth. And so you think, ah, that’ll work.”

Is this history? Beryl Bainbridge seems to ask. Or perhaps more accurately, what is history? Is Captain Scott historical, when the facts may be right, but she sees him through the lens of her understanding of her father? Or is that timelessly primitive moment in Egypt historical? It actually happened only two years ago. But it might just as easily have appeared in a diary of the Crimea. And whether it appeared in a diary or not, it might still have happened.

Roger Fenton - Lt. Gen. De Lacy Evans

“You just touch back a bit,” she says. And the ‘touch’, we feel, is at least as important to her as the ‘back’. “What I find fantastic about this so-called history is that before you think about it too much it seems beyond your reach and yet the minute you really get going, it’s yesterday.” Partly, this is because Beryl Bainbridge believes that people haven’t really changed, however much the world has altered. “The letters of the chaps in 1854, and some of the accounts: they don’t really differ from the way they wrote in the last war in one sense. I mean there are different kinds of weapons and that kind of thing, but the same kinds of people.”

Roger Fenton - General Brown and his staff

The real danger of looking at history is that the records themselves can distort the past. Records are fragmentary, and create juxtapositions that are artificial, even misleading. A good example of this, she suggests, is photography. “That was one of the reasons why I wanted to write at all. There was a photograph in the family album of my mother and father on their honeymoon in Torquay. They were sitting on deck chairs and there was a sort of palm tree in the background and they had their arms – not greatly round each other, but a bit. And I looked at it and they had – it bore – no resemblance to the parents I knew. I just wondered where had they gone. And I also wondered what was happening beyond that bit of palm tree and the edge of the deck chair. The thing about photographs is that you think they’re telling the truth and they do tell a sort of truth. They capture a moment. But in actual fact if one of us tonight took a photograph of this scene we’d get the faces – yes, that would work – and it would be a truthful representation of people, but we’d have no conception of what was going on up here, we wouldn’t know what thoughts were all about. So in a way photography is more of a cheat than anything else. It makes you look at something and look back and think ‘That’s what it used to be like’, but of course one’s never really sure. That’s the way it appeared to be like.”

The first two historical novels that Beryl Bainbridge wrote ‘touched back’ to the same year – 1912 – and grew directly from another book she was working on.

“I wrote a book called An Awfully Big Adventure centred around a rep. in Liverpool putting on the play Peter Pan. Researching about James Barrie (who wrote Peter Pan) I was absolutely astounded to find out that he was a great friend of Captain Scott, who went to the South Pole. One wondered why on earth? The little, fey genius who wrote marvellous plays. What did he have in common with the man of action who appeared – or then appeared to me – a very stiff and pompous individual? When Scott came back from not having reached the pole first – he’d died eleven miles from safety, frozen in his tent with three of his companions – he had his diary under his arm. They broke his arm to get it out, and then they collapsed the tent. But the diary had remarks like “Tell our people that there was never a cross word between us,” and, “We behaved like gentlemen.” These aren’t the exact words, but more or less. And there was also a letter to James Barrie. ”

These contradictions in Scott’s character are what draw her to him. He is obsessed with leadership and ‘behaving like a gentleman’, but at the same time he is the man who names his only son (Peter Scott, the naturalist) after Peter Pan. The result is an astonishing novel – The Birthday Boys – based on the pastiched accounts of the five men who died on that journey. We get a picture of a grandiose Edwardian world that is doomed by its own myth of itself. We also get a tremendous impression of the feelings of men who made it a point of honour not to express their feelings. While I was listening to Beryl Bainbridge talking about history and her sources of inspiration, I was reminded of a favourite passage from The Birthday Boys. I quote it here, wondering again which of it is history, which fiction – but utterly certain that it is true:

Petty Officer ‘Taff’ Evans is spending his last night with his wife before the voyage. He refers to Scott as TheOwner:

I slept badly. There’s a gas-lamp directly outside the window and it casts a glow, never quite still, on a patch of wallpaper above the wardrobe. In my fanciful state it seemed the wall was shifting. Some time in the small hours the clock on the landing stopped and the silence swelled up louder than the ticking. I thought of how in the morning Hugh Price would start it going once more, and how when my heart ceased to beat it would be for ever, there not being a key invented that could wind me up again.Then I dwelt on all the bad things I had done – the untruths told, the tom-catting around, the squandering of money, filching of those two cigars with their two little labels tossed over the side – and there was the usual melancholy pleasure in the exercise. Such moral reflections are customary before a long voyage; I expect it’s nature’s way of preparing one for the efforts to come. A man can’t give of best if he’s beset with worries of things left undone, words gone unspoken.

Lying there, I tried to go along with the notion that I was a weak and miserable sinner, and yet I had only to stretch out my arm, fist clenched huge against the lamp light, to know how strong I was, how endurable. For one dangerous moment I played with the idea of waking my wife and making a confession of sorts, just so I could go off purged, shiny as a new pin. I think the last bit of nonsense was occasioned by the tune of ‘Onward Christian Soldiers’ suddenly popping into my head. It’s the Owner’s favourite hymn, and he used to whistle it, or leastaways make the attempt, when we were trying to light the primus on the glacier. His lips were so cracked with the cold he could only manage one note in ten and he sounded like a cuckoo in spring.

Thinking about it made me snort with laughter, loud enough for my wife to stir in her sleep. Earlier, she’d let me love her, albeit grudgingly. She complained my breath stank. It never ceases to puzzle me, that, while men and women’s bodies fit jigsaw-tight in an altogether miraculous way their minds remain wretchedly unaligned.

As a reader, I primarily enjoyed that passage for its feeling and graphic account of a man about to set sail on his final journey. It is full of irony at his supposed strength, and gentleness about his failure to communicate with his wife. As a writer, I have gone back over the passage numerous times trying to ‘source’ it in various ways. The scene is set out, I guess, as a mock-confessional. Research has supplied the favourite hymn, and probably some of the detail of the clock, and the two cigars. The rest, I imagine, comes out of the ‘scrapbook’ of the writer’s imagination. As a critic, though, what has stayed with me from the scene is the stretching out of Evans’ hand. At once we are aware that it is his hand, not ours, by its strength, its hugeness. It is lit up by the dingy glow of the lamplight that is already in our minds. The hand is Evans’ answer to fate, to self-doubt, and to confession – and, as I’ve said, it is an ironic answer. The power of the scene, though, is that Evans’ animal strength does dispel fear, both his and ours. It is a primeval and existential answer to the terror of life, but none-the-less a valid one. Such strength is endurable – until it fails.

The fascination with Scott led in turn to Bainbridge’s novel about the Titanic, Every Man For Himself.

“I discovered that they [Scott and co.] were found in this tent in March 1912, and a month later, 1912, the Titanic sank, and there again you have these first class passengers, or reports of them anyway, changing – because most of them were in pyjamas – changing into evening dress, going to the rail, staring out at the lifeboats and shouting “Tell my father, my mother, my wife, I died like a gentleman.” And it was just the same – and of course ice, and lost boys, and Never Never Land, and all that ties that on…”

Again, it is the ironies that appeal. Every Man For Himself charts the four days of the voyage of the Titanic. Obviously, for most of that time, the passengers have no idea that this is to be a fatal voyage. The narrator spends his time worrying about fixing washers on taps, and about the Edwardian rituals of courtship. It is the author’s skill that she gives immense significance and shape to these seemingly random thoughts and happenings, while keeping her characters, as it were, completely in the dark.

Every Man For Himself provided Beryl Bainbridge with her first big commercial success – not unrelated, as she admits, to the success of James Cameron’s Titanic (“They
probably think they are buying the book of the film.”)

The anticipation, therefore, for Master Georgie, was intense. With Master Georgie, Beryl Bainbridge is ‘touching back’ further than before – this time to 1854 and the Crimean War.

“I saw a picture in The Times, a photograph of Sebastopol, and all that was in the picture was a few sort of mountain ranges and a bit of the Black Sea, and all these high-rise flats, and I thought, how extraordinary, because underneath that, all the dead are lying.”

The dead seem as much an inspiration for this book as for her two earlier historicals. “The war was such a cock up,” she says. There is a sense of relish in her voice as she conveys to us the statistics: “Of twenty-one thousand casualties, sixteen and a half thousand died of cholera, dysentery, bowel complaints, syphilis and frost-bite.”

The frame of the book, though, is not so much the war as a group of people whose lives are briefly focused by the war, and by Master Georgie’s patronage. There is Doctor Potter, who is an intellectual of sorts, whose turmoil of mind is represented in the chaos of the battle camps. There is the ‘duck-boy’, a young wastrel, whom Georgie has apprenticed to a photographer. (The Crimean War is famously the first war to have been photographed. Beryl Bainbridge makes much play on the idea of the photograph, on what it reveals and conceals, and on the arbitrary associations it suggests). Then there is Myrtle, who passionately loves Master Georgie, and who is the book’s emotional heart.

One theme of the book is the arbitrariness of such relationships – all set, one feels, within the shattered moral order that Doctor Potter perceives. You see people talking, and you assume they are communicating in some way. You assume that they, are sharing information. But how often is this true?

“If you think about it, being with a group of friends and chatting, nobody – not often – do you get answers. I mean no-one says, what do you think about blue, do you like this dress. Nobody goes into a long thing. It’s terribly disjointed. It’s as if people are having different conversations. And mostly that’s what conversations are like. Mostly somebody’s wanting to win you over to their idea, and this is what they’re saying all the time.”

People appear to be together – friends, families, mothers, children – but most of the time we only guess or suppose the relationships between them. Frequently – as the plot of Master Georgie shows – our assumptions are simply wrong. Master Georgie seems to be about the Crimea. It seems to be about the strange, unfounded passion of Myrtle for Master Georgie. In the end, though, we have the impression that it is a book about the lack of connections in life. Myrtle loves Master Georgie because she does. There is no more to it than that.

In drawing her talk to a close, Beryl Bainbridge shared with us the books which had made the most impression on her in her life. In a way one can see in them some strange influence for this late flowering of her fiction.

“The first book that ever got me going – and that was when I was about ten or eleven – was Stalky and Co. by Rudyard Kipling, which  was nothing to do with any world I knew about – a boy’s military school, Wellington. Then later, Francois Mauriac, Therese. Then two latterly. The Last of the Just, which is the book about the holocaust. Then Apsley Cherry-Garrard who wrote a great great book called The Worst Journey in the World, which is about going to the Antarctic – which is the most gruelling, the most pure fantastic hell.


Beryl Bainbridge’s Master Georgie is available in hardback from Duckworth. Her next book is about Doctor Johnson.


Copyright (c) 2000, Historical Novel Society. All rights reserved.

First published in Solander: The Magazine of the Historical Novel Society, Issue 4 (October 1998).

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