Biography Beryl Bainbridge
Brendan King (Bloomsbury, £25)
None of us would like to have our untidy lives laid bare in the way brendan King lays bare the astonishingly messy life of beryl bainbridge. We all have failed relationships we would rather not see immortalised in print, but the high-cheekboned bainbridge, five times nominated for the booker Prize with her novels, has to be one of the 20th-century british champions of serial failed relationships and here they all are, in their initial dazzle and their subsequent disenchanted petering-out.
reading this book, you get to know beryl in all her frailty, neediness and dyslexia and, by the end, you feel vicariously sexually exhausted, as well as drunk.
‘If only you’d married Franz,’ you say, by the time beryl is on doomed love affair number 38 and you’re thinking ‘So how’s this one going to go wrong?’. Franz was the adorable German former prisoner-of-war she was in love with aged 15 in 1947. If she had married Franz, what a different story hers would have been, but Franz moved back to Germany and, as mr King writes, ‘she measured all her future loves against this idyll that was never tested by reality’.
So she had an affair with a local Liverpool art student, austin Davies, who decorated the sets of plays she was in as an up-and-coming actress. austin dumped her and went on to have an affair with anne Lindholm, who became pregnant by him and then went through the trauma of an abortion paid for by him. Later, beryl did marry austin and it was a dismal marriage.
the great coincidence of beryl’s life was that, years later in London, her son (by austin) became friends at school with a boy called William Haycraft— who turned out to be the son of that self-same anne, now anna Haycraft (who would write under the name of alice thomas-ellis). She and her husband, Colin Haycraft, who ran the publishing house Duckworth’s, took beryl on as a novelist and her successful years began. then, beryl embarked on a long, secret affair with Colin.
this biography would make a useful handbook for how not to live your life. Whichever relationship beryl is in, she wishes she were not, but the moment the relationship ends, she feels desperately nostalgic for it and clings on to it for much too long, before starting another one with someone even less suitable.
the 1968 journey across the USA with her american boyfriend known as Washington Harold is hilarious in its ghastliness. She has fallen in love with another man (sexy, bearded Don mckinley) just before the trip begins, so her heart isn’t in it. Cramped in a camper van, bitten by mosquitoes, she and Harold drive hundreds of miles a day and it’s a disaster. by the end, beryl is writing to a friend: ‘If I see him again in 1000 years it will be once too often.’
but what of the novels? We don’t get to the first one until page 280, by which time beryl is still only 35. although mr King names each novel in turn and tells us what inspired them and how well or badly they did, he doesn’t manage to convey the spirit of her fiction. His prose is rather galumphing and heavy-handed: he makes obvious comments such as: ‘Perhaps inevitably given that she grew up during a time of war, beryl became interested in social and political issues.’
the only thing to do after reading this book is to go back to the novels themselves—and be glad they were well edited, because beryl never worked out where to put the apostrophe in ‘didn’t’.
‘Whichever relationship Beryl is in, she wishes she were not