Bi­og­ra­phy Beryl Bain­bridge

Country Life Every Week - - Books -

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

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