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Book of the Week: the strange life (sodden, ‘so many men!’, the Parker-Hulme murder) of Beryl Bainbridge

Marion McLeod reviews a new biography of the great novelist Beryl Bainbridge – which reveals that she wrote an unpublished manuscript inspired by the Parker-Hulme murder in Christchurch.

This is the first full-length biography of Beryl Bainbridge, the brilliant Liverpudlian novelist, born a decade before the Beatles, died 2010. I’m leaving the birth date vague: she usually said 1934, her birth certificate said 1932. Obituaries were unanimous in singing her praises and listing her prizes: she won the Whitbread twice, was Booker shortlisted five times, and she was made a Dame. But on the birth date there was no unanimity.

We all know that writers are liars. But Beryl Bainbridge really seemed to believe her fictions. An example: she was actually fourteen and a half when she began her secret assignations in the woods with a German prisoner of war. But to make the story more dramatic, she wrote that she was 11 or 12. Everything about her life was complex, confused, contradictory. These words appear on each of Brendan King’s 500 pages. (That’s not absolutely true but the exaggeration is apt.)

King rarely passes judgment on his complicated subject but every now and then you hear the exasperation. Beryl liked to claim that she had perfect recall. “She did not,” he states firmly.

One more example of “Beryl’s massaging of fact”. In the memoir Forever England she recalls, as a 13-year-old, hearing the great Polish pianist Paderewski at the Floral Hall in Southport. She was taken backstage afterwards in her mother’s fox fur. “He was a small man with a lot of mad white hair and he said he thought I had some kind of specialness – I remember the exact word – but it was only because I was looking at him in a very intense way, out of politeness. My mother never got over it, me shaking hands with a famous pianist, though she too didn’t know him from Adam.”

Paderewski died in 1941, when Beryl was nine. And he never performed in Southport. Might she have confused him with some other white-haired pianist? King grants the possibility but is not convinced. Beryl was a fiction-maker from the get-go.

It’s easy enough to check stories involving public places and dates and King’s investigation is thorough and scrupulous. But when Beryl reports on her tormented, deprived childhood, when she writes about what Mummy and Daddy said to each other or to her or her older brother Ian, there’s no way to verify or refute. King spells out his dilemma, untangles fact from fiction where possible, and compiles a vivid and sympathetic portrait of a woman with charm and talent to burn.

Unsurprisingly, Beryl would never countenance the idea of a biography, “I’m the only one who knows what it was like, so how can anyone else write it?” Nevertheless Brendan King is Beryl Bainbridge’s unofficial official biographer: it was an in-joke that he was her biographer-in-waiting.

He waited for 23 years. As a young man, he answered an ad, turned up at Beryl’s house in Camden, London and found himself with an undefined job. At first – it was 1987 – he was a dogsbody, fetching beers and dinners from the local, helping with letters and phone calls, picking up Beryl’s grandson. And occasionally picking Beryl up from under the table. (Smoking and drinking were her chief hobbies.) Later King helped with preparing manuscripts, querying grammar and style and correcting spelling. In short, this biographer has a rounded view of his subject.

A deprived childhood, then. Her parents’ incompatibility shaped her, she told interviewers. Life with Mummy (a snob) and Daddy (he rejected her) set down patterns which recurred into adulthood. “I go on making messy relationships, fail and fling myself into a fresh one,” she wrote in a 1963 letter. “I seem to have an intense craving for narcissistic gratification. I have to get love by all sorts of means.”

Authoress Beryl Bainbridge at home in England. (Photo by Evening Standard/Getty Images)

Beryl Bainbridge at home in England.

Beryl certainly wasn’t materially deprived. There was not a touch of Mersey in her vowels. She and her brother went to expensive schools. He excelled, she was expelled. That’s how she tells it. She was caught with a dirty poem in her gymslip pocket – so mild that it’s not worth quoting. The school didn’t ever use the word expelled, though Beryl wore it with pride.

Later she was sent to board at the “Arts Educational School” in Tring, which was presided over by two retired ballet dancers. Julie Andrews had been there six years earlier. “We just dance or act or paint or do music, no school work whatever,” Beryl wrote to a friend. She hated everybody there and at 16 she returned home, alarming her parents by hanging about the docks, attending meetings of the Young Communist League, and taking up with Les Carr, a 22-year-old merchant seaman.

Les was Catholic, one of 10 children brought up in a small terraced house. His view of his girlfriend’s life was somewhat different. “She’s Berry Bainbridge of Formby who has never had to worry her pretty little head about anything in her life, nice, kind, respectable pampered middle class, doesn’t know what work, struggle, fight love and hate means.”

Beryl claimed to love Les, in her own confused way. “I think it all over now, and I begin to despise his speech and cheeky chappie Liverpool face. I’m such a contradictory muddle.” She was only 16 then, and can perhaps be excused. Though years later, speaking at a literary dinner, she was to insist that “uneducated regional accents should be wiped out.”

Back in 1947 Beryl had started a list of the boyfriends she’d had since she was 12. By the time she was 16, the list reached 17. And it was then that she began her career as an actress at the Liverpool Playhouse. In one paragraph, three men propose to her.

So many men! It’s not the morality concerns me, it’s the strain on the memory. Harry, Hugh, Paul, Ken, Adam, George, Mick, Les, Alan, Harold, Mike, Don, Ronnie, and all. If this were a soap – and at one point Beryl had a part in Coronation Street, playing a left-wing friend of Ken Barlow’s – no storyliner would ever come up with such repetitious script. Beryl falls in love, Beryl cries, then Beryl spots the perfect man and we’re back to: “this is the one”.

The one who was to be her first husband was a handsome painter, Austin Davies, who came along to the Playhouse to design sets. They got engaged, they broke it off, they were re-engaged. In 1954 they married, though nobody looks too happy in the wedding photograph. The marriage lasted four years and Davies was the father of Beryl’s first two (of three) children.

“We were too alike,” Davies said, when interviewed in Nelson by the New Zealand Listener ten years ago. Davies came out here in 1975 with his second wife, a New Zealand teacher. He became the first director of the Suter Gallery, from 1976 – 1994. (He also told the Listener that he had huge difficulty arguing for a café in the Suter – such things were deemed totally unsuitable back in the ‘70s.) He died in 2012.

Bainbridge’s own connection with New Zealand is minor by comparison, but interesting. With the marriage falling apart and money short, she auditioned for several Liverpool Playhouse productions but was unsuccessful, probably because she was visibly pregnant. So she started writing children’s stories, which she read for the BBC, who paid her seven guineas.

Then she became obsessed with a story in a two-year-old newspaper and decided to write a novel loosely based on it. The article was a report of the Parker-Hulme case. Juliet Hulme was originally from Southport. And in the Christchurch schoolgirls’ intense relationship Beryl found an echo of one of her own friendships

She called the completed novel “The Summer of the Tsar”. Two publishers rejected it and the manuscript has vanished. But King claims, unreservedly, that the remaining fragments show that it would have been “a truly stunning debut novel”. I hope it turns up some day in a Liverpool op-shop.

The writing of “The Summer of the Tsar” helped to turn Beryl’s life about. Austin Davies had abandoned her with two children: “So I started writing,” she used to say. That’s only half true. She began writing before the break-up. But her devotion to writing begins now.

In 1963 Davies (Beryl had a talent for remaining on good terms with her exes) found a house in London for her and the children. The children don’t get very much of a mention in this biography. Beryl didn’t neglect them, though it’s hard to imagine how there was time even to cook fish fingers, given the length of the lover list. Domesticity wasn’t her thing, and her cooking was rudimentary, as some of her men point out, usually more rudely.

Writing, children, men, drinking, smoking. The quick turnover of men continues, though the procession is a little easier to follow as Beryl becomes established in literary London. Her lovers are occasionally known names: the young biographer Michael Holroyd, for instance, who remained a friend and was to play a pivotal role in her career. Then there was the long-lasting affair with Beryl’s publisher Colin Haycraft (Duckworth & Co) who was married to her good friend, Anna Haycraft, aka Alice Thomas Ellis. Beryl conveniently lived round the road from the Haycrafts and their six children, and the two families spent a lot of time together – the women never mentioned the fact that they were sleeping with the same man.

Beryl was witty and wonderful in company. But she had made two suicide attempts in Liverpool and, recognising that she needed help, she went to the Tavistock Clinic. She was diagnosed as “hysteric with psychopathic tendencies” but refused group therapy.

King says little about the novels – 20 in all – although he writes that one way or another all are autobiographical, some of the early books directly so. In later work, the link is less obvious. Beryl would come upon an intriguing story (as with the Parker-Hulme case) and then impose friends and family on the skeleton. Even in the later novels, when she wrote about the Crimean War, the Titanic, Samuel Johnson or Scott of the Antarctic, the method was the same, though she kept the names: “The new book is about me being Oates at the South Pole. My Dad (of course) is Captain Scott.”

She was always brilliant at dialogue – thanks, in part, to the acting years, though the brilliance is there in even her earliest letters. Her writing was always packed with wit, flair and confidence.

She died of cancer, complicated by various other complaints, in University College Hospital, London. But she had tucked letters to be opened posthumously into the top drawer of a huge scroll-top writing desk. As instructed, she was embalmed and laid out in an open coffin in the front room and at the graveside the mourners were obliged to sing one of her favourite songs: “Did you think I would leave you dying/ When there’s room on my horse for two?” Bizarre enough then, even more bizarre now.

One final posthumous postscript. Five times Beryl had been shortlisted for the Booker – for The Dressmaker in 1973, The Bottle Factory Outing in 1974, An Awfully Big Adventure in 1990, Every Man for Himself in 1996, and in 1998, Master Georgie. Beryl was the eternal Booker bridesmaid – nobody else had been shortlisted, and rejected, so often.

But in the year after her death, the Booker Prize Foundation created in her honour a special Beryl Bainbridge Booker and invited readers were to vote for one of the five shortlisted novels. Master Georgie was the winner. And Beryl, the much-loved author, was finally the bride.


Beryl Bainbridge: Love by All Sorts of Means (Bloomsbury, $49.99) by Brendan King is available at Unity Books.


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