Some years ago I read a few books by Beryl Bainbridge, and, after being quite taken with one and much less taken with the others, I consigned her to the box labelled ‘A Great Author But Not For Me.’ I was inspired to take her out of the box earlier this year by the enthusiasm of others – Annabel in particular – and by the publication of some of her lesser known works as Virago Modern Classics.
And now I have read three of her books I can say that she’s not going back in that box. I can’t quite put her in the box labelled ‘love’ but I can happily put her in the box marked ‘like.’ And the box marked ‘admire.’
And of the three books I’ve read this year, the one I like most is Sweet William, and the one that I admire most is ‘The Dressmaker.’
The story is set in Liverpool in 1944, a time when the city was worn down by the war and all that it meant, and when the end wasn’t quite in sight. And it tells of two middle-aged women and their seventeen year-old niece. They brought her up, because their brother couldn’t manage after his wife died. They are ordinary, unremarkable, working class women, but, seemingly effortlessly, Beryl Bainbridge makes their story fascinating, and suggests that something is going to happen.
Nellie learned dressmaking when she was young, and she realised it gave her a role, a position in life. She liked that, and she took charge of the household, managing the ration books and keeping things as they should be, exactly the way her mother had things when she was a child.
Margo was different. She had been married – and widowed – and she wanted to be married again. She worked in a munitions factory. She liked to dress up, to go out, to have a drink; but maybe she liked it rather to much, and maybe that impaired her judgement.
It was a wonderful study in contrasts and in sisterly love: one was joyless and domineering, the other was outgoing and tolerant. They suited each other, they understood each other, but maybe they wouldn’t always.
Rita wanted to see life too, and her head was turned by a little attention from an American GI. He was ordinary, unremarkable, but Rita saw a romantic hero, and she thought she had a great romance. She didn’t. Her aunts could see that, her father could see that, but of course Rita couldn’t.
Rita’s father – who had retreated to become ‘Uncle Jack’ when his sisters took his daughter in – didn’t like the Americans at all. and he wasn’t the only one. They were resented for being different, being more comfortably off, for being needed, for being liked ….. because, of course, they were popular with many.
Valerie lived a few doors away. Her family had money, and she was engaged to an American officer. She and Rita were friends – but only up to a point – and there, of course was another study in contrasts.
This is one of those stories that doesn’t feel like a story, it feels like life happening. Beryl Bainbridge dropped me into the story on page one, she left me to get up to speed – which I did pretty quickly – and she held me there to a conclusion was startling. And yet the clues had been there. That’s very clever writing.
Characters were brought to life, their world was brought to life, and a story unravelled. It all felt entirely natural.
And there’s much to think about – both in the story and in the real history.
It isn’t comfortable, but it is compelling.