The Dressmaker by Beryl Bainbridge

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.’

dressmakerThe 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.

Something is.

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.

Getting Along With Beryl

‘A Quiet Life’ convinced me to take Beryl Bainbridge’ out of the box marked ‘undoubtedly an excellent author, but probably not for me.’ We got along rather well.

And now I have read ‘Sweet William’ we are getting along even better.

I could describe  ‘Sweet William’ in many ways. Romantic comedy. Social satire. Black comedy. But, for now, let’s just say that it’s a very good book.

isbn9781844088621-detailAnn’s life seemed to be sailing along rather nicely. She had a good job, as a secretary at the BBC. And she had a fiancé, Gerald, a sensible, successful academic. Gerald had a new job in the USA, and plans were afoot for Ann to join him there once he had settled in.

Her mother doesn’t approve of her lifestyle. Though, as the sixties become the seventies, Ann is less modern than many,  her mother is the product of a very different era. That helps to place the story, and its a nice counterbalance to the main storyline.

Gerald has barely left when Ann meets William; a tall, blond, charming playwright. He sweeps her off her feet, and straight into bed. Ann is besotted and she readily agrees to write to Gerald to break off their relationship, to share her home with Willliam, and to giving up her job to look after their relationship, their home, his career.

Warning bells would be ringing for some, but not for Ann.

After all, William had been wonderful when her cousin Pamela came to stay, pregnant and wanting an abortion. Something that was still illegal at the time. He went out of his way to be helpful and supportive.

But then William started to disappear at odd times, and any number of women were making the telephone and the doorbell ring, looking for the elusive William.

It seemed that he charmed every woman he met.

Ann was slow to realise that William was a philanderer, sliding through life on charm, weaving a web of lies and deceit to protect him from the consequences of his actions.

I hoped that Ann would catch on and move on. And I hoped that William would get his just desserts.

This is very much of a story of its time, but it still works because the characters are timeless. There are still Anns and Williams in this world, and I have no doubt at all that similar relationships are being played out.

It’s a simple story, but its eventful, and it carried me along at just the right pace. I had no doubt that the author understood, and she told her tale so well.

There’s intelligence. There’s satire. There’s wit. There’s emotion. And it all works together beautifully.

What I appreciated most was being able to understand Ann’s emotions as she was first besotted and then sadly disappointed.

I’m only disappointed that I’ve read two books by Beryl Bainbridge and neither will fit into my Century of Books. I’ve spotted two books that would fit.  I could go back in time to ‘A Weekend With Claude’ or forward in time to’ The Dressmaker’. They’re both in the library, and I’d be quite happy to have another encounter with Beryl …

Renewing My Acquaintance with Beryl

I’ve had mixed results with Beryl Bainbridge’s books in the past, and so I have left for a long time in the box marked ‘undoubtedly an excellent author, but probably not for me.’

But there have been a number of things, over time, that have made me wonder whether Beryl should come out of the box.

I realised when I read her obituaries a few years ago that I had come in part way through her writing career. That planted a seed. Maybe I should go back to her early books, and move forward to follow her on life’s journey.

I had planned to make a start during Annabel’s Beryl Bainbridge Reading Week Last Year, but the timing was wrong. The idea went on to the back burner.

But then Beryl’s early, slightly lesser known, novels began to appear on the Virago Modern Classics List, with lovely eye-catching covers. It was a sign. We were meant to meet again.

I’ve read two of those novels now, a few weeks apart, and I was very taken with both of them.

A Quiet Life‘A Quiet Life’ was one of the slim volumes I threw into my bag before setting off on a long train journey a couple of weeks ago. I wasn’t sure I was going to like it, but I thought I owed it a fair chance, a time when I could concentrate with minimal distractions. And that seemed to pay off.

It began with a brother and sister meeting for the first time in years, in a café to tackle the question of who would take what of their late mother’s personal affects.

Alan had taken a conventional path through life, and Madge had done the opposite. She told him that he had always been the favoured child, that he had been shielded from life’s harsher realities, but he remembered it rather differently.

He remembered an unhappy, dysfunctional family. A father who had a difficult war and bitterly resented that he had not come home to a land fit for heroes. A mother obsessed with the appearance of her home and her family. And Madge, who spent every moment she could with a German former POW.

Four lives pulled together in a small shabby, over-furnished terraced house. It’s wonderfully vividly painted, crammed full of period detail, and those details so perfectly chosen that I wondered how she knew, how she managed to pick out exactly the right things to illuminate the time, the place, the lives being lived.

Because period details are lovely, but a story needs characters to make it sing. And this story had them. It was Alan’s story and I felt for him, I really did, but I was also fascinated by Madge and fearful for their parents’ troubled relationship. Economic necessity and the  fear of defying convention held them together, but it wouldn’t have taken much to blow them apart.

There was too much life, there were too many emotions, in that little terraced house. And when Alan found a girlfriend maybe he took his eye off the ball, or maybe it would have happened anyway. It had to one day.

What? Now that would be telling!

Beryl Bainbridge pulled me into a real family, real lives, real relationships. She showed me the pathos and the dark humour in all of that. She showed me that nothing is simple, that all things will pass, and that by and large we do always hang on to hope.

This isn’t my favourite kind of book but it’s a very good book of its kind, and that has to be a good thing.

I was going to write about ‘Sweet William’ too, but the more I think about it the more I realise that it deserves a post of its own.

Another book for another day.