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Bainbridge, Dame Beryl Margaretlocked

(1932–2010)
  • Mark Bostridge

Dame Beryl Margaret Bainbridge (1932–2010)

by Eamonn McCabe, 2002

© Eamonn McCabe

Bainbridge, Dame Beryl Margaret (1932–2010), actress, writer, and artist, was born on 21 November 1932 at 294 Menlove Avenue, Allerton, Liverpool, the younger child of Richard Bainbridge, commercial agent, and his wife, Winifred, née Baines. Her father was a self-made man who left school at ten, established himself successfully in business, but then went bankrupt as a result of the 1929 financial crash. His wife, who considered that her husband had married above himself, was disappointed and embittered by the family's reduced circumstances, and the young Beryl was raised in an atmosphere of marital discord. Rows between her parents were heightened by her father's terrifying rages. In her diary the teenage Beryl commented on his 'everlasting bad temper', and asked plaintively, 'Why don't Mummy and Daddy love each other?', resolving that she would never marry, or 'not like that anyway' (BL, Add. MSS 83818). In later years she was often to claim that her prime motivation in becoming a writer was cathartic: to understand the torment of her parents' relationship, and to write the poison of her childhood out of her system.

Yet despite unhappiness at home the Bainbridges ensured that both Beryl and her elder brother, Ian, were sent to fee-paying schools, though the source of money for their education was shrouded in mystery. From the family home at Raven Meols Lane, Formby, Beryl attended Merchant Taylors' Girls' School in neighbouring Crosby. She also at different times had private tuition in German, and lessons in elocution, music, and tap-dancing. Following her expulsion from Merchant Taylors' at the age of fourteen, for illustrating a smutty limerick, she became a boarder at the Cone-Ripman School at Tring, Hertfordshire, where she studied drama and, less happily, ballet.

Bainbridge left school at sixteen without formal qualifications. Through a business contact of her father's she found work as an unpaid assistant stage manager at the Playhouse Theatre in Liverpool. She had been initiated into the world of show business several years earlier as a child actor on the northern edition of BBC Radio's Children's Hour. At the Playhouse she graduated from menial tasks, selecting props and working as a prompt, to a walk-on part in Richard II. With hair shorn she appeared as a boy mathematical genius, and, in another cross-gender role, as Ptolemy in Shaw's Caesar and Cleopatra. She travelled around the country in provincial repertory companies, and in 1954 made her London début in Hobson's Choice. With her finely chiselled features, pronounced cheekbones, perpetual fringe, and wide-eyed stare—encouraging the impression that she had once gazed on something horrible—she was an arresting presence. She was always to remain something of an actress, adept at playing up to people's preconceived notions of her. Her final acting role in 1961 was as Ken Barlow's 'ban-the-bomb' girlfriend in Granada Television's new soap opera, Coronation Street.

At the Playhouse, Bainbridge had met and fallen in love with Austin Howard Davies (1926–2012), an art student employed to paint scenery. He was the son of Harold Hinchcliffe Davies, architect. They were married on 24 April 1954 at the Roman Catholic church in the village of Little Crosby. The drama and ritual of the mass appealed to Bainbridge. While in Scotland, with the Dundee Rep, she had taken the opportunity to convert, out of reach of the disapproval of her protestant parents. She and Davies settled in Liverpool, where he was by now a lecturer at the College of Art, in a house at 22 Huskisson Street, on the edge of Toxteth. Their first child, a boy, Aaron, was born in 1957, followed by a daughter, Jojo, a year later. The marriage did not long survive the birth of their children. Bainbridge and Davies were divorced in 1959 after she had discovered evidence of his infidelity. After moving to London in 1963 she began a relationship with the writer Alan Sharp (1934–2013, adopted son of Joseph Sharp, shipyard worker), with whom she had a daughter, Rudi, born in 1965. Sharp was present at Rudi's birth, but then, according to Bainbridge's later account, went downstairs saying he was going to get a book out of the car and never came back.

In 1967 Austin Davies purchased a house for his ex-wife and family at 42 Albert Street, in Camden Town, initially occupying the basement flat before making the house over to Bainbridge when he emigrated to New Zealand. Albert Street remained Bainbridge's home for the rest of her life, increasingly a showcase for her idiosyncratic taste, while offering irresistible copy for interviewers and journalists. To gain entry visitors had to squeeze past a stuffed water buffalo which blocked the hallway, while in the window of her bedroom sat a lugubrious, life-sized, papier-mâché figure of Neville Chamberlain. It was impossible to avoid the collection of plaster saints, including one of St Thérèse of Lisieux, positioned close to the bed, though as the years wore on, she disclaimed orthodox devotion, declaring that she was 'a lapsed convert' (Beryl, come on down, The Observer, 25 Oct 1998).

Writing, together with painting and drawing, had been creative outlets for Bainbridge from childhood. Her introduction, through Austin Davies, to contemporary Liverpool painters, such as Don McKinlay, encouraged her own work as an artist. She painted portraits of family and friends, and larger canvases, executed with inimitable style and irreverent wit, sometimes containing the figure of Napoleon Bonaparte, a particular obsession of hers. Painting, in marked contrast to writing, was a form of relaxation. Selling her work through exhibitions was additionally a means of supplementing her income during the 1960s when money was short. Later it became her custom to commemorate the completion of a novel with a painting illustrating some of its characters and incidents.

Bainbridge's fiction was at first less successful. In 1957 she submitted her novel 'The Summer of the Tsar', based on the real-life story of two murderous teenage girls, to several publishers. They noted the writer's promise, but rejected the book on the grounds that its subject matter was too controversial. Two published novels, A Weekend with Claud (1967) and Another Part of the Wood (1968), followed a decade later. But it was only with the appearance, in 1972, of her first novel, revised under the title Harriet Said, that she began to be acclaimed as a distinctive new voice in fiction.

The novel's publisher was Colin Haycraft, director and chairman of Gerald Duckworth & Co. Haycraft's wife, Anna, who knew Bainbridge from her Liverpool days, was responsible for Duckworth's fiction list and had persuaded her to revise her original novel when its manuscript unexpectedly resurfaced. Anna Haycraft's subsequent role as editor of Bainbridge's novels was largely nominal, and she rarely made any intervention at the level of the text. According to Colin Haycraft, 'Our main influence on [Bainbridge] was … to perceive her natural tendency and encourage her to follow it' (Haycraft, On publishing Beryl Bainbridge, BL, Add. MSS 83732A). Haycraft also admitted that it was Bainbridge's success that put Duckworth 'on the map'. Even so, for many years her books earned a minimal royalty rate. Instead Bainbridge was placed on a retainer, which provided vital financial support as she raised her family. Continuing uncertainty about her income, however, encouraged the extraordinary rate of productivity, during the first decade, of virtually a novel a year.

In these early books Bainbridge constantly ransacked and reinvented her past. Her aunts Margot and Nellie were central to The Dressmaker (1973). The Bottle Factory Outing (1974) drew on Bainbridge's brief experience of working on a bottle-labelling line. A Quiet Life (1976) returned to the troubled setting of her Formby upbringing, dramatizing the relationship she had begun at fourteen with Harry Franz, a German prisoner of war, a decade her senior, whom she had met in the pinewoods near her home. An Awfully Big Adventure (1989), with its seventeen-year-old protagonist Stella Bradshaw, who, in a typical Bainbridge self-portrait, appears to be stuck in an uncomfortable limbo between childhood and adulthood, was based on her time at the Liverpool Playhouse. Even Young Adolf (1978), which imagines Hitler's visit to his Irish sister-in-law in Liverpool, was set 'with all the streets I remembered and the people I knew' (Waiting for the biographer, 209).

When her children were young Bainbridge wrote at night after they were in bed. She saw writing as a finely balanced exercise, revising her manuscripts continually, cutting out extraneous material until the book said just as much—or as little—as she wanted. Her novels, short, and full of dark, mordant comedy, with the spectre of death never far away, were painstakingly constructed to give away no more than was necessary, even to the extent of forcing readers to retrace their steps in a fairly fruitless attempt to establish exactly what had taken place.

As her fame grew this hard graft tended to be belied by the eccentric persona that Bainbridge presented to the press and media. She had a reputation for heavy drinking, though because of her slight frame and limited appetite for food, it only took a small amount of whisky, her favoured tipple, for her to be overcome by the effects of alcohol. She made television documentaries, notably English Journey (1984), following in the footsteps of her literary hero J. B. Priestley, wrote short stories, several plays, and in 1980 a screenplay from her novel Sweet William (1975). Her popular column in the Evening Standard (1987–93) led to demand for her as a journalist. She later contributed theatre reviews to The Oldie.

By the late 1980s Bainbridge had exhausted the rich vein of personal material as a basis for her fiction. In 1994 the death of Colin Haycraft, with whom she had conducted a long-running affair, was an enormous blow. With his passing something of emotional and intellectual significance went out of her life forever. Haycraft had encouraged Bainbridge to switch to writing novels with a historical background, of which The Birthday Boys (1991), concerning Scott's Antarctic expedition, was an outstanding early example. Robin Baird-Smith, Haycraft's successor at Duckworth, gave Bainbridge her first serious advance—£120,000 for three books—and by 2001 she had produced Every Man for Himself (1996), on the Titanic's ill-fated voyage; Master Georgie (1998), set against the backdrop of the Crimean War; and According to Queeney (2001, published by Little, Brown), a portrait of Dr Johnson (one of Colin Haycraft's heroes) viewed through the eyes of Mrs Thrale's daughter. All three novels sold strongly, and together they cemented Bainbridge's position in the top rank of British novelists.

While she was the recipient of many literary prizes, and was appointed DBE in 2000, Bainbridge never won the Booker prize, despite being shortlisted a record five times. Her final decade was overshadowed by illness—she was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2005—and by an encroaching fear of writer's block. Always generous with her time and money to family and friends, as well as to complete strangers, she derived much consolation in these last years from her children and seven grandchildren, one of whom, Charlie Russell, produced a frank and vivid television documentary about his grandmother, Beryl's Last Year. The film, broadcast in 2007, showed Bainbridge preparing for death and trying to write a final novel.

In 2003 Bainbridge had begun this last novel, inspired by a journey she had taken across the United States in a campervan, in 1968. However, 'that bloody book', as she came to refer to it (Hughes, 195), progressed slowly. She found it almost impossible to write without the habitual cigarette in her hand, and was delighted when she discovered a doctor who not only permitted her to smoke, but also recognized that writing in a sense was more important to her than life itself. She died at University College Hospital, London, on 2 July 2010, and was buried, ten days later, in Highgate cemetery, where, at her request, mourners joined in the singing of Rolf Harris's 'Two Little Boys' at the graveside. Her unfinished novel, The Girl in the Polka-Dot Dress, appeared posthumously in 2011, incorporating amendments dictated by Bainbridge to her assistant Brendan King from her death bed. She was survived by her three children.

Sources

  • ‘Beryl, come on down’, The Observer (25 Oct 1998)
  • B. Bainbridge, ‘Waiting for the biographer’, Lives for sale: biographers' tales, ed. M. Bostridge (2004)
  • B. Bainbridge, Front row: evenings at the theatre (2005)
  • B. J. Grubisic, Understanding Beryl Bainbridge (2008)
  • The Independent (3 July 2010)
  • New York Times (3 July 1010)
  • The Scotsman (3 July 2010)
  • The Herald [Glasgow] (3 July 2010)
  • Sunday Times (4 July 2010)
  • P. Hughes, Beryl Bainbridge: artist, writer, friend (2012)
  • WW (2010)
  • personal knowledge (2014)
  • private information (2014)
  • b. cert.
  • m. cert.
  • d. cert.

Archives

  • BL, corresp. and papers, 1925–2004

Film

  • BFI NFTVA, After noon, P. Kimberley (director), ITV, 8 Dec 1977
  • BFI NFTVA, documentary footage
  • BFI NFTVA, light entertainment footage
  • BFI NFTVA, performance footage

Sound

  • BL NSA, documentary recordings
  • BL NSA, interview recordings
  • BL NSA, performance recordings

Likenesses

  • photographs, 1967–2008, Getty Images
  • photographs, 1972–2004, Camera Press, London
  • Snowdon, group portrait, cibachrome print, 1982, NPG
  • photographs, 1982–2010, Rex Features, London
  • S. Redler, bromide fibre print, 1984, NPG
  • photographs, 1990–2008, PA Images, London
  • G. Stuart, oil on card, 1995, NPG
  • photographs, 1997–2009, Photoshot, London
  • E. McCabe, photograph, 2002, priv. coll. [see illus.]
  • D. Kasterine, digital print, 2009, NPG

Wealth at Death

£723,733: probate, 27 Oct 2010, CGPLA Eng. & Wales

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