Beryl Bainbridge, 77

Obituary: Beryl Bainbridge, acclaimed British novelist, dies at 77

Beryl Bainbridge was nominated for the Booker Prize five times.
Beryl Bainbridge was nominated for the Booker Prize five times. (Jerry Bauer For The Washington Post)
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By Matt Schudel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 4, 2010

Beryl Bainbridge, an acclaimed English novelist who turned her difficult childhood and memorable episodes in British history into lean, sardonic fiction, died July 2 of cancer at a hospital in London. She was 77.

Ms. Bainbridge was known as the "Booker bridesmaid" because five of her 18 novels made the short list for the Man Booker Prize, Britain's most prestigious literary award. She never won the prize, however, contenting herself with superlative reviews.

In 2008, the Times of London Times called Ms. Bainbridge one of the "50 greatest British writers since 1945," for a body of work that was marked by dark humor, psychological tension and violence.

"She was a natural storyteller," her American publisher, Kent Carroll, said in a telephone interview. "Everything was fresh and original. She had a penetrating vision of the vanity of humanity."

Her early works, including "The Dressmaker" (1973), "Sweet William" (1975) and "A Quiet Life" (1976), drew on her youth in Liverpool and her experiences in the theater. Later, she turned to history, with a series of novels that won over critics and readers alike. "The Birthday Boys" (1991) was a fictional account of Robert Falcon Scott's doomed expedition to the South Pole in 1911 and 1912; "Every Man for Himself" (1996) retold the story of the Titanic; "Master Georgie" (1998) addressed medicine and photography during the Crimean war of the 19th century; and "According to Queeney" (2001) examined the life and death of 18th-century man of letters Samuel Johnson.

"I much prefer the past," she said in 2001. "I don't feel comfortable in the so-called present."

Ms. Bainbridge, who was expelled from school at 14, worked as an actress in regional theater and was a housewife before finding belated recognition as a writer. In her late 30s, she held low-level jobs in publishing and worked in a factory, applying labels to wine bottles -- which became the subject of her 1974 novel, "The Bottle Factory Outing."

She was also something of a free spirit, known for her eccentric London house, in which visitors were greeted by a stuffed water buffalo named Eric. For years, she seemed to survive on cigarettes, whiskey and love affairs. She had little patience for the feminist movement, saying that in her household women had always been in charge.

"Beryl had an absolutely original voice: She was a serious comedian, all of whose novels ended tragically," writer Michael Holroyd told the Guardian newspaper in England. "She presented herself sometimes as a clown, an entertainer, but behind that mask was a committed novelist."

Most reference sources say Beryl Margaret Bainbridge was born Nov. 21, 1934, in Liverpool. In a 2008 essay, Ms. Bainbridge wrote that she was born in 1932, and recently unearthed records indicate that her birth had been registered in early 1933.

When her mother found a risque limerick and illustration among her things, she took the evidence to her daughter's headmistress, who expelled Ms. Bainbridge from school at 14.

After falling in love in her early teens with a German prisoner of war in England, Ms. Bainbridge joined a job a Liverpool theater and spent several years on the stage in England and Scotland.

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