The British novelist Beryl Bainbridge had a lifelong fascination with tragedy — what she called “an interest in death” and what one reviewer cattily summarized as “the Beryl Bainbridge school of anguished women’s fiction.” Violence streaks her novels like marbling in beef. Her first completed (although not first published) novel, “Harriet Said” (1972), established her lifelong methodology: sensational true-crime violence (from an old newspaper clipping about a New Zealand murder) infused with true-life experiences (her affair, in late adolescence, with a married man). Later novels would explore, among other topics, Hitler’s boyhood (“Young Adolf,” 1978), “wife-murder among classical scholars in 1871” (“Watson’s Apology,” 1984) and a doomed expedition to the South Pole (“The Birthday Boys,” 1991).
An early rejection letter worried that her work “hovers rather uneasily between the lighthearted and the grave, between near-farce action and near-tragic.” This was true — as Brendan King demonstrates in his astonishing new biography — but also the entire point. Her most beloved novels use tragedy as an entry point into farce. The protagonist of “The Bottle Factory Outing” (1974) leaves her husband “because she couldn’t stand him coming home drunk every night from the Little Legion and peeing on the front step.” In “A Weekend With Claude” (1967), a woman thinks the man patting her on the bottom is a flirt, when really her skirt is on fire. With Bainbridge, the skirt is nearly always on fire.
Bainbridge began her career as an actress and, for the most part, remained one. “Must not bite my nails,” she wrote in 1946, at age 14. “Wish I was on stage, married or an actress.” For years, she worked, with remarkable preciosity, toward both: From ages 12 to 17, she kept a list of 17 boyfriends — including married men and a German prisoner of war she met secretly in the pine woods outside her Liverpool home. She worked as a child actor on the BBC’s “Northern Children’s Hour” and spent time in her teenage years in repertory theater. Even long after her time on the stage had ended, there remained something enduringly theatrical about her. She had, one editor recalled, “a particularly actressy voice.” But she was also someone who shaped her world through dramatic embellishment.
A fellow novelist once said of Bainbridge: “She transmogrifies events in her own way.” He meant it as a commentary on her delightfully skewed sensibility. Bainbridge referred to her workroom as her “laboratory,” and there was something a little Dr. Frankenstein about her, in either Mary Shelley’s or Mel Brooks’s iteration. On an American road trip in the late 1960s, she was delighted to find a post office stuffed with taxidermy and wanted posters. “For murder, for arson, for rape, for the suspected assassination of Martin Luther King,” she wrote. “I could have taken the lot but I had to ask and she said, No, they were federal property.”
But it’s equally true that Bainbridge had a tendency to transmogrify the facts. She said, for example, that she had left school at 14; that she had seen newsreels of Bergen-Belsen as a child; that her former mother-in-law had gone after her, “blazing away with a revolver”; that she lived next door to an albino Scottish lady and a West African man with 19 children between them. Her knack for embellishment wasn’t helped by her tendency to take a swig of whiskey before interviews, a nervous habit that wasn’t, as King dryly notes, “conducive to accuracy.”
King is able to sort through these claims and others without deflating their emotional truth. Her exaggerations were systematic, he demonstrates, a form of dramatization “designed . . . to contribute to the myth of herself as a writer steeped in, and shaped by, the effects of violent death and family dysfunction.”
The biography draws on materials from Bainbridge’s British Library archives, her beautifully expressive correspondence and her laboratory stores, but also King’s decades of working as her assistant, from 1987 until her death in 2010. The difference this makes amounts to the distinction between someone who studies French for a few years in college and someone who is born to it: His language is richer, his understanding more acute. He speaks Beryl natively.
Her language was not to everyone’s taste. Ten years into her 40-odd-year career, she was already known as “a writer whose public consists of critics”; her only Booker was posthumous; and her most popular novel, “Every Man for Himself” (1996), may have sold over confusion about whether it was a movie tie-in. “Even a rotten book about the Titanic would sell,” Bainbridge said.
“I wish I was someone else,” she wrote in a letter before her divorce. “Someone less born to be made miserable.” But she found dignity in misery, an exuberance in the extreme. Writing to a friend about her doomed explorer in “The Birthday Boys,” Bainbridge explained, “I think life is just another cock-up, heroic but unplanned, much like poor old Scott going off with such hopes, such bravery, such stupendous, awful stubbornness in search of a mythical pole.”
You have to laugh, or you’ll cry. The best of Bainbridge’s fiction — and this marvelous biography — invites us to do both.
Jamie Fisher is a freelance writer and Chinese-English translator.
By Brendan King
Bloomsbury Continuum. 576 pp. $40