Dame Beryl Bainbridge is regarded as one of the greatest and most prolific British novelists of her generation. Consistently praised by critics, she was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize five times, won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize and the W. H. Smith Literary Award, and twice won the Whitbread Award for Novel of the Year. She was born in Liverpool in 1932 and died in London in 2010.
"The plaster saints were not real. Dickens was her real patron, and she was the only writer of our day who had a truly Dickensian gift. Like Dickens, she used all the buried ghosts of a presumably unhappy childhood to produce a gallery of literary comedy. She would sometimes stand in Bayham Street, Camden Town, and a look of real reverence came over her face as we recalled the child Dickens leaving from that address each morning on the long walk down to the boot-blacking factory in the Strand." - from her obituary in The Observor 2010
Works Read to Date
The Bottle Factory Outing
According to Queenie
Sweet William 1976
An Awfully Big Adventure 1989
Beryl Bainbridge is highly emphatic, able to move from the consciousness of teenage girls, to an imagined young Adolf Hitler on a holiday in England, to blue collar women working in a bottle factory to Samuel Johnson and the Thrales in late 18th century London
An Awfully Big Adventure is set shortly after World War II, things are still rationed and life is a bit hard. The men in the story all have war stories. Most of the plot action resolves around the sexual dynamics and backstage politics at a regional English playhouse putting on a production of Peter Pain. The central character is teenage Sarah Bradshaw, from the poor side of Liverpool, living with her aunt and uncle, her parents having passed. Bainbridge has a keen insight into young girls without firm parental supervision, trying to find there way into the sdult world, especially into sex.
I think the obituary writer for The Observor is quite right in saying Bainbridge has an almost Dickensian ability to mine her childhood experiences for literary material. In the case of An Awfully Big Adventure, she drew on her experiences starting when she was sixteen as a helper in a Liverpool theater. Rural theater was struggling to come back after the war and Bainbridge depicts this very subtly in the novel.
Sarah develops an infatuation with an older male actor and is frustrated and confused when he shows no interest in her. The compsny is preparing to put on a production of Peter Pan and it is hard to miss the comment Bainbridge is making on men in the theater.
An Awfully Big Adventure is witty, wicked, and wry. I am very glad I have decided to read all the Bainbridge I can.
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