When a vaunted life and fiction converge – Washington Times

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

BERYL BAINBRIDGE A BIOGRAPHY: LOVE BY ALL SORTS OF MEANS

By Brendan King

Bloomsbury, $40, 564 pages, illustrated

The very term Dame of the British Empire — the female equivalent of a knighthood in the British gentry — inevitably summons up a majestic figure. But there was nothing genteel about the British novelist Dame Beryl Bainbridge DBE (1932-2010). In fact, she had more in common with the term as it is used in Oscar Hammerstein’s immortal song “There is Nothing Like a Dame.” Her biographer, Brendan King, who worked for Bainbridge for almost a quarter century before her death, informs us that “although she was slightly embarrassed by the formality and vague pomposity of the title ‘Dame,’ she was nevertheless proud of the award.” The contradictions inherent in all this are characteristic of a woman and a writer who never fitted easily into categories, whether personal or professional.

Certainly, there are very few hints of future eminence in the Liverpool schoolgirl known as “Basher Bainbridge” because of her propensity for fighting or in her lack of formal education. Her career as an actress was not without its moments, but the inevitably sporadic nature of such a career had the main virtue of giving her time to write. And as with all literary biographies, it is her writing — more than two dozen works of fiction and four of nonfiction — which justify this biography. Yet it was fed, to an unusual extent, by the tempestuous life she lived.

Mr. King tells us, “Throughout her writing career Beryl encouraged the notion that her books were straightforwardly autobiographical. ‘I can’t write fiction,’ she would tell interviewers; ‘my life’s all in the novels.’”

But he goes on to add crucially — and I think absolutely correctly — that “If this biography demonstrates one thing, it is that there is a more complicated relationship than has been commonly supposed between the facts of Beryl’s life and the representations of it contained in her fiction.”

An early novel like “Sweet William” draws directly on the unconventional, freewheeling life she led in bohemian London. But this is someone who wrote novels about subjects as diverse as Hitler in pre-World War I Liverpool (1978’s “Young Adolf”); the sinking of “RMS Titanic” (1996’s “Every Man for Himself”);the Crimean War in the mid-1850s (1998’s “Master Georgie”); and Captain Scott’s ill-fated quest to be the first man to reach the South Pole (1991’s “The Birthday Boys”). Apart from the connection to her hometown in “Young Adolf” — and even that was decades before she knew it — these novels are packed with imaginative, fictive invention. Yet it is Ms. Bainbridge’s particular genius to infuse all of them with intensely personal insights drawn from friends, family members, and intimate situations drawn from a life lived to the full and then some. Everything was grist for an uncommonly productive mill.

Much of Ms. Bainbridge’s life does not make for edifying reading, messy as it was with relationships, often started and ended hastily, with a lot of collateral damage. A standout even in as stormy a passage as hers is her relationship with Colin and Anna Haycraft, who published her. Anna, who wrote novels under the name Alice Thomas Ellis, was actually her editor, despite the fact that Beryl was having an affair with Colin. Unsurprisingly, the once close friendship and collaboration between the two women ended unhappily. But the difficult circumstances in which Ms. Bainbridge managed to produce so prodigious an output oddly makes one admire her more.

One subject that drew Ms. Bainbridge’s most intense interest was Nazi death camps, films of which she claimed to have seen in a form, location, and time which her diligent biographer calls into question. But he does not underestimate the searing effect they had on her, nor of the visit she paid to Yad Vashem years later on a writers’ tour of Israel. For all the capacity for self-mythologizing which he rightly identifies as central to her life and art, there was nothing solipsistic or closed up about her. She was profoundly affected by outside events.

Drawing on many sources, Mr. King does an admirable job of using his decades of knowing Ms. Bainbridge to enhance his interpretation of her life and work while never allowing the personal to overwhelm. He concludes by writing, “In presenting Beryl’s life honestly and openly for the first time, therefore, I hope this biography will help dispel the myths that surround her name and lead to a fresh evaluation of her, both as a woman and as a writer. Only by understanding how the emotional traumas she lived through shaped her complex, contradictory personality can we begin to unravel the process by which she converted these experiences into the novels for which she will be remembered.”

Those last words are spot on, because although like everyone else’s, Ms. Bainbridge novels can stand on their own, they are unusually bound up with her life. And so Mr. King’s lengthy, probing biography will be of enormous help in enhancing the reader’s appreciation of her multifarious output.

• Martin Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, California.

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