My book on the novelist Beryl Bainbridge, imaginatively entitled Beryl Bainbridge, was published at the end of 2014, but the origins of the project go right back to my undergraduate degree. I first read Bainbridge’s According to Queeney (2001) on a final-year contemporary literature module at Hull and confess I wasn’t sure what to make of it. There was something peculiar, ambiguous and intriguing that I found hard to pinpoint, something which undercut the sentimental cover image of a rosy-cheeked Hesther Thrale mère et fille. I filed it away in the mental folder marked ‘deserves further scrutiny’.
As I got towards the end of my MA at UEA and my thoughts turned to PhD research, I dusted off that folder and alongside a series of ludicrous and unmanageable projects, Bainbridge stood out. I also remembered Jane Thomas, who had introduced According to Queeney to the reading list at Hull, talking about how scandalously Bainbridge had been neglected by academics. These memories sent me hurrying to the UEA library to see what else she had written and whether I could face spending three or four years in her company.
I started to read Bainbridge’s back catalogue, first in a fairly piecemeal fashion and then more systematically. All sorts of connections began to emerge, not just between the earlier novels, which loosely follow the contours of Bainbridge’s adolescent years in and around Liverpool, but also between this period and the later historical novels like According to Queeney and Master Georgie (1998), which tended to be treated as a separate phase of her career. It seemed that whether she was writing about her own past or the world-historical past, Bainbridge was always asking questions about the nature of history, memory and representation. She was also engaging with pressing debates in contemporary fiction and criticism (particularly from critics concerned with the nature of the postmodern), and whilst her exclusion from these debates seemed wrongheaded it also provided me with a viable project.
In the absence of a raft of Bainbridge scholars, the application process was largely a matter of putting out feelers to see who was interested in supervising the project. Fortunately a number of potential supervisors expressed an interest, including Mary Condé at Queen Mary. I chose QMUL not just because I thought Mary would be a great supervisor, which she was, but also because of the Department’s reputation. And by reputation I don’t mean just the Top Trumps metrics of league tables and KPIs, but rather the comments and recommendations of tutors and other people who know the department and the atmosphere it fosters. It was also a shortish bike ride down the canal from where I lived, which helped.
I enrolled part-time for the first year and applied for and was awarded AHRC funding from the second year onwards (this was pre Block Grant, which ages me). The research itself was fun – genuinely – and although there must have been moments of crisis I seem to have blocked them from my memory. I was fortunate that early on I spotted a tiny, two-sentence report in the Guardian saying that the British Library had bought Beryl Bainbridge’s personal papers, and even more fortunate that they let me access the papers before they had been catalogued. It was exciting to know I was the first person to study these documents and I never quite knew what I was going to find. Sometimes I would trawl through final drafts or proofs that varied little from the published texts and at other times I would find an alternative ending, or an unpublished play, or an erotic doodle in the margins of a letter. It was hard to avoid getting side-tracked by tantalising detective work on fragments from diaries or letters, but dead ends and wild goose chases are all part of the process.
The archival work helped me develop a stronger understanding of how Bainbridge constructed her stories and of the underlying research she stripped away to create her elliptical novels. It also brought to the fore questions of fact and fiction and the ways in which Bainbridge narrativised the past in its many senses. Among the documents is a scrapbook prepared by Bainbridge, which gives a ‘key’ to the people on whom she based characters from her early novels, including photographs and short bios. For the biographer, this would have been invaluable, but for the literary critic schooled in postructuralism and suspicious of biographical readings it presented a series of questions: how much ‘weight’ should I give to Bainbridge’s claims that her early novels were fictionalised memoirs? Do they even work as such? If so, why were they published as novels? And are there any connections between these fictionalised autobiographies and her later fictionalised histories? It also spoke to a series of questions I had been asking about the ways in which Bainbridge’s personality and her anti-analytical attitude toward her work affected its critical reception. There was a tendency, I noticed, to dismiss Bainbridge’s novels as the ‘slight’ or ‘minor’ work of an eccentric, and to overlook the depth and complexity of the fiction itself.
All of these questions were complicated by the fact that Bainbridge was alive – and able to answer back – while I was researching and writing the thesis. I ummed and ahhed about whether to contact her, but when it was announced she would open the summer fete in the Suffolk village where my girlfriend (now wife) grew up, it was practically unavoidable. (N.B. Please be aware the above photo was taken some years ago and I have since rethought my hair choices. And yes, that is Terry Waite, who lives in Hartest and invited Bainbridge to open the fete.) We subsequently arranged an interview and spoke for a couple of hours, fuelled by strong cups of tea. As I expected she was welcoming but guarded and reluctant to analyse or attribute meaning to her work. The interview didn’t fundamentally change the direction of my research, though I’m glad I took the opportunity to meet her and it helped fill one or two gaps in the documents. In fact, it was worthwhile just to visit the Camden townhouse that formed the setting for several of her novels, complete with full-sized stuffed buffalo in the hallway and airgun pellet hole in the ceiling from when her mother-in-law tried to shoot her.
Such was the apparent eccentricity of Bainbridge’s life that it’s tempting to focus on the anecdotal when writing about her (see paragraph above), but when I reflect on it now I hope my research has helped to reveal what a serious – and often seriously funny – writer she was. Not only did my PhD inform my recent book but it also opened up avenues for current and future research projects on history and historicity, comedy, and contemporary canon formation. One of the things I love about research is that it opens up questions rather than closing them down.
As is sadly so often the case, an upsurge of interest in Bainbridge’s writing arrived only after her death, but there is a growing sense that she is now gaining the recognition she deserved. KCL recently staged an exhibition of her paintings, suggesting a whole new side to her artistic practice, and a biography is forthcoming from her friend and assistant Brendan King. More controversially, in 2011 the Man Booker committee awarded Bainbridge’s Master Georgie (1998) a posthumous ‘Best of Beryl’ award in recognition of her record five appearances on the Booker shortlist without a win. Too little too late, perhaps, and that seems to be the view of Mark Knopfler, singer and guitarist with giants of eighties rock Dire Straits, who I will forever associate with interminable childhood car journeys and my conviction that ‘Money for Nothing’ was about a man who got his ‘chips for free’. The lead single from Knopfler’s new solo album is entitled ‘Beryl’ and includes the lines ‘Beryl/Every time they overlooked her/When they gave her a Booker she was dead in her grave’. I may have spent years researching Bainbridge but I did not see that one coming…Join us on social media...