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Alvaro Ribeiro on Beryl Bainbridge: the Booker Bridesmaid

Alvaro Ribeiro on Beryl Bainbridge: the Booker Bridesmaid

This article 'Beryl Bainbridge: Booker Bridesmaid' was written by Alvaro Ribeiro, S.J. MLA, Washington, D.C. on 28 December 2000. Reproduced with kind permission of Alvaro Ribeiro. 

Permit me to take you to The Guildhall in London this past 7 November (2000), where fourth-time lucky Margaret Atwood of Toronto, winner of the 2000 Booker Prize for The Blind Assassin, is making her acceptance speech. "I would like to say," she declares, with a twinkle in her eye, "Beryl Bainbridge, here's to you, you have now won our little bet as to which of us could be shortlisted the most times."' Amidst the 533 invited guests present at that glittering Booker awards banquet, I failed to spot Dame Beryl Bainbridge's reaction to Atwood's friendly but pointed comment. Bainbridge's record of five shortlist nominations without winning stands, rapidly assuming in Britain the status of a national disgrace. When the Queen conferred a knighthood on Bainbridge last June, London's Evening Standard, for instance, thundered its reproach: "there was almost literally dancing in the streets of lefty old Camden Town [where Bainbridge lives] on Saturday morning when we all heard that darling Beryl Bainbridge had become a Dame. Partly we all rejoiced because we love her personally, partly because it seems like a decent corrective to the ludicrous failure of successive Booker judges to give this great genius our highest literary award for fiction."'

Dame Beryl, now aged 66, has published so far 16 novels since 1967. Almost a third of these, five, have been shortlisted for the Booker Prize: The Dressmaker (1973); The Bottle Factory Outing (1974); An Awfully Big Adventure (1990); Every Man for Himself (l996); and Master Georgie (1998). She withdrew Injury Time from the 1977 competition when she served as a Booker judge herself. Bainbridge is only surpassed in number of nominations by Iris Murdoch, who was shortlisted six times, but won in 1978 with her fourth entry, The Sea, The Sea. Beryl Bainbridge, Dame Beryl Bainbridge for her services to literature: five times the Booker bridesmaid, never yet the blushing bride -- why?

I argue that literary, personal, and cultural considerations regularly work in Bainbridge's favor when Booker Prize judges meet to draw up the longlist, then the shortlist of potential winners, but that these very same factors adversely affect the judges' perceptions when they gather to agree finally on a winner. I maintain Dame Beryl's record furnishes us with a case study in Booker Prize judging.

Literary considerations

Owing to time constraints, I cite from Bainbridge's work one multi-purpose quotation emblematic of all the rest. It comes from Master Georgie, her 1998 shortlisted novel set in the Crimean War. The upper-class geologist Dr. Potter is talking to the working-class photographer's assistant, Pompey Jones, who narrates this final part of the book:

These are times in which the truth should be told," Potter announced portentously. "Do you not think so, Pompey Jones?"

What truth would that be?" I asked. His face had vanished again [in the mist].

"In this case," he said, "I'm speaking of pictures."

I thought he meant photographs, and told him straight that I couldn't see eye to eye with him.

"Some pictures," I confided, "would only cause alarm to ordinary folk." I was thinking of the studies of exit wounds taken for the College of Surgeons.'

You will have to take my word for it that this is quintessential Bainbridge. We notice at once the limpid clarity of the prose, the finely-heard cadences of the speaking voices, the seeming ordinariness of this wartime dialogue about truth and pictorial representation -- then suddenly the bared bodkin plunges in: Pompey's thought flashes to gruesome mental mages of photographic "studies of exit wounds taken for the College of Surgeons." The eccentric eruption of the grotesque, the macabre. In addition to this clarity of her writing, she also deftly crafts the constituent elements in her novels: the discussion about pictures in this passage, for example, fits into an overarching structure of photographic symbolism in the book. Exquisitely honed, gem-like in quality, Bainbridge's novels are equally lapidary in length. Her 16 novels average 177 pages each.

Imagine yourself a Booker Prize judge faced nowadays with about 120 entries to read within six months. Bainbridge's clarity, voice, craftsmanship, darkly ironical comedy, and merciful brevity cannot fail to appeal initially. Reading for the long-, then shortlist is a process of reading for inclusion. Bainbridge makes the shortlist. But reading for the winner is an opposite process of reading for elimination. Her clarity then begins to look to you simplistic; her craftsmanship might seem a trifle contrived; the ubiquitous symbolism on a second reading starts to pall; and her brevity appears lightweight. The Dressmaker (152 pages) loses to J. G. Farrell's The Siege of Krishnapur 344 pages); An Awfully Big Adventure (193 pages), is swamped by A. S. Byatt's 511- page Possession, and so on. In sum, when it comes down to the final pick, Booker judges perceive Bainbridge's novels to lack artistic and physical "heft." And Booker Prize judges, faced with the gravity of their decision, naturally lean towards the gravitational pull of a big complicated book: Midnight's Children (1981); Possession (1990); Sacred Hunger (1992); The Blind Assassin (2000). Bainbridge herself would in fact agree with this analysis. In an October 1990 newspaper interview she admitted she was pleased An Awfully Big Adventure had been shortlisted, but thought it could not win: "It's not academic or obscure enough."

Personal considerations

In the touchstone passage from Master Georgie, we noticed how Bainbridge sabotages the conversation between Dr. Potter and Pompey Jones with the sudden interjection of the macabre. Such offbeat surprise in the midst of the seemingly ordinary pervades not only her writing but her personal life as well. Beryl Bainbridge, her loud protestations to the contrary notwithstanding, is a notable eccentric, even by British standards. "It is absolute rubbish," she maintains, claiming she is not eccentric since she neither smokes a pipe nor parachutes, "I'm described as eccentric because of the blinking buffalo in my hall."' Meet Eric, the full-sized stuffed bison, who greets you upon entry into the house of his mistress, who lists her recreations in Who's Who as "painting, sleeping." Comb the British press for Beryl Bainbridge and you will find regularly noted her "delightfully dotty personality or her barminess." The administrator of the Booker Prize, Martyn Goff, who has attended every meeting of Booker judges since 1973, has obtained great media mileage out of Bainbridge's behaviour as a judge in 1977: "Then there was Beryl Bainbridge who insisted on lying on the floor throughout, because she felt more comfortable that way." Picture it!

A media celebrity by virtue of such capers, Beryl Bainbridge has name-recognition that is attractive to Booker judges, who are otherwise excoriated for shortlisting unknown nonentities. Yet we also catch a hint of how the gossipy, hothouse world of literary London, the world of the Booker Prize and its judges, regards her in the Evening Standard quotation: "we all heard that darling Beryl Bainbridge had become a Dame." The tone is affectionate, but deeply patronizing; "darling Beryl" is not quite serious, and therefore to be taken not quite seriously. She thus runs afoul of the gravitas of Booker judging when the prize itself is at stake.

Cultural considerations

Despite her much publicized eccentricities, Dame Beryl belongs willy-nilly to the British literary establishment from whose ranks the Booker judges are drawn. Now recall again our verbal icon of Bainbridge's work from Master Georgie. Listen once more to the class-conflict raging in that brief dialogue between Dr.Potter and Pompey Jones, and see how Pompey subverts Dr. Potter's portentous announcement that "the truth should be told." Typical Bainbridge. And she herself claims: "I want my novels to do more than entertain. I try to recapture the past and gve a sort of social history of the times."' It is notable that this "social history of the times" in each of her Booker shortlisted novels has everything to do with issues of class. Each of these five darkly comic novels, spanning her whole writing career, explores with mordant humor the socially fissiparous effects of the British class system. It might justly be claimed that Beryl Bainbridge relentlessly criticises this aspect of British life.

I suggest that Bainbridge's class critique from within the ranks of the British literary establishment works both for and against her. On the one hand the Booker judges see in her novels much more than entertainment -- the Booker judge cannot therefore dismiss them outright. But when it comes to the fmal step, Bainbridge's censure of British ways might well strike a judge as disloyal. In this perceived betrayal from within, we confront that striking characteristic of the Booker Prize best described as "the Empire strikes back." This phenomenon allows novelists from the Commonwealth and overseas the privilege to write, as Salman Rushdie (198l), Kazuo Ishiguro (1989), or Michael Ondaatje (1992) do, with impunity as they sharply critique British culture, playing on Britain's massive sense of postcolonial guilt. But for Bainbridge, a native of Liverpool, to do so quite so insistently makes her into an internal threat. Thus do Booker judges marginalize her, and down she goes at the last hurdle.

In her consistent failure to win the Booker Prize, Bainbridge curiously reflects in real life the fate of so many of her fictional characters, best exemplified in Stella Bradshaw, the 16-year-old heroine of An Awfully Big Adventure. Stella nurses a great passion for Meredith Potter, the male lead, but keeps on missing the point that Meredith is gay and ultimately has no amorous interest in her.

Yet while Dame Beryl continues to write superlative novels, there remains hope. That pillar of the British literary establishment, Melvyn, Lord Bragg, host of the Channel 4 live TV coverage of the Booker Prize award dinner last 7 November, commenting on Margaret Atwood's acceptance speech, said in closing: "I'm glad she mentioned Beryl Bainbridge. And maybe next year we'll be celebrating Beryl Bainbridge - who knows?"'

Beryl Bainbridge - image (c) Jane Brown
Beryl Bainbridge - image (c) Jane Brown