Beryl Bainbridge

Main image: © Brendan King

The Dressmaker at 50: a novel that encapsulates Beryl Bainbridge’s idiosyncrasies

An eccentric, concise, uncompromising and funny story of love and death, The Dressmaker was the first of five novels by Beryl Bainbridge to be shortlisted for the Booker - and gives the clear sense of a particular personality behind its pages

Written by John Self

Publication date and time: Published

Beryl Bainbridge, the eternal Booker bridesmaid, ‘should have won it three or four times’, said her friend Paul Bailey following her death in 2010. ‘Hers were better than the junk that did win.’ 

Well. The books that beat Bainbridge to the Booker Prize - including J.G. Farrell’s The Siege of Krishnapur and A.S. Byatt’s Possession - stand tall many years later, but it’s true that she was the most shortlisted author never to win, with five appearances on the Booker Prize shortlist. Even a special posthumous ‘Best of Beryl’ prize couldn’t assuage that. 

This year sees the 50th anniversary of the publication of Beryl Bainbridge’s first Booker-shortlisted novel, the gothic psychological drama The Dressmaker. (Check out that sinister cover!) Rereading the book now highlights how it encapsulates her idiosyncratic qualities as a novelist, and may even help to explain why she never took home the Booker trophy. 

The Dressmaker is an eccentric story of love and death, of thwarted hopes and clung-to dreams, which begins at the end with a chapter numbered 0 and the ominous word ‘Afterwards…’ At its heart are three women living in Liverpool during the Second World War, their characters so pungently flavoured by Bainbridge that the male characters are mere shadows. 

All three are given to ungovernable urges. There’s Nellie, the dressmaker of the title: her sewing machine is the vehicle through which she can control her portion of the world. She ‘played the machine’, observes one character, ‘like the great organ at the Palladium cinema before the war […] Nellie sat down with just such a flourish, almost as if she expected a storm of applause to break out behind her back.’ 

Nellie is ‘not the easiest woman to get on with’, says her brother Jack. ‘She’s a good woman, and they’re the worst.’ She sees herself as the head of the household, much more steady than her sister Margo, who is a former good-time girl, ‘the big blaze that died down through lack of fuel’.

Beryl Bainbridge, 1974

I write twelve pages to get one page, and I cut all the time. Unless a writer is superb, I don’t think it’s enough just to go wuffling on

— Beryl Bainbridge

Margo is living on memories of her past, of her lost loves. ‘They were attracted to her at first. And it was precisely the glitter that drew them at the start that drove them away in the end. She wished she was Bette Davis, Joan Crawford languidly sitting in a long dress, calling them darling, sipping her cocktail, loyal and loving always - but cool like a snake, telling them to go before they told her.’ (There’s a quality of Bainbridge’s in this very description: loving her characters, but toying with them too for the delight of the reader - and dispatching them without mercy when their time is up.) 

Stuck between Nellie and Margo is their 17-year-old niece Rita, who lives with them and becomes obsessed with Ira, an American serviceman stationed in Liverpool for the war. Rita is a naïf, ‘damp behind the ears, wrapped up in tissue-paper all her life, never exposed to the wind’. When she thinks of Ira, ‘possession blazed up in her, consuming: someone belonged to her’, though it’s far from clear that Ira feels the same way. Why else would Rita fear him ringing her workplace and getting through to ‘Alice Wentworth, the one with the big chests […] bold as brass, saying no Rita wasn’t in, but would she do’? 

The Dressmaker is a tiny slip of a thing - less than 150 pages top to tail - but it contains a whole world. The setting is a common one for her books: Bainbridge country, that is, Liverpool around and after the second world war. The war was the event through which no story, no country, could pass unscathed. (‘The damned war’, murmurs one character in her 1989 novel An Awfully Big Adventure.) The war represents a sort of crisis or fracture in history, feeding into the dramatic ending to The Dressmaker, and in an interview with the Paris Review in 1998, Bainbridge attributed her appetite for ‘tragedy and perhaps horror’ to ‘being taken as a schoolgirl to see documentary footage of the Belsen concentration camp’. 

And so The Dressmaker is characteristic of Bainbridge’s work not just in its setting but in that it reeks of death - most of her novels have death at one end or the other (and sometimes, as in the case of 1974’s The Bottle Factory Outing, which was shortlisted for the Booker too, at both ends). Yet it is not these plot details that bring together Bainbridge’s work as a whole, but her unique vision: uncompromising, eccentric, individual - and very funny too - giving the clear sense of a particular personality behind the pages. 

Beryl Bainbridge at home in Camden Town, London,1998

After all, who else would dare, as Bainbridge does in The Dressmaker, to give a character two different names - Margo is also referred to as Marge - without ever explaining it? (My take on it is that Margo – with its air of fading glamour - is how she sees herself, while the plainer Marge is how Nellie and others view her.) This is an example of the gaps Bainbridge leaves for the reader to fill in. ‘Well, I don’t like to be obvious or spell things out,’ she told the Paris Review

Who else would make their characters so ridiculous and empathetic at the same time? Margo is mocked as physically past her peak (‘her two cheeks flushed with rouge and her body the same thickness from shoulder to thigh’), but her first experience of love is described in beautifully moving terms. ‘She didn’t know what to do, and neither did he. Never been talked to, never read any books, never known what it was to take off her clothes without turning away.’ And who else would write a novel (Young Adolf, 1978) about Hitler’s putative weeks in Liverpool in 1912-13? 

This mixture of dark and light is emblematic of how Bainbridge saw herself. She was a serious writer but, as she told the New York Times in 1981, when her longtime publisher Colin Haycraft ‘said, “Why not write a black comedy?” it was like taking a cork out of a bottle’. The cork would never go back. So in The Dressmaker, we get quips - ‘Nellie had always impressed on Rita and Marge that there were two things they must never do: never sit down on someone else’s lav and never eat a shop-bought meat pie’ - but also an underlying bleakness. ‘Marge has got more feelings than the rest of us,’ Jack tells Rita. ‘She always thinks the best is yet to come. It isn’t. She never gives up.’ Above all, The Dressmaker, like much of Bainbridge’s work, is alive to the dynamics of power, especially as seen by those who don’t have much of it. 

These qualities mean that like her characters, Beryl Bainbridge’s books are distinguished by their refusal to fit. Her comedy is often direct, and some jokes for British readers of a certain age will bring to mind (fellow northerners) Alan Bennett or Victoria Wood: in An Awfully Big Adventure, a man with a disappointing career outcome is ‘an old boy of the Liverpool Collegiate in spite of landing up in toilet rolls’. But it also represents a vision of life as an absurd, if often brutish, caper. 

Bainbridge considered herself almost a chronicler more than an inventor of stories: her books were all inspired by fact, although the animating spark of invention on every page is unmistakable. Her early novels were drawn from family life: on The Dressmaker, she said ‘the sole purpose of the book was to chronicle my family’ - Nellie and Margo were her own aunts, and Rita stood in place of Bainbridge herself. 

Booker Prize authors 1998

All the arts - music and painting and the written word - are by their very nature elitist, which is why they have such power to enrich our lives

— Beryl Bainbridge, speaking in 2003

Her life was the sort, rich in conflict and difficulty and what her biographer and longtime assistant Brendan King called ‘emotional upheaval’, that is no picnic to live through, but provides plenty of material for dark, skittish fiction. As a child her parents were usually at loggerheads: ‘My brother and I made a pact that we would never be out of the house at the same time,’ she told the New York Times, ‘so there would always be one of us around to stop them killing each other.’ Later in life she developed an anti-talent for choosing men: playwright Alan Sharp, with whom she had a child, turned up for the birth, then went downstairs to get a book out of the car and never returned. ‘I adored him - I went through hell,’ she told The Observer in 2001. The experience informed her 1975 novel Sweet William, about an untrustworthy lothario. 

These life stories fuelled a remarkable run of novels: ten from 1972 to 1981, two of which were shortlisted for the Booker Prize. Bainbridge wrote not so much quickly as intensively, as she described in her Paris Review interview. ‘I work day and night. I don’t go out. I sometimes don’t go to bed, but just nap on [the] sofa. […] I live like that day and night for about four months and then it is over, the book is finished and I have a long bath.’ 

She wrote on an old black typewriter, which she felt helped to slow her down, and perfected each page before moving to the next. ‘I write twelve pages to get one page, and I cut all the time.’ Thus she ended up with books that left space for the reader to do some work, books that didn’t talk down to us, and stories that she covered in 180 pages where other writers might take 400. ‘I love narrative bumps and shocks. Nowadays, unless a writer is superb, I don’t think it’s enough just to go wuffling on.’ 

The individuality and idiosyncrasy in Bainbridge’s fiction was reflected in her surroundings too. For most of her adulthood she lived in a Victorian terrace in Camden Town, where visitors entering had to negotiate their way past the four-feet-wide horns of Eric the stuffed buffalo in the hall, and would later find a carnival of bric-a-brac cramming the house from wall to wall, including a number of life-sized mannequins (Jesus on the stairs, Neville Chamberlain in a chair). 

After she ‘used up my life’ in her early novels, she turned to historical events to inspire her later fiction, and was shortlisted for the Booker Prize a further three times. An Awfully Big Adventure was shortlisted in 1990, the title – which is Peter Pan’s description of dying – a typically puckish, Bainbridgean element. In 1996, she was shortlisted for Every Man for Himself, her version of the last night on board the RMS Titanic: its publication in paperback coincided with James Cameron’s epic movie. ‘They probably thought it was the book of the film,’ was Bainbridge’s reaction. 

Master Georgie, shortlisted in 1998, was perhaps the most striking of Bainbridge’s near-misses. In what the chair of the judges, Douglas Hurd, called ‘a quiet year’, Master Georgie finished behind Ian McEwan’s Amsterdam, a novel that few, 25 years on, would consider to be among his best work. And the last novel published in Bainbridge’s lifetime, According to Queeney (2001), was longlisted but not shortlisted. One of the judges, Philip Hensher, quite reasonably argued that ‘the media excitement over Beryl Bainbridge actually damaged her chances […] We realised that if we shortlisted her, she had to win. There was no point in blotting out the winner’s publicity with a storm of “Beryl Bridesmaid Again” headlines.’ 

Only the judges in the other five years can say why Bainbridge’s books came close but not close enough. Perhaps her individuality worked against her: the books’ uncategorisable nature – mordant, unpredictable, melodramatic, funny, horrific, playful – may have divided the judging panels. Such decisions are often the result of a compromise, and compromise was something Bainbridge never did. When she was awarded the David Cohen Prize for Literature – a lifetime achievement award – in 2003, she was typically direct. ‘One hundred years ago, only 10% of the population ever devoured what is alluded to as serious literature. It is my belief that things haven’t changed, nor should we wish it otherwise. All the arts – music and painting and the written word – are by their very nature elitist, which is why they have such power to enrich our lives.’ 

But, in the end, it is the playfulness of her books that, for me, is their most distinctive and admirable quality. It runs like a golden thread through the Liverpudlian dressmakers and bottle factory workers, the Don Juans and peeping Toms, the dramatists and hysterics that populate her novels. Beryl Bainbridge was a writer all her life, starting at the age of eight, writing stories at the kitchen table her mother cleared for her to work at. ‘If I worked for more than two hours,’ she wrote, her mother would tell her, ‘Run out into the garden, pet. All authors must play.’ And play she did. 

Beryl Bainbridge at home in Camden Town, London,1998