Beryl Bainbridge by Brendan King
Eccentric but ladylike, and with a “winning” tendency to get sloshed, Beryl Bainbridge developed into a national treasure in old age, said John Carey in The Sunday Times. Yet the woman revealed by Brendan King’s “illuminating” biography – rebellious, resentful, recklessly promiscuous – starkly contrasts with this “cosy image”. Born near Liverpool in 1932, Bainbridge left school without qualifications and, as a young woman, “scraped a living as an actress”, first in Liverpool and then in London. She was raped at the age of 19, which gave her feelings of “worthlessness”. A brief marriage in 1954, to the artist Austin Davies, produced two children; later, she had a third child, with the novelist Alan Sharp. “Bedmates came and went so rapidly that it is difficult for the reader to keep pace.” At times, King – who was Bainbridge’s assistant for 23 years – “gives up trying to list each one by name”.
Though Bainbridge’s “turbulent” love life caused her much suffering (she attempted suicide in 1958), it was also what “shaped her writing”, said Dinah Birch in The Guardian. Her “uncompromisingly dark” early novels were all autobiographical, and many drew on her relationships with men. In the 1970s, supported by Colin and Anna Haycraft, who ran the publisher Duckworth, she finally achieved commercial as well as critical success. Weaving a “gripping narrative” from her entanglements, King’s biography is “compassionate and authoritative”. Unfortunately, it also misses the point, said Philip Hensher in The Spectator. Because King’s emphasis is so much on Bainbridge’s love life as a young woman, he is forced to “dash through” her final 40 years. Which is a shame, because Bainbridge was “loved by” hundreds of people, all with a good story to tell – hardly any of which make it into this “curious” biography.