My recent love is Beryl Bainbridge. I’ve come late to her but I am working my way through all of her novels. I think when I was younger I found them too dispiriting and opaque. Master Georgie struck me as particularly difficult to get into. You have to live awhile to appreciate how funny she made things, and how unique as a writer she was in nailing pretension, emotion and sex in a prose style all her own. Famously hard-drinking and smoking, darkly humorous in her work Bainbridge relished the absurd, the inexplicable and the violent. These traits are in this last novel too, but another flavour dominates: melancholia.
The Girl in the Polka-dot Dress tells the story of Rose, a young Londoner who sets out for the States during the tumultuous summer of 1968 to meet a man she knows as Washington Harold, with only a polka-dot dress and a one-way ticket in her suitcase. The two of them aim to join forces to travel across the country in search of Dr Wheeler – guru and life-saver as far as Rose is concerned; something much darker for Harold.
It’s a novel of a hopeless journey, against a backdrop of violent episodes and assassinations—first Martin Luther King, later Bobby Kennedy—and the shift in public mood from optimism to despair. The elusive Dr Wheeler moves on, and we suspect he might never be found, or that finding him isn’t really the point. “I’m only doing what’s best. We’re all looking for something,” Harold states, towards the end, after surprising us utterly with his closing act.
The journey of the novel echoes the final one that Bainbridge herself was on, since her health was failing and she was close to death while writing it. For an answer to the question “What’s the point?”, Dr Wheeler’s earlier advice to Rose is: “If you want a compass to guide you through life, you have to accustom yourself to looking upon the world as a penal colony. If you abide by this you’ll stop regarding disagreeable incidents, sufferings, worries and miseries as anything out of the ordinary. Indeed, you’ll realise that everything is as it should be; each of us pays the penalty of existence in our own peculiar way.”
For Rose, the one moment of true love had been snatched from her by a mother, who saw it as “a dirty union between under-age fornicators . . . which was why it was necessary for the resulting infant to be given away. Mothers could always be depended on to know what was best.” One
might take this to be the author’s final comment on the matter, a cackling voice from the grave urging us to accept the unpalatable, to see that our dreams will fail, that whatever joy we experience will be stolen. Even in the last days of her life, Bainbridge was planning to get up and work, to fix the novel that had bewitched and eluded her for nearly 10 years.
So if life’s so pointless, how do we explain the author’s persistent and courageous endeavour to engage with it? Her novel offers joy and some kind of answer for the reader who takes pleasure in bloody good writing: the salty prose; the rationed cruelty towards characters; the wicked observation; the frugal way with adjectives, adverbs and sub-clauses; the deadpan tone; the punch. It might not be line for line as Bainbridge intended (as it was compiled by her sympathetic editor from the unfinished manuscript), but I urge you to read it. Authentic, stinging and truthful, Bainbridge spoke as she found, in her own peculiar way.
I told Jill that I’d been meaning to read some Beryl Bainbridge and she recommended that I start with The Dressmaker, so I will be checking that out of the local library this week. I can’t recommend The Great Lover highly enough, but check out Jill’s other projects here.