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Drama, creativity, washing-up    

25 November 2016

Beryl Bainbridge’s life outdid her fiction, says Caroline Bowder

Beryl Bainbridge: A biography: Love by all sorts of means
Brendan King
Bloomsbury Continuum £25
Church Times Bookshop £22.50



BERYL BAINBRIDGE was a notori­ously unreliable witness to her own life. Brendan King’s biography aims at setting the record straight. He untangles evidence from the variant collection of myth, fiction, and memory that Bainbridge produced about herself. “I can’t write fiction,” she said. “My life’s all in the novels.” But King reveals this life as even more dramatic than her fiction.

Craving affection from an early age, pursuing unsustainable rela­tionships, heartbreaks, and a few wayward pregnancies, she was led by a “perverse sense of politeness” to self-deprecation and inability to say no; but she was, herself, irresistible. She painted and acted, drank and smoked too much, worked phenomenally hard, and raised three children.

And yet she would “rage at being neither talented enough or the right sex or single-minded enough to do what I really want to do, and so much of my energy goes into the children and washing the dishes and washing the clothes”. Chaotic public personality, wicked granny, and Booker-shortlisted five times, she was awarded the prize post­humously. It was a passionate life, and this biography, at nearly 500 pages, generously reflects it.

King, who was Bainbridge’s editor, working with her to prepare her later manuscripts for publica­tion, is in a unique position to judge her work. Although not a great stylist himself, he mines a rich sup­ply of material because his subject was so prolific.

She and her friends exchanged numerous letters, kept journals, and expressed themselves in a way that is rare today. Bainbridge must, of course, hold centre stage, but King remains scrupulously obscured. He shows only obliquely in the footnotes how he first worked with Bainbridge.

It is a relief to find him anxiously checking up on her one night, and he does describe helping her to deliver her final, unfinished, novel, Girl in the Polka Dot Dress. Touch­ingly, he is there, holding her hand, at her deathbed.

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