Beryl Bainbridge again makes historyBeryl Bainbridge seems attracted to historical doom. Four years ago she produced a novel, The Birthday Boys, about the ill-fated 1910-12 Scott expedition to the Antarctic. Two years after that she wrote Every Man for Himself, about the maiden, and only, voyage of the Titanic.
Now, two more years later, she has brought out Master Georgie, a novel that takes as its background the consummate slaughter that was the Crimean War.
Viewing her career overall, since the 1960s when she began writing about working-class and lower-middle-class lives filled with violence, this attraction is not surprising. She has simply dropped historical in front of a career-long preoccupation with disaster and menace. The world is not a cheerful place in Bainbridge's fiction comic and absurd, certainly, but rarely cheerful.
Unlike the other two novels, which tell the stories of their events, Master Georgie does not tell about the Crimean War. It is set against the background of, rather than being about, the war.
The novel is told in seven sections, called plates in reference to its photography sub-theme, starting in Liverpool in 1846 and ending in the Crimea in November 1854. Each section is told in the first person by one of three characters, all revolving around and commenting on the central character, George Hardy, a surgeon and amateur photographer.
Myrtle, a foundling whose devotion to Hardy is intense: I'd freeze stiff for Master Georgie. Their sexual relationship is as strange and shadowy as Myrtle's position in the Hardy household; there is even a hint that she somehow clandestinely may have borne Hardy the children that his wife could not have.
Pompey Jones, an urchin who helps Hardy with his photography experiments and other, less savory activities. He develops into a photographer's assistant and something of an entrepreneur. Pompey's attitude I didn't wholeheartedly despise George Hardy differs from Myrtle's, not so much because of a homosexual advance Hardy made, but because of the class distinction between them. Likewise his attitude toward Myrtle, who he feels has been raised above him: All I ever wanted, as regards Myrtle, was the recognition that she and I were of a kind. Dr. Potter, Hardy's brother-in-law. Though a pedant and a cipher in general, he is the least subjective observer. Along with the other two, he is with Hardy when Hardy hauls his father home after dying in a whore's bed and props him up for a posthumous photograph, showing him lying peacefully, and seemingly alive, in his own bed.
Eventually, all four hie themselves off to the Crimean War. If it is unclear why Hardy goes, since he has been rejected as a military doctor, it is even more unclear why the others, except for blindly devoted Myrtle, follow. Still unclearer yet is why, when conditions become squalid and perilous, they remain, since they are not obligated to. You want to holler at them, the way you want to holler at the movie screen when a person perversely remains in a haunted house: Get out of there!But life is not like that, and to insist that motives in a novel be any more rational than they are in most of our own lives is to opt for the pot-boiler. Which Bainbridge has not written. She has written, once again, an outstanding novel about weak and essentially clueless souls caught in a situation of danger and violence.
And God bless her for her minimalist approach to historical fiction. Rather like Brian Moore, whose The Statement and The Magician's Wife were based on historical events, she has produced a work of reasonable length, not a thumping great historical doorstop.
If there is less of the historical in this than in her previous novels, that is all right. Bainbridge still imparts a sense of time and place with deft, almost casual references to contemporary conditions rather than a catalog of the times. For example: Poor people appear predatory owing to their bones showing, Myrtle thinks, and bones were in abundance among the gaggle of ragged boys on the corner, the wild children squabbling in the gutter, the stupefied men slouched against the railings. Nothing is neat in this novel save, perhaps, the ending. It ends with another corpse being propped up, this time for a photographer who wants a posed group of survivors to show the folks back home. It wouldn't be fair to divulge the corpse's identity beyond saying that what goes around, comes around.
Roger Miller is a freelance writer. He can be reached at email@example.com