The Dressmaker by Beryl Bainbridge

This is another ‘catching-up’ post about a book I read a while ago. It’s one of my TBRs and also one of my 20 Books of Summer. It’s a novel with an under current of psychological suspense.


Wartime Liverpool is a place of ration books and jobs in munitions factories. Rita, living with her two aunts Nellie and Margo, is emotionally naïve and withdrawn. When she meets Ira, a GI, at a neighbour’s party she falls in love as much with the idea of life as a GI bride as with the man himself. But Nellie and Margo are not so blind …

My thoughts:

I read The Dressmaker because I’ve enjoyed other books by Beryl Bainbridge. It’s a novella, really, as it’s only 160 pages. I love her style, clear, concise prose, with fully realised characters and descriptive settings. It was first published in 1973 – my copy is a Fontana edition published in 1985.

The Dressmaker was runner up for the 1973 Booker Prize and also for the Guardian Fiction Prize. The Sunday Times, is quoted on the back cover: ‘ Like the better Hitchcock films Miss Bainbridge suggests a claustrophobic horror … An impressive, haunting book.’

It’s a wartime story of life in Liverpool in 1944, where Rita, aged 17, is living with her two middle-aged aunts, Nellie (shown on the cover of my 1985 copy) and Margo, also called Marge. Her mother had died in childbirth, and she had lived with them as her father, their brother Jack, was unable to bring her up whilst single-handedly running his butcher’s shop. Rita, although she knows he is her father, calls him ‘Uncle Jack’. She is naive and innocent, and after meeting Ira she fantasises about being a GI bride, but her aunts are not taken in by him and view him in a very different light. She dreams about life in America as Ira’s wife:

After the war he would take her to the States, and they’d have a long black car and a grand piano with a bowl of flowers on the table. There’d be a house with a verandah and wooden steps, and she would run down them in a dress with lots of folds in the skirt and peep-toed shoes. Auntie Nellie would tell Mrs Mander how well-off they were, how Ira cared for her, the promotion he kept getting at work. (page 59)

The opening chapter signals with the word ‘afterwards‘ that something significant had happened, but with no indication of what it was. It left me wondering where this book was going. At first it seemed a rather mundane story of everyday life, but as the story played out I began to feel it was leading up to a tragedy – something terrible was coming towards this working class family.

And indeed it was – and it was shocking, particularly given the domestic setting. It’s only with the final denouement that the mystery hinted at in the opening chapter is revealed in a savage and violent climax. Even though I was expecting a tragedy the actual nature of it took me totally by surprise.

8 thoughts on “The Dressmaker by Beryl Bainbridge

  1. That’s the thing about Bainbridge, I think, Margaret. She was able to build psychological suspense like that, and really surprise the reader. Even if you know something terrible probably will happen you’re still not always ready for what happens. Interesting, too, how that plays out in contrast to the more ‘everyday’ descriptions of life, if that makes sense.

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  2. I love Beryl Bainbridge, although until quite recently I hadn’t read any of her books in years (there are several novels I haven’t yet gotten to). I read The Dressmaker years ago and thought it was great. Like you, I love Bainbridge’s spare, elegant style and her ability to depict her characters’ psychology and to evoke a domestic setting.
    I recently read Bainbridge’s Every Man for Himself, which was also shortlisted for the Booker prize, and thought it was among her best. I had initially avoided it because I’m generally not fond of books involving anything to do with the Titanic. In this case, however, it provided Bainbridge with a perfect setting in which to turn that gimlet gaze of hers onto late Edwardian society. She’s such a wonderful writer, I’m thinking about making a major effort to read all her novels (and re-read the ones I first encountered years ago).

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    1. I like your description of Bainbridge’s ‘gimlet gaze’! I have a few of her books I haven’t read yet, including Every Man for Himself. One of my favourites of hers is The Birthday Boys about Captain Scott’s last Antarctic Expedition.

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      1. We share a favorite! The Birthday Boys was my first novel by BB, whom I had not been that eager to read (don’t ask why! One of my many literary miscalculations). It only took a few pages for me to see what all the fuss was about. I went on a bit of a “Bainbridge binge” (really must control my tendency for alliteration) after that and read several, right in a row. Aside from The Dress Maker and Birthday, I recall being very impressed with The Bottle Factory Outing and An Awfully Big Adventure. I think I stopped with Master Georgie, which didn’t quite do it for me. Since this one seems to be a favorite of Bainbridge fans, I should probably give it another chance.

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  3. My first novel by BB was According to Queeney, which I read many years ago. I enjoyed it – the story of Samuel Johnson and the Thrale family. I also enjoyed The Bottle Factory Outing and An Awfully Big Adventure, but wasn’t as keen on Master Georgie. I’ve read a few more of hers, but there are still many I haven’t read.

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  4. I read a book by Beryl Bainbridge ages ago and really loved it. A little bit spooky. I think it was ‘Harriet Said…’ I think I also read Sweet William. I always wanted to read something more by her but never got around to do it. This novel seems to be written in the same style, so will look out for it.


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