Harriet Said by Beryl Bainbridge

Disquiet and dread permeate this novel

Harriet Said...

Blurb (from Amazon):

A girl returns from boarding school to her sleepy Merseyside hometown and waits to be reunited with her childhood friend, Harriet, chief architect of all their past mischief. She roams listlessly along the shoreline and the woods still pitted with wartime trenches, and encounters ‘the Tsar’ – almost old, unhappily married, both dangerously fascinating and repulsive.

Pretty, malevolent Harriet finally arrives – and over the course of the long holidays draws her friend into a scheme to beguile then humiliate the Tsar, with disastrous, shocking consequences. A gripping portrayal of adolescent transgression, Beryl Bainbridge’s classic first novel remains as subversive today as when it was written.

My thoughts:

Harriet Said is a dark story that turns child abuse on its head. It is an unsettling and chilling book, beginning as Harriet and her friend, an unnamed 13 year-old girl, run home screaming to tell their parents what had happened. Harriet says:

When I say run, you start to run. When I say scream, you scream. Don’t stop running. just you keep going. (page 2)

It is one of those books that, although it is well written and makes compulsive reading, can’t be said to be enjoyable and the characters are not at all likeable.

It is set just after the Second World War in the Formby sand dunes on the outskirts of Liverpool.  During their school holidays the two girls make their way to the beach each evening, where they become friends with a group of lonely, dispirited middle-aged men.  They are not naive or innocent, but neither are they fully aware of the consequences of their actions as they set out to manipulate the men, the ‘Tsar’ in particular. They want to gather ‘experience’, which they record in Harriet’s diary:

A year ago to be called a Dirty Little Angel would have kept us going for months. Now it was not enough; more elaborate things had to be said; each new experience had to leave a more complicated tracery of sensations; to satisfy us every memory must be more desperate than the last.

… We took to going long walks over the shore, looking for people who by their chosen solitariness must have something to hide. We learnt early that it was the gently resigned ones who had the most to tell; the frantic and voluble were no use. (pages 39 and 40)

It is Harriet who decides their actions and dictates what to write in the diary.

They peek through the windows of the Tsar’s house and watch as he ‘lay pinned like a moth on the sofa‘ underneath his wife as she ‘poisoned him slowly, rearing and stabbing him convulsively. This sickens the 13 year-old, who wants to be loved by the Tsar, but Harriet decides that he is weak and submissive, saying that he likes being a victim and must be punished in a way he doesn’t like. From that point onwards events move rapidly to a shocking conclusion.

I’ve read a few of Beryl Bainbridge’s books and each one has kept me engrossed. Harriet Said is the first one she wrote, based on a real event, and although she submitted it for publication in 1958 it wasn’t published until 1972 because of its subject matter – ‘What repulsive little creatures you have made the central characters, repulsive almost beyond belief!‘ wrote one editor. I found it a disturbing story as the manipulation escalated and everything began to spiral out of the girls’ control as childhood fled from them.

  • Paperback: 192 pages
  • Publisher: Virago (6 Dec. 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 184408860X
  • ISBN-13: 978-1844088607
  • Source: a library book
  • My rating: 3.5 stars (rounded up to 4 stars on Goodreads)

My Friday Post: Harriet Said by Beryl Bainbridge

Book Beginnings ButtonEvery Friday Book Beginnings on Friday is hosted by Gillion at Rose City Reader where you can share the first sentence (or so) of the book you are reading, along with your initial thoughts about the sentence, impressions of the book, or anything else the opener inspires. Harriet Said...

My opener this week is from Harriet Said by Beryl Bainbridge. I’ve enjoyed all of Beryl Bainbridge’s books that I’ve read so far, so I’m keen to read this one – the first book she wrote and submitted for publication in 1958. However, it was rejected because of its content and was not published until 1972. It is set just after the war in a Liverpool suburb near the Formby sand dunes where Beryl Bainbridge grew up.

It begins:

When I came home for the holidays, Harriet was away with her family in Wales. She had written to explain it was not her fault and that when she came back we would have a lovely time.

Also every Friday there is The Friday 56, hosted by Freda at Freda’s Voice.

Friday 56

These are the rules:

  1. Grab a book, any book.
  2. Turn to page 56, or 56% on your eReader.
  3. Find any sentence (or a few, just don’t spoil it) that grabs you.
  4. Post it.
  5. Add the URL to your post in the link on Freda’s most recent Friday 56 post.

Page 56:

We rode the roundabouts, shrieking among the painted horses, riding endlessly round and round, waiting for the Tsar to come.

Blurb (from Goodreads):

Two schoolgirls are spending their holiday in an English coastal town: Harriet is the older at 14 and the leader of the two. The 13-year-old unnamed narrator develops a crush on an unhappily married middle-aged man, Peter Biggs, whom they nickname “the Tsar.” Led by pretty, malevolent Harriet they study his relationship with his wife, planning to humiliate him. Their plan quickly goes wrong, however, with horrifying results.

Sweet William by Beryl Bainbridge

 Sweet William by Beryl Bainbridge was first published in 1975. My thanks to the publishers, Open Road Media for a copy of this ebook edition, featuring an illustrated biography of Beryl Bainbridge including rare images from the author’s estate. It’s due to be released in the US on 29 November 2016.

Blurb:

Romantic comedy meets social satire in this delirious novel about sexual freedom versus British tradition in swinging 1960s London.

When dull professor Gerald leaves London for the United States, his fiancée, Ann, is a bit afraid and sad to see him go’”never has he looked so handsome and masculine as when he’s about to board the plane. But a few days later at a religious service, Ann is beckoned to sit next to a stranger with yellow curls and a nose like a prizefighter’s. Her heart inexplicably begins to race; she feels like she has the flu. This stranger, William McClusky, tells Ann in his Scottish accent that he is a playwright who will be interviewed on TV the very next day. Furthermore, he promises to have a television dropped by her house so she can watch him! From this first bizarre seduction, Ann is infatuated, and in the days following, William begins to take over her life.

In the throes of the affair, Ann gives up her BBC job, helps a friend get an abortion, encourages adultery, and writes a break-up letter to her fiancé. Her engagement to Gerald had been rushed, after all, and was designed to serve her mother’s desires more than her own. With William, on the other hand, everything feels different. But is this new man really who he says he is? Is he a genius or a fraud, a compassionate soul or a cheater? Perhaps William is simply a means by which Ann can play out her dangerous fantasies and finally take part in the swinging sixties. Only one thing is certain: Now that she’s with him, there’s no turning back.

An ironic investigation into the art of self-deception and the repercussions of sexual freedom, this blend of black comedy and social satire showcases the wit of award-winning author Beryl Bainbridge, and affirms her status as a mainstay in twentieth-century British literature.

My thoughts:

I really enjoyed this story of Ann, a young woman whose mother doesn’t approve of her permissive life-style. Ann left her claustrophobic home in Brighton to live in a rented flat in London. Soon after her fiance, Gerald, left for America, she meets William and falls in love with him. But William is fickle and married and Ann can’t resist him, he wraps her round his little finger and does just want he wants. Ann tries to get rid of him but although she knows he is a liar and a cheat, just like the other women in his life she is besotted with him.

It’s a simple story, simply told and immensely readable. I wanted Ann to come to her senses and see William for what he was and whilst I soon realised how it would end, I kept hoping that I was wrong. An emotional story that kept me glued to my Kindle, it’s clever, witty and most enjoyable.

  • File Size: 4973 KB
  • Print Length: 136 pages
  • Publisher: Open Road Media (November 29, 2016)
  • Publication Date: November 29, 2016
  • Language: English
  • ASIN: B01LXDSTWF

Amazon USA link

First Chapter, First Paragraph

First chapterEvery Tuesday Diane at Bibliophile by the Sea hosts First Chapter First Paragraph Tuesday Intros to share the first paragraph sometimes two, of a book that she’s reading or planning to read soon.

My opener this week is from Sweet William by Beryl Bainbridge, a book Greta from Open Road Integrated Media offered me on NetGalley as I’ve recently reviewed The Bottle Factory Opening. 

Sweet William was first published in 1975 – this e-book edition is due to be published 29 November 2016.

It begins:

In the main entrance of the air terminal a young man stood beside a cigarette machine, searching in the breast pocket of his blue suit for his passport. A girl, slouching in a grey coat, as if she was too tall, passively watched him.

‘It’s safe,’ he said, patting his pocket with relief.

Blurb

Romantic comedy meets social satire in this delirious novel about sexual freedom versus British tradition in swinging 1960s London.

When dull professor Gerald leaves London for the United States, his fiancée, Ann, is a bit afraid and sad to see him go’”never has he looked so handsome and masculine as when he’s about to board the plane. But a few days later at a religious service, Ann is beckoned to sit next to a stranger with yellow curls and a nose like a prizefighter’s. Her heart inexplicably begins to race; she feels like she has the flu. This stranger, William McClusky, tells Ann in his Scottish accent that he is a playwright who will be interviewed on TV the very next day. Furthermore, he promises to have a television dropped by her house so she can watch him! From this first bizarre seduction, Ann is infatuated, and in the days following, William begins to take over her life.

In the throes of the affair, Ann gives up her BBC job, helps a friend get an abortion, encourages adultery, and writes a break-up letter to her fiancé. Her engagement to Gerald had been rushed, after all, and was designed to serve her mother’s desires more than her own. With William, on the other hand, everything feels different. But is this new man really who he says he is? Is he a genius or a fraud, a compassionate soul or a cheater? Perhaps William is simply a means by which Ann can play out her dangerous fantasies and finally take part in the swinging sixties. Only one thing is certain: Now that she’s with him, there’s no turning back.

An ironic investigation into the art of self-deception and the repercussions of sexual freedom, this blend of black comedy and social satire showcases the wit of award-winning author Beryl Bainbridge, and affirms her status as a mainstay in twentieth-century British literature.

I’ve read a few of Beryl Bainbridge’s books (see below) and loved each one, so I’m really hoping to love this one too.

Dame Beryl Margaret Bainbridge, DBE was an English novelist. She won the Whitbread Awards prize for best novel in 1977 and 1996 and was nominated five times for the Booker Prize. She was described in 2007 as ‘a national treasure’. In 2008, The Times newspaper named Beryl Bainbridge among their list of The 50 greatest British writers since 1945.

The Bottle Factory Outing by Beryl Bainbridge

I’ve recently read The Bottle Factory Outing by Beryl Bainbridge and I enjoyed it immensely.

It is the story of two unlikely friends, Freda and Brenda. Their relationship is the central focus of this book – it’s basically a friendship of convenience as they are complete opposites. Their backgrounds and personalities are very different. They met by chance in a butcher’s shop, where Brenda having left her drunken brute of a husband and a mad mother-in-law was in floods of tears. They share a room and work together in an Italian wine factory in London, gluing labels onto the bottles. Freda is sixteen stone, with blonde hair and blue eyes, Brenda has reddish shoulder-length stringy hair, with a long thin face and short sighted eyes who never looks properly at people. The difference between them is epitomised in Bainbridge’s description,

At night when they prepared for bed Freda removed all her clothes and lay like a great fretful baby, majestically dimpled and curved. Brenda wore her pyjamas and her underwear and a tweed coat.

Brenda desperately tries to escape the the amorous attentions of Rossi, the factory manager – as Freda says Brenda is a born victim, who’s asking for trouble. But it’s not just Brenda who runs into trouble. Freda, who is in love with Vittorio, the trainee manager and nephew of the factory owner, organises a factory outing in the hope that she can seduce him, but the outing goes from bad to worse.The van arranged to take them to a stately home fails to turn up so only those who can fit into two cars set off, then there are fights at Windsor Castle, and a bizarre visit to a safari park. Passions rise, tempers flare, barrels of wine are consumed and it ends in violence and tragedy.

The book begins as a comedy, but then continues with an uneasy undercurrent as the outing gets under way before descending into a dark tragedy that is surreal and farcical and also desperately sad.  Beryl Bainbridge’s writing, so easily readable, is rich in descriptions. The book is superbly paced; the tension rises in an atmosphere of seediness, and frustration, before reaching an unbelievable and grotesque climax.  I had no idea how Bainbridge could draw this story to an end and was completely taken by surprise at the bizarre twist at the end, which I thought was brilliant. It’s savagely funny, full of pathos, touching moments, frustrations, shame, stress and unhappiness, all combining to make this a most entertaining book.

Beryl Bainbridge (1932 ‘“ 2010) was made a Dame in 2000. She wrote 18 novels, three of which were filmed, two collections of short stories, several plays for stage and television, and many articles, essays, columns and reviews. Five of her novels were nominated for the Booker Prize, but none of them won it. Years ago before I began writing BooksPlease I read two of her books, historical novels, one being According to Queenie, published in 1999, a novel about the life of Samuel Johnson as seen through the eyes of Queeney, Mrs Thrale, and the other Master Georgie, published in 1998, set in the Crimean War telling the story of George Hardy, a surgeon.

Since then I have read three more of her books and loved each one –  A Quiet Life, published in 1976, a semi-autobiographical novel, using her own childhood and background as source material; An Awfully Big Adventure, another semi-autobiographical novel set in 1950, based on Beryl Bainbridge’s own experience as an assistant stage manager in a Liverpool theatre, published in 1989 and shortlisted for the Booker Prize; and The Birthday Boys, a novel about Captain Scott’s last Antarctic Expedition, published in 1991.

The Bottle Factory was inspired by Beryl Bainbridge’s experience working part time in a bottle factory in 1959. It was first published in 1974 and was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in that year.

Thanks to the publishers, Open Road Integrated Media, via NetGalley for my copy of this ebook edition, featuring an illustrated biography of Beryl Bainbridge including rare images from the author’s estate. It’s due to be released in the US on 4 October.

Amazon US link

An Awfully Big Adventure by Beryl Bainbridge

It’s trite to say that Beryl Bainbridge’s An Awfully Big Adventure is ‘awfully good’ – but it is!

First published in 1989 and shortlisted for the Booker Prize, this is set in 1950, as a Liverpool repertory theatre company are rehearsing its Christmas production of Peter Pan. The story centres around Stella, a teenager and an aspiring actress who has been taken on as the assistant stage manager.

It’s semi-autobiographical based on Beryl Bainbridge’s own experience as an assistant stage manager in a Liverpool theatre. On the face of it this is a straight forward story of the theatre company but underneath it’s packed with emotion, pathos and drama. And it’s firmly grounded in a grim post-war 1950s England, food rationing still in operation and bombed buildings still in ruins overgrown with weeds.

Stella lives with her Uncle Vernon and Aunt Lily, who run a boarding house. To a large extent Stella escapes real life, living in the world of her own imagination. Her mother is not on the scene, but Stella secretly phones her from a public phone box to talk about her life – her mother just says ‘the usual things’ to her. She’s an innocent, naive and impressionable, she’s troubled and confused, wanting to grow up quickly. She’s ready to fall in love and becomes obsessed by Meredith Potter, the company director, not realising he is simply not interested in her.

After playing a cameo role in Caesar and Cleopatra in the next production, Peter Pan, she ‘manages’ Tinkerbell, shining a torch and ringing a little handbell. The title is taken from Peter Pan, the play about the boy who never grew up, whose attitude to death was ‘To die will be an awfully big adventure.’ Bainbridge’s use of Peter Pan emphasises the themes of reality versus imagination, the loss of childhood innocence, and the quest for love. Stella, whose mother had abandoned her, is most upset by the scene in the play where Peter tells Wendy how his mother had forgotten him when he tried to go back home – the windows were barred and another little boy was in his bed. It’s her mother’s apparent lack of love for Stella that is perhaps the initial cause of what eventually happens.

Love in its various guises is a prominent theme running through the book. When Meredith asks her what she thinks J.B. Priestley’s play Dangerous Corner is about, she says: €˜Love. People loving people who love somebody else.’ And, indeed, An Awfully Big Adventure is about people who are in love with somebody else and they all have secrets to hide.

I was a bit confused by the opening chapter and it was only when I reached the end that I understood it, when the truth that had been hinted at became obvious. It really is an awfully good book.

The Birthday Boys by Beryl Bainbridge

 I was absolutely fascinated by The Birthday Boys by Beryl Bainbridge, a novel about Captain Scott’s last Antarctic Expedition. It’s narrated by Captain Robert Falcon Scott and the other four men who died in the Antarctic having reached the South Pole – Petty Officer Edgar (Taff) Evans in June 1910; Dr Edward (Uncle Bill) Wilson, July 1910; Captain Scott: The Owner (Con), March 1911; Lt Henry Robertson (Birdie) Bowers, July 1911; and Capt Lawrence Edward (Titus) Oates, March 1912.

It’s fascinating not just as an account of the expedition, but also because it gets inside each man’s mind, it seemed to me, vividly describing the events as they progressed to the South Pole and the terrible conditions they had to endure. Beryl Bainbridge’s imagination and research combined make this a dramatic heroic story and an emotional roller-coaster set in the beautiful but deadly dangerous frozen landscape of the Antarctic.

Each character is distinctly drawn, each one revealing his thoughts, fears and hopes and the interaction between them reveals their personality clashes and friendships. The prejudices and class distinctions of the period come through strongly. The setting is superb – I could see the landscape and feel the dangers.

I finished reading this book nearly two weeks ago and apart from their final days one other episode stands out in my mind and that is the journey to the Emperor Penguin rookery at Cape Crozier undertaken by Wilson, zoologist Cherry-Garrard (Cherry) and Bowers. This section is narrated by Bowers. The journey was nearly seventy miles – Bowers described it:

I never thought the Owner would let us go, not with the Polar trek only three months off, but somehow Bill managed to talk him round. To reach the rookery where temperatures often register 100 degrees of frost, it’s necessary to scramble down cliffs exposed to blizzards sweeping ferociously across hundreds of miles of open snow plain. And all this in the dark! Exciting stuff, what? (page 133)

It took them far longer than they had anticipated and they endured dreadful conditions; at times they were ‘half delirious with exhaustion‘ and had ‘frost-bitten fingers bulging like plums.’ But Bowers thought:

It may be that the purpose of the worst journey in the world had been to collect eggs which might prove a scientific theory, but we’d unravelled a far greater mystery on the way – the missing link between God and man is brotherly love. (page 158)

Scott comes over as a sympathetic character, complicated, introspective and at times indecisive, and impatient at others. He is concerned that Amundsen will beat them to the Pole and is able to talk over his feelings with Wilson:

He understands me well enough to know that my continual harping on Amundsen’s  chances of beating us to the Pole isn’t down to self-interest, or a longing for glory, simply a desire to reach, in an endless process of addition and subtraction, a kind of mathematical peace. One hundred dogs, none of them presumably having fallen down a crevasse, must surely equal formidable odds.

It’s ironic that the same situation should be happening to me all over again. It’s barely three years since Shackleton sneaked off and nearly pipped me to the post. There again, I’d made no secret of my intentions. I’m not stupid enough to think of the Pole as mine, but I do detest underhandedness. (pages 116 – 117)

At times I had to remind myself that I was reading a novel, but then again there were passages where I had to remind myself that these events really did take place as they seemed so fantastical. Beryl Bainbridge has written a most remarkable book, full of facts seamlessly woven into the narrative, and full of emotion and feeling. It is one of the best books I’ve read this year.

Reading The Birthday Boys has made me keen to read other books about the Polar expeditions and as I wrote in this post I have South with Scott and Race to The End to look forward to reading.

Note: The Birthday Boys fits into these Reading Challenges: Historical Fiction Reading Challenge, Mount TBR Challenge and What’s In a Name Challenge (book with a celebration in the title).