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).

Books in Synch

South with Scott, The Birthday Boys, Race to The End

Birthday Boys & SWS Race to the End 2


Beryl Bainbridge’s novel The Birthday Boys is a fictionalised version of Scott’s 1912 Antarctic expedition. Ever since I bought South with Scott by Lord Mountevans when I was at school I’ve been fascinated by race to reach the South Pole and reading The Birthday Boys made me take down South with Scott from my bookshelves to compare the two. But even so I was wanting to know more and so, when I went to the library yesterday morning I thought I’d see if there was anything else I could read about. AND THERE WAS!

Race to The End cover

As Alex said last week when I wrote about the coincidence of finding The English Spy in the library when I had reserved Road to Referendum it really does seem as if books do call out to each other, because sitting there on the library shelves just as though it was waiting for me was this beautifully illustrated book – Race to The End: Scott, Amundsen and the South Pole by Ross D E MacPhee.

As I read The Birthday Books I was wondering how true to the facts Bainbridge had been in her novel. I’ve had time just to compare one event that is common to all three books, when Dr Wilson (Uncle Bill), Lieutenant ‘Birdie’ Bowers and Apsley Cherry-Garrard set off to Cape Crozier to recover emperor penguin eggs in the middle of the Antarctic winter – and Bainbridge’s version seems remarkable accurate, bringing the terrible hardships vividly to life. I think she must have read South with Scott. I shall write more about these books.

Birthday Boys & SWS Race to the End 1

Beryl Bainbridge Reading Week

All week Gaskella has been hosting the Beryl Bainbridge Reading Week and I’m just in time to join in.

Beryl Bainbridge (1934 – 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 I read two of her books, historical novels, one being According to Queenie, a novel about the life of Samuel Johnson as seen through the eyes of Queeney, Mrs Thrale, and the other Master Georgie, set in the Crimean War telling the story of George Hardy, a surgeon.

This week I’ve read A Quiet Life, first published in 1976 before she wrote her historical novels.

Synopsis from the book jacket:

Alan, a schoolboy living in a seaside village after the war, is concerned about the behaviour of his sister Madge. She has been seen talking to a German prisoner on the beach. Gradually her nightly disappearances affect the whole household. The parents become bitterly estranged, the wireless is turned up full volume so the neighbours won’t hear the rows and the slamming of doors. Inexorably, Alan’s conscience and his love for his family lead to disaster. Does time distort or clarify events in the past? After twenty years can one ever be sure they took place at all?

My Thoughts:

I didn’t know before I read it that it is a semi-autobiographical novel, using her own childhood and background as source material. I was struck immediately by the claustrophobic atmosphere pervading the novel. The family live in a small house, their living arrangements reduced by the fact that the rooms were full of furniture and ornaments and they kept the freezing cold lounge just for visitors of which they had very few. And Alan had to have his mother’s permission to use the dining room to do his homework. They lived on top of each other in the kitchen where the armchairs in front of the fire made it difficult to enter and move about.

Most of the time they spent escaping from the house – Father to the garden, Mother out, thought by Father to be having an affair, Alan to school, church or youth club and Madge to the pinewoods or to the beach with her German. As Madge says Alan ‘keeps everything bottled up, … anything for a quiet life.’ Whereas Alan realised that Madge ‘came out with things for precisely the reasons he hid them – to avoid embarrassment.’

Alan’s embarrassment is increased when he gets a girlfriend, Janet and is made worse by Madge’s behaviour – she gets away with much worse than he ever can. There are some wonderfully vivid scenes, such as Alan scrambling up a sand dune and seeing Madge and the German caressing each other behind a small hillock. Then there is Father hurling the arm of his father-in-law’s chair out of the house onto the lawn, followed by him manhandling the chair out of the house, lurching across the grass with it to the greenhouse and then setting fire to it. The whole episode is rendered farcical when his false teeth fly out of his mouth into the fire and Mother squealed with laughter, the sound carrying across the ‘bleak and desolate gardens.’

There’s pathos and dark humour and I found it moving and disturbing. Madge in particular seemed a problem for her parents and Alan, at one time manipulative and at another understanding and sympathetic. It expresses the pain of living with parents who don’t get on, the frustrations caused by rigid code of behaviour and class structure of the period, the shame they would suffer if the neighbours ever discovered what was happening, and the rows, stress and unhappiness they all endured.

I was interested to know more about the book and found this fascinating interview between Beryl Bainbridge and Anthony Clare in August 1983. I was intrigued to hear that so many of the descriptions and incidents in A Quiet Life were based on her own experiences. In fact she said that her creative urge was fuelled by what happened to her and from the age of 9 or 10 she had started to write about her parents and her background. She described herself as a child as an ‘awkward little devil‘, and I could see so much of that in the character of Madge – even down to the bad cough she could bring on at will.

My verdict: A brilliant book. She doesn’t waste any words, but still clearly sets the scene, portraying the everyday dilemmas, disasters and scandals of her eccentric characters. I’ll be reading as many more of her books that I can find.