Monday, August 5, 2013

Tony Messenger - 1973 Shortlist - The Dressmaker by Beryl Bainbridge

To whet my appetite for the 2013 Booker longlist I thought I’d travel back 40 years and visit a shortlisted novel from the 1973 shortlist (the year that the magnificent masterpiece J.G. Farrell’s “The Siege of Krishnapur” took home the prize). Some years you could just be plain stiff being published in the same year as a standout, others you could fluke a shortlist just by having a solid work. As a result I thought a trip back to 1973 would be in order.

Beryl Bainbridge made the Booker shortlist with, obviously this novel, “The Bottle Factory Outing” in 1974, “An Awfully Big Adventure” in 1990, “Every Man For Himself” in 1996, “Master Georgie” in 1998, as well as being a judge in 1977. So five shortlists, prior to her death in 2010, but no gong!!!

As per a large number of her novels “The Dressmaker” is set in a working class family, this time in Liverpool during the Second World War. The main thread of the story follows the 17 year old Rita, naive and in love with an American who is a mechanic nearby. Rita was raised by her two aunts, Marge, who was once married to a soldier and is wise to the ways of the world, and Nellie, a dressmaker who covets their mother’s furniture in the hope of nothing changing.

She too was beginning to retreat from the front line. She was forever peering out into the world, listening for the sound of the bugle, willing reinforcements to arrive. She had confided her worries to Mr Barnes, the minister at St Emmanuel’s Church; but though he was a good enough man, he was naturally limited by his own maleness from understanding her problems. She was concerned that when she woke each morning to the alarm clock on the bedside table, her first thoughts were not thankfulness that she had been spared breath, but worry over her mother’s furniture. Did the damp warp it in winter, the sun expand it in summer? Had it deteriorated in the small hours of the night? There was dry rot, wet rot, woodworm. She lived in the dread that she would be taken ill and begin to die. Marge wouldn’t bother to wipe with vinegar the sideboard, or draw the blinds against the warmth of a summer afternoon to ensure the carpet wouldn’t fade. She was indolent. She had sewn Rita into her vest when the child was small and the winter particularly bitter. She could confide to Mr Barnes her weariness of spirit over the endless making-do with the rations, the queuing at the shops; but to admit her slavery to mahogany and rosewood was difficult, when he continually admonished her from the pulpit to consider the lilies of the field. Had they been her very own lilies she would have spent a lifetime ensuring that they too retained their glory. Brooding, she walked the length of the road, smiling briefly at one or two neighbours who nodded in her direction, clutching her shopping bag to the breast of her black tailored coat. The thought of mother’s things in a saleroom, or worse in the junk shop on Breck Road, caused her pain in the region of her heart. She hoped she wasn’t about to suffer a decline. She would wake at night with Marge lying beside her and remember quite vividly episodes of the past unconnected: an outing as a child to the birthplace of Emily Bronte; Father in his broadcloth suit; Mother faded, sepia coloured against the sky, sitting in the sparse grass on the moors, squinting into sunshine. Or she was at a desk at school with her mouth open watching a fly caught in a spiral of light, beating its wings against the panes of glass. She lay moistening her dry lips with her tongue, staring out into the dark little bedroom.

I started that quote half way through a paragraph, as I’d still be typing if I quoted the whole section!!! But despite the detail and fluster in the household about Rita’s love pangs,  they are living in challenging times, rations, bombed houses all around and “over paid, over sexed and over here” Americans wooing all the local girls. Marge understands Rita’s predicament, having to lie to Marge and Nellie about her Saturday night visits into town, where she is secretly wooing Ira, who is only interested in sex not a relationship her.

She had known all along that Rita was being secretive, coming home with her stockings ripped to pieces and going down town on a Saturday night and returning drenched to the skin and worn out. That’s why she’d had her nightmare. The deceit had preyed on her mind. She herself had tried to keep things from Nellie all her life. She didn’t blame Rita, but she was hurt that the girl hadn’t confided in her. She felt resentful to be shut out from excitement and intrigue. She had tried in her fashion to shield Rita from Nellie’s influence, to add a little gaiety to the narrow years spent in the narrow house.

This is a novel exploring the relationships of a family in tough times, their own insecurities, their hope for a better future (if there is to be one) and their memories of better times. An emotional rollercoaster exploring all family member’s inner pains and struggles, It is also a story of Rita’s heartbreaking love for a man who will not return the affections. A young girl whose innocence and ignorance leads to a shocking conclusion.

She had filled her mind during the week with so many variations, ways of finding him, reconciliations, scenes of the future, that now she was empty. There were no pictures left in her head – just a voice very small and demanding, crying for him to come back.

I must admit that even though this book is only 152 pages, the paragraphs go for pages, the minute detail is relentless and at times the “she was thinking”, “She was saying”, “She thought”…she she she became a tad laborious. A fine example of working class English writing and a novel that covers an era in wonderful detail (being a dressmaker of course the clothes are frequently visited) but personally not one of my favourites from Beryl Bainbridge. Not a pinch on the winner in 1973, but then again not many novels over the 44 year history have been.

Cross posted at my blog.


  1. Great review Tony. I've often thought about reading one of Bainbridge's shortlisted books -- I've never read anything by her -- but wasn't sure where to start. This may not be the one. Can you recommend a book for a Bainbridge newbie?

  2. My favourite from her Booker novels is "The Bottle Factory Outing" - glad you liked my review Laura.