I am always on the lookout for a short, perfect book. Books have grown 25% longer since 1999, according to a study by James Finlayson of Vervesearch. Yet some of the best books of the twentieth and twenty-first century are short, beautifully-crafted, and brilliant.
I have recently been reading Beryl Bainbridge, known for her brief, strange, graceful novels. She was shortlisted five times for the Booker Prize. A posthumous Man Booker Best of Beryl Prize was awarded to her novel, Master Georgie, in 2011.
I have always been a fan of English women’s novels, but must admit I did not care for Bainbridge when I first came upon her work in the ’80s. I considered her 1984 novel, Watson’s Apology, a dud: the story of a Victorian clergyman’s murder of his wife, based on an actual case, had no appeal for me.
But try, try again. I have pulled some of her other books off the shelves.
I recently very much enjoyed and admired her wicked, witty 1975 novel, Sweet William, notable for its pared-down prose and spiky realism. Bainbridge’s edgy brevity perfectly matches the desperate comedy of the passive heroine’s life. In the opening chapter, we meet Ann at the airport, saying good-bye to her fiance, who has accepted a job at an American university. Ann is upset.
Suddenly the girl’s face, reflected in the chrome surface of the tobacco machine, changed expression. Clownishly, her mouth turned down at the corners.
“You should have taken me with you,” she said. “You should have done.”
He says he’ll send for her “very soon.” Ann mopes. She lives in Hampstead and has a job at the BBC, but she is not very clever. She is never in charge. She capitulates to the will of others.
Ann’s life alone in London is trying. Her visiting mother, furious that Ann had sex with Gerald in the flat while she was there, cuts the visit short and storms out of the flat. Her landlady, a potter, Mrs. Kershaw, comforts Ann, but also takes advantage of her: she asks Ann to go in her place to a Harvest Festival religious service at her children’s school the next day. Ann’s reasons for assent are comically interwoven with a recital of her own plans to clean the house. I love the domestic comedy.
Ann couldn’t refuse her. Mrs. Kershaw never said a word about people coming to stay–not like some landladies–and she must have known that sometimes Gerald had stayed all night. It was a nuisance, though, having to put off all the jobs she’d intended doing: there were the sheets to collect from the laundry, the smears of soap and dried-up toothpaste to be removed from the glass shelf in the bathroom, the cooker to clean–Ann had meant to take the whole thing apart and scrub round the gas jets.
The next day, at the Harvest Festival service, William, an attractive Scottish playwright, hits on her. At first she thinks he has mistaken her for someone else. No, he just loves women. And he insists on sending a TV to her flat so she can watch him interviewed on a talk show. They fall passionately in love. Ann knows he has an ex-wife and children, whom he frequently visits. What she doesn’t know is that he is remarried, and cheating on his wife and Ann with other women, including her cousin Pamela.
Why doesn’t she get rid of William? Poor Ann. She gets pregnant. She moves into a flat with him. She is mesmerized by him, even to the point of agreeing to a home birth. But when he continues to cheat, she moves back to Mrs. Kershaw’s flat.
In the introduction to the Virago edition, Alex Clark quotes a Paris Review interview with Bainbridge:
When I started writing in the 1960s, wasn’t it the time when women were starting to write about girls having abortions and single mothers living in Hampstead and having a dreadful time? Well, I’m not going to do that; I’m not bothering with all that rubbish.
But Clark comments,
She did bother with ‘all that rubbish’, but only sort of: Sweet William’s Ann, who has fled the claustrophobic family home in Brighton to begin a career at the BBC, does live in Hampstead; her cousin, Pamela, does have an abortion; Ann herself does become a single mother.
I admit, I do like a good women’s “Hampstead novel.” But I prefer the intelligent, likable characters in my favorite ’60s and ’70s novels by Margaret Drabble and Lynn Reid Banks. We know the Anns exist, but we become impatient with them. And that makes it harder to like Sweet William.