Beryl Bainbridge’s The Bottle Factory Outing


Brenda had fashioned a bolster to put down the middle of the bed and a row of books to ensure that they lay less intimately at night. Freda complained that the books were uncomfortable—but then she had never been married.
—Beryl Bainbridge’s “The Bottle Factory Outing”

You either like Beryl Bainbridge or you don’t.

Well, it’s not quite that simple.

I enjoy her later work, which on some level can be labeled historical fiction. I loved The Birthday Boys, a flawless, entertaining novel based on Scott’s expedition to Antarctica.  But I find her early books both mordant and morbid, and though I admire them, I always think at the end, “God, I need to read Barbara Pym.”

beryl-bainbridge-bottle-factory-opeing-448160So I’m not quite a Bainbridge person.

This weekend I sped through her very short, witty, edgy novel, The Bottle Factory Outing. Her comically realistic portrayal of ill-matched roommates, Freda, a domineering big blonde, and Brenda, a  likable thirtyish woman who has recently left her husband, is hilarious.  The two women squabble constantly. Freda dominates, but Brenda protests.  Freda insists they take part-time jobs at a neighboring Italian wine-bottling factory:  she wants contact with the working class.  Freda tries to organize a union, but they pay no more attention to Freda ultimately than Brenda does. And I have to laugh, having known Fredas and Brendas.

It starts with a funeral—Freda cries as she looks out the window at a hearse with flowers on top.  Four paid men carry a coffin with an old lady down the stairs. Brenda doesn’t want to look.

Freda is whimsically sentimental.

“I like funerals. All those flowers—a full life coming to a close.”

“She didn’t look as if she had a full life,” said Brenda. “She only had the cat. There weren’t any mourners—no sons or anything.”

“Take a lesson from it then. It could happen to you.  When I go I shall have my family about me–daughters–sons–my husband, grey and distinguished, dabbing a handkerchief to his lips…”

Freda has no one:  she is an orphan, brought up by an aunt she never sees. And because she has no one, we have a flash of intuition that she might end up like the old woman. Brenda, on the other hand, comes from a big well-to-do family, went to private school, and still has contact with her husband and mother-in-law. When the  mother-in-law shows up  one day to threaten Brenda with a gun, Freda is envious that she excites so much passion.

At first we think Freda might be the weaker of the two, but she is the one who orchestrates their lives and needs action.  She first saw Brenda having a  breakdown in the butcher’s shop, weeping that her husband has left her (though it turns out that Brenda has left him). Freda loves to organize:  she takes Brenda under her wing and finds them a tiny flat where, unfortunately they must sleep in the same bed—and they are not gay.   Brenda puts a bolster and a pile of books between them at night so there can be no contact. I never thought of a book barrier!


Beryl Bainbridge

Freda does not attract people—though it’s not that she’s not pretty. She is too brash and argumentative for the Italian men at the factory.  She has a crush on Vittorio, the factory owner’s nephew, but he is engaged to someone else. . Rossi, the boss, keeps cornering Brenda for a little bit of “fun”:  Brenda attracts men but wants nothing to with them.  Finally Freda marches into the office and tells Rossi to leave Brenda alone.  Freda organizes  a Sunday outing for the bottle factory workers because she wants to spend time with Vittorio.

Everything at the outing goes wrong.  And I do mean everything. The van doesn’t show up. A few people cram themselves into cars, but most have to go home.  .The boss, Rossi, drives them to Windsor park instead of the stately home Freda had arranged.  They tour Windsor Castle, and Freda is furious that the dungeon is closed.  Clearly she is heading for a fall.

After the picnic, the men play soccer.   There are walks in the woods and stones are thrown.  I won’t tell you who, what, when, why or how  but someone dies. And the book ends with a macabre funeral–coming back full circle.

A Short, Perfect Novel: Beryl Bainbridge’s Sweet William

sweet william bainbridge 9780807608166-uk-300

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.”

Beryl Bainbridge

      Beryl Bainbridge

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.

Sweet william bainbridge virago isbn9781405513692-1x2aThe 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.