Beryl Bainbridge: The Dressmaker (1973)

Wartime Liverpool is a place of ration books and jobs in munitions factories. Rita, living with her two aunts Nellie and Margo, is emotionally naive and withdrawn. When she meets Ira, a GI, at a neighbour’s party she falls in love almost as much with the idea of life as a GI bride as with the man himself. But Nellie and Margo are not so blind …

Guy’s recent review of the Girl in the Polka Dot Dress (you can find it here) put me in the mood to read Beryl Bainbridge who had been on my radar and reading pile for a while. Initially I didn’t even want to buy The Dressmaker as the cover looked like some soppy romance. I couldn’t have been more wrong. This is a fantastic book. It’s so fantastic that I don’t know how to describe her writing. One would have to quote her extensively to convey a good feeling for her art.

While I was reading the book I was alternatingly thinking three things: “Why did I not discover her earlier?”, I” want to write like her”, “How did she do that?”

The Dressmaker is set in wartime Liverpool, a place and time that interests me a lot. Young Rita lives with her two aunts, Marge and Nellie. Her mother died and her father, whom she calls Uncle Jack, a butcher,  was unable to cope and raise a girl on his own. That’s the reason why she finished living with her two spinsterly sisters. Nellie, who is a dressmaker, is a joyless woman. She only lives for the day when she can finally follow her own mother to the grave. She is very domineering and her cheerless ways crush her sister as much as her niece. She has turned polishing and looking after her mother’s furniture into a cult. The lifeless objects mean more to her than her fellow human beings. Marge is quite different. She was married but her husband died, she also seems to have affairs that Jack and Nellie try to crush as soon as they start. Still she is lively and tries to enjoy life as much as the other two allow it. Rita is  a very naive young girl, very cheerless as well and full of sentimental, romantic and unrealistic ideas. When she meets Ira, a young GI, she has all sorts of pictures and dreams in her mind but none matches reality.

Interestingly the novel starts at the end but we do not know that really until we finish the book.

Afterwards she went through into the little front room, the tape measure still dangling about her neck, and allowed herself a glass of port. And in the dark she wiped at the surface of the polished sideboard with the edge of her flowered pinny in case the bottle had left a ring.

Nothing is like it seems in this novel. That may not be an unusual premiss but what is unusual is the way Bainbridge provides information. She can describe a scene leaving out an important detail that she will give much later. This makes you feel as if you were discovering all sorts of things while reading. She would never give you the whole picture of any situation or a person right away. Reading her is like being sprayed with cool water every few minutes. It will keep you attentive, awake and alert the whole time.

Just like situations and characters are only understood completely after we have read most of the novel, the story and its ending are only fully grasped at the end.

Besides this very wonderful and unusual story telling, she touches on so many themes. It’s so accurate how she portrays the way those young GI’s were received in England, enthusiastic by the women and with a lot of jealousy by the men as they were “overpaid, oversexed and over here”, as they said. Economically they were so much better off than the British, it must have been quite painful for many men. There is a lot of prejudice but at the same time they are also idealized. The way young Rita felt was quite typical too.

She was mad for the way he said “dawg”, like he was a movie star, larger than life.

Of course he isn’t anyone famous or important and  doesn’t even come from a rich family as Rita assumes or hopes. Without being aware of it, Rita would probably have fallen for any man who would have given her the idea of escaping her oppressing situation. She is not only living in a cheerless but in a highly dysfunctional environment and under the surface a lot of things are smoldering. Repressed sexuality and joy are but a few results of the upbringing Nellie, Marge and Jack had to endure as children and are now passing on to their daughter and niece.

Bainbridge offers accomplished writing paired with an engrossing story that culminates in a surprising ending. If you haven’t read her, I can only urge you to rush and get one of her novels. If you have read her, I’m sure, you know what I’m talking about. I very rarely feel the urge to read all of someone’s novels. It does happen though. It just did.

After Guy’s suggestion I already ordered another one, An Awfully Big Adventure. Do you have any other recommendations?

34 thoughts on “Beryl Bainbridge: The Dressmaker (1973)

  1. After reading your review, I’ve moved Beryl Bainbridge up on my list of authors to read. This book sounds terrific especially since the wartime Liverpool setting interests me and so does the experience of GIs in Britain. But I more taken with Bainbridge’s writing since it sounds like she’s providing little mysteries for us to discover, piece together and then when we do feel amazed at what we dicover. I really like this idea!

    I’m going to read Guy’s review of The Girl in the Polka Dot dress, too!

    Thank you for a terrific post!

    • Thanks, Amy, I’m glad I seem to have been able to capture exactly how she writes. She is simply marvellous. The setting and the time are particularly well captured. The Girl in the Polka Dot Dress sounds very good as well. Hope you will enjoy whichever you will choose. Btw. I’m reading Hadas’ memoir and like it a lot.

  2. hmm, this story line reminds me a lot, of a movie I watched. Im trying to remember its title. will likely be trying to figure it out the rest of the day.

    This book sounds interesting.

  3. There’s going to be a Bainbridge reading spree after your two reviews. (I mean Guy and you) I’m ordering this one right now. I’m going to read it in French, I want to lend it afterwards. It’s OOP but there are used copies.

    Corny cover, I agree. The kind of book I don’t even look at in a bookstore, except if it’s a publisher I usually like.

    • It’s is quite possible and I’m glad about it. I think she really is a discovery but blurb + cover do not really make one want to read her. I guess I bought it after an amazon review but when it arrived I thought the cover is bad. There are tons of historical WWII novels out there with the same type of cover and most of them are not worth reading.

  4. Once long ago I read Beryl Bainbridge and couldn’t get along with her – it was all too queasy-making. This one sounds better – or maybe it’s just your excellent description! But I have difficulty with the kind of authors I think of as having a sadistic side, where they want to force the reader to confront ugly, gory images, or remove all chance of catharsis, or else kill off the characters you most liked. I had Bainbridge down in this category, but maybe I was just unlucky in my choice of novel?

    • Interesting. I didn’t think this book was like this at all. I didn’t think she was sadistic although the outcome is not exactly a cathartic one. I thought it was a book that oozes intelligence and wit. I’d be curious to know which books you read. Guy compared her to Muriel Spark whom I love a lot as well and do not think sadistic. Maybe not very redemptive either but fascinatingly well written and with a lot of psychological insight. Just like Bery Bainbridge. 🙂
      But out of 17 novels there could have been the one or the other that was too much on the nasty side. In any case, she does not deserve mushy covers.

      • Me neither, not much of a historical novels fan. I haven’t seen any. I’ll be reading those you recommended soon but maybe also the Girl in the Polka Dot Dress. I wonder which one Litlove read.

  5. I feel very silly, but I had never heard of Beryl Bainbridge before reading your review. Now I’d really like to read anything by her. (I do hope my university library owns something by her) Thank you for the very convincing review.

  6. You’ve really tapped into a topic that interests me. Like a few other commenters, I’ve never come across The Dressmaker or Beryl Bainbridge. I’m always excited when I get to uncover the mysteries of an author who is new to me. It’s like a present. So thank you!

    • You are welcome. I know exactly what you mean. I hope you will like her as well. I was particularly lucky this year in my discoveries but she is certainly one of the most important.

  7. Beryl Bainbridge is one of those authors I have always meant to read–I think I have about five books by her, including The Dressmaker. I must have read something by her that spurred me on to buy more–must dig out my books now (lately I can’t seem to find the books I’m looking for–and haven’t a clue where she resides on my bookshelves), but you certainly make me want to dig about and look for her now!

    • You must find her. I can’t imagine you will not like her. It’s a bit Notes on a Scandal set in wartime Liverpool. What’s there not to like?
      I was hunting a book yesterday as well. I did find it in the end. It’s quite annoying.

  8. I really love this review, not because of the book’s story but more into the way you are so passionate abou it, it shows how much you love the book. I know exactly how great it is to find books we love so much.
    You said her writing makes you want to write like her but your review makes me want to review like you.

    • I hope you will like it or any of her other novels. I just saw that The Bottle Factory Outing is called one of the best 100 books of all time by a UK newspaper (I forgot which one). Let me know what you think, should you read it.

    • Thanks, Anna. This was a realy discovery. I can’t wait to read another one. The cover isn’t well chosen. I hope you will get to read it, I’d be curious to know whether you like it as much as I did.

  9. Between you and Guy Bainbridge is now firmly on my radar.

    That’s a terrible cover by the way. Quite offputting. So generic.

    My first will probably be The Bottle Factory Outing. It’s curious, without these reviews I doubt I’d have looked at her much. And yet clearly she’s a genuinely gifted writer. Very nearly my loss and I’m glad to have the chance to correct my ignorance of her.

    • I’m sure you will not regret reading her. As Guy has explained somewhere she was always marketed the wrong way and I would say the cover clearly points into that direction. It’s not only offputting, it has nothing to do with her writing. Her novel is as far from a romance as you can possibly get.
      I want to read The Bottle Factory Outing as well. I’m very curious to see what you will think of her. I hope you will review her.
      She is one of the discoveries of this year.

  10. Pingback: Dutch Literature Month and Beryl Bainbridge Week in June « Beauty is a Sleeping Cat

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