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 Rita, living with her two aunts Nellie and Margo, is emotionally naive and withdrawn.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?