An Awfully Big Adventure

In which I review An Awfully Big Adventure, Beryl Bainbridge’s 1989 novel about a naive young woman in 1940s Liverpool who joins a regional theatre company and becomes embroiled in the turbulent sex lives of the players.

What it’s about: Liverpool, England, 1947. Stella Bradshaw, a bright eccentric teenager, lives at the Aber House Hotel, a down-at-heel boarding-house run by her Uncle Vernon and aunt Lily. After Stella’s school suggests she has “the brains but not the application” for further study, Vernon enrolls her in elocution lessons, convinced that a theatrical career is her only viable alternative to working at Woolworths, and arranges for her to audition with the Liverpool Repertory Company. The audition is a disaster, as she crumbles in front of Meredith Potter, the charming acid-tongued director and his faithful stage manager Bunny. Nonetheless, Potter offers her a job as a stagehand, and Stella starts work, learning to navigate the outsized personalities in the theatre troupe: Geoffrey, a fellow stagehand who unsuccessfully attempts to seduce her; Dawn Allenby, a fading actress and dedicated drunk who has an unhappy affair with leading man Richard St Ives; Dotty Blundell, another actress past her prime who nurses a crush on P L O’Hara, the former star of past seasons; Babs Osborne, the “character juvenile” who pines for a Polish ex-fighter pilot; Rose Lipton, the officious theatre manager; and hack actor Desmond Fairchild, whom Stella calls a “cunt”, misunderstanding the word’s meaning.

Stella falls hopelessly in love with Meredith, unaware that he is gay and relentlessly pursuing Geoffrey, and sabotages a message Meredith sends to his former lover Hillary. Meredith gives her a small part in a production of Caesar and Cleopatra, seemingly as a ploy to make Geoffrey jealous. Uncle Vernon is both pleased with Stella’s progress but worried about her long working hours and growing coldness, confiding his concerns in his local toilet paper supplier. After her debut, Stella is interviewed by a newspaper journalist, who takes her to a cinema and forces her to masturbate him to orgasm, gripping her wrist so tightly that she later develops a boil. A despairing Dotty drinks herself into oblivion and Meredith callously dismisses her from the company. Stella goes to a telephone booth, where she often makes calls to her mother, and finds Dotty collapsed inside, having attempted suicide with an aspirin overdose.

After St Ives breaks his leg onstage, Rose invites O’Hara to rejoin the company, reprising his famed performance as Captain Hook for the Christmas production of Peter Pan. O’Hara, a quiet and charismatic man, returns to his former digs (which are around the corner from Vernon’s boarding house) and remembers a lover from his youth. Ignoring Dotty, who is eager to rekindle their romance, he becomes immediately drawn to Stella, whom he feels he recognises. After the Peter Pan opening night party, O’Hara gives Stella a ride home on his motorcycle and they have sex in his flat. Stella is adamant that she doesn’t love him, but decides to use him for practice so she can give herself confidently to Meredith.

Stella continues the affair with O’Hara, which is discovered by Bunny and Meredith. The troupe attend a New Year’s Day football match with a rival theatre company, to which Meredith invites the delighted Uncle Vernon. Stella, embarrassed by Vernon’s presence, wanders off and ends up attending a funeral. Geoffrey, fed up with Meredith’s sexual games and sustained cruelty, lashes out and hits him in the nose. While trying to help, Vernon slips over and sprains his ankle. An enraged Stella demands that Geoffrey is sacked. O’Hara explains to her that Meredith “has spent his life harming people like Geoffrey“, including the infamous Hillary, who was another of Meredith’s young men, not the female lover Stella imagined. The others ask O’Hara to have a word with Meredith and persuade him to leave Geoffrey alone. In response, Meredith hints that he knows about O’Hara’s affair with Stella, and reminds him that consorting with a minor is a crime.

Concerned and guilt-ridden, O’Hara visits Vernon and Lily to see if they suspect anything. Unaware of the affair, Uncle Vernon explains that Stella’s mother Renee was also an aspiring actress whose sexual promiscuity and neglect of Stella led to Vernon ejecting her from the house. O’Hara realises that Renee was the lover of his youth and that Stella is his child. He rides to the seaport to digest the news, then slips on a wet gangplank, hits his head and falls into the sea, drowning.

After O’Hara misses a show, Bunny visits his flat and finds an unfinished letter from O’Hara to Meredith warning him to leave Geoffrey alone, which he burns. That night, Meredith goes on as Captain Hook. Stella, upset and distracted by backstage rumours that O’Hara committed suicide drops her torch and mirror used to create the Tinkerbell effect. After the performance, she apologises to Meredith who tells her to get out of his sight. Meredith and Rose plan to continue with the run, knowing that the publicity about O’Hara’s death with increase ticket sales. Stella leaves the theatre and makes another telephone call to “Mother”: it is revealed that she is calling the Speaking Clock, which was recorded by Renee years ago after winning a national competition.

Why it’s a classic: An Awfully Big Adventure was Beryl Bainbridge’s 13th novel, by which time she’d developed a reputation as an admired if somewhat underrated novelist. Like her contemporary Anita Brookner, she was an astonishingly prodigious writer, pumping out a novel a year through most of the 1970s, picking up the occasional literary prize (the Guardian Fiction Prize in 1974 for The Bottle Factory Opening and the Whitbread Prize in 1977 for Injury Time) but never really becoming a household name.

Bainbridge based An Awfully Big Adventure on her experiences as a jobbing actress with the Liverpool Repertory Company, though was always rather cagey about how close-to-life her portrait of Stella was. The novel was enthusiastically received by critics, praising her mixture of “waggish humour and sordid pathos” and her “close observation and hilarity… underlain by a sense of tragedy as deep as any in fiction”. Writing in the New York Times, Michiko Kakutani commented on Bainbridge’s “merciless” depiction of her characters, “collecting all their lies, prejudices and self-delusions in order to display them for the reader’s entertainment”, but noted that “there’s nothing condescending or cruel about her portraits…. she simply sees them, like the rest of humanity, as being in for a bad time.” The book was shortlisted for the Booker Prize – her third of five nominations – losing that year to the very deserving Kazuo Ishiguro for The Remains of the Day.

The book received further attention – up to a point – in 1995, with the release of Mike Newell’s film version, starring Hugh Grant as Meredith, Alan Rickman as O’Hara and Georgina Cates as Stella. The film played up the camp theatrical comedy and made Meredith’s homosexuality more obvious from the outset, but otherwise remained remarkably faithful to Bainbridge’s plot and pitch-black comic tone. Shot in Dublin doubling for 1940s Liverpool, everything looks grimy, water-damaged, swathed in factory smog and cigarette smoke. Cates is wonderfully awkward and off-kilter as Stella, Rickman makes a suave and melancholy O’Hara, and Grant steals the show as Meredith, one of cinema’s most satisfying portrayals of an evil theatre queen, complete with monocle and nicotine-stained fingers.

Sadly, a black comedy about sexual molestation in post-war Liverpool was exactly what British cinema audiences didn’t want to see, especially in the long shadow cast by the colossal success of Four Weddings and a Funeral, also directed by Newell and starring Grant as a much more sympathetic romantic lead. (Fortunately, Hugh Grant has since returned to playing evil queens, to wonderful effect, in Paddington 2 and A Very British Scandal). It was another disappointment that again felt like the plot of a Beryl Bainbridge novel. A global cinema hit with a sequel and millions in royalties would have felt somewhat out of character.

In the latter part of her life, Bainbridge turned to historical fiction, tackling subjects as broad as the sinking of the Titanic (Every Man for Himself), the Crimean War (Master Georgie) and the life of Samuel Johnson (According to Queeney). While these were critically well-received, commercially successful and garlanded with prizes, they lacked the biting wit and post-feminist tristesse of her earlier novels, which crackle with what feels like Bainbridge’s true literary voice.

Bainbridge also achieved an unenviable type of fame as “The Bridesmaid of the Booker”, being nominated for the Booker Prize five times but never winning. In the year 2000, she was made a Dame, and in 2011, a year after her death, the Booker Committee posthumously awarded her a special honour in recognition of her career. There was a sour “too little too late” quality to this honour that felt very typically Beryl – a grim existential joke about good fortune arriving too late that once again could have been lifted from one of her novels.

Though she’s been dead for over a decade, Bainbridge’s work is still read and admired (all of her novels are still in print) but hasn’t quite achieved the “classic” status it deserves.

Bouquet or Brickbat: There’s a lovely moment later in An Awfully Big Adventure when the smitten O’Hara brings Stella a posy of flowers backstage, which she kicks into the dustbin, concerned at what Bunny might think, but also secretly repulsed by O’Hara’s unwelcome display of affection. That’s the only kind of bouquet that makes the cut in Bainbridge’s nicotine-stained world, and the perfect tribute for this darkly funny book.

What a great pleasure it’s been to encounter Bainbridge, a writer who’s been on my radar forever but who I only picked up on the recommendation of a friend who read Injury Time over the Christmas holidays. The jury is still out on which of her novels is her “masterpiece”, and I was almost tempted to write about Injury Time, a laugh-out-loud comedy about four unhappy lovers at a dinner party in North London who get taken hostage by bank robbers. I’ve chosen An Awfully Big Adventure partially because of the film adaptation, but also because it’s a great example of an author laying siege to some much-loved tropes in English literature – the dewy-eyed coming-of-age narrative and the “backstage” theatre comedy – and viewing them through her astringent, quietly feminist eye.

Bainbridge specialised in a particular type of bemused clenched-jawed disappointment. Her protagonists are typically unglamorous, unheroic women, worn down by socially-constructed low expectations, dashed hopes and truly awful men. An Awfully Big Adventure is an interesting exponent of this world view, since it features Stella, an innocent with ambitions of success and romance, and the unhappy adults in her orbit who grapple with the bitter realities of life. “[H]ow monotonous it was,” Meredith muses, “this unerring selection of inappropriate objects of desire“.

Meredith is right, except about the monotony. The fun of the novel, which perversely is also the source of much of its pathos, lies in Stella’s naiveté. We know just a little more than she does, making us feel both protective towards her and mildly sadistic as we wait for her to learn her painful mistakes. Fortunately, she’s spared the worst of the revelations, never learning that she’s committed incest with her own father, a secret that O’Hara takes to his watery grave.

That said, if we do want to keep ahead, we have to read carefully and pay attention. Writing very much in the idiom of the conservative 1940s, Bainbridge takes care not to spell out details in an anachronistic way or explain the characters through a contemporary sensibility. The word “homosexual” is never mentioned in reference to Meredith, and Bunny’s status as his forlorn companion and enabler is only hinted at. Sexual desire, with its inevitable relationship with power, is the gasoline that drives the narrative, but it stays hidden, creating a powder keg of emotion that explodes in hilarious and tragic ways: Dawn’s breakdown, Geoffrey’s assault on Meredith, and the extraordinary number of accidents that befall the troupe, hinting at some deeper existential malaise and overwhelming sense of human frailty.

One of the most hair-raising features of An Awfully Big Adventure, at least for a post-feminist, post-MeToo audience, are the many, many acts of molestation visited on Stella, which she seems to accept as an ordinary fact of life. This is a story that demonstrates why feminism had to happen, which Bainbridge seems to understand. To her great credit, she presents these episodes frankly, but without the kind of horrified commentary that would pull us out of the 1940s and into our own times. Instead, she allows the gropings, forced jerking-off and sexual rivalry play out in all their nasty furtiveness and desperation, which are all the more horrifying for not being condemned.

While there’s something deeply depressing about a world in which sexual harassment and assault against young women are so commonplace, there’s also something refreshing about Bainbridge’s unflinching bluntness about sex. When Geoffrey clumsily tries to have sex with her, she realises that “rehearsing” with him “would make it easier when the time came for Meredith to claim her.” She’s equally matter-of-fact when she loses her virginity to O’Hara. “It had to happen sometime and now was as good a time as any. She wanted to get it over with“, she decides, reciting poetry as O’Hara “climbed on top and humped her beneath the rude unshaded bulb“.

While it would be perverse to read this as any kind of feminist self-empowerment, it speaks to something deep-rooted in Bainbridge’s moral universe: the acceptance of one’s limitations and the need to try and make the most of limited circumstances. Stella, for all her awkwardness and inability to be charming in any conventional way, is allowed to be her own complicated contradictory self, and all the more fascinating because of it.

One of the most satisfying features of the novel, which for my money makes it worthy of classic status, is Bainbridge’s morbid deployment of J M Barrie’s Peter Pan, a beloved work of children’s literature and a staple of the English Christmas pantomime repertory. With the deftest of touches and no hint of signposting, Bainbridge draws out the parallels between Stella’s coming-of-age and Peter Pan – both are about innocent not-quite children forced into a rude awakening with the dangers of adult life, and subject to the dark desires of predatory men. O’Hara follows the English stage tradition of playing both the kindly father Mr Darling and the cruel Captain Hook – a brilliant touch that underscores the duplicity of his character, and the dangers of trusting charmers. “Death is an awfully big adventure”, Peter says at one point, a line that Bainbridge employs to ironic and chilling effect in her story.

There’s a gentler and more poignant undertow to the presence of Peter Pan – it reminds us of the very human need to construct a fantasy world to escape the grim present. From her opening pages, Bainbridge takes pains to describe a city reeling from the physical and emotional devastation of war, with the egalitarian reforms of the welfare state and the NHS still a decade away. There are burnt-out ruins, children running barefoot in the streets or exhibiting the diseases of poverty (ringworm, boils, consumptive coughing), crippled soldiers selling shoelaces on the waterfront, and restaurants making do with food shortages. George the property master recalls horrifying stories from his time in the Merchant Navy, and the more everyday horrors of poverty. As a man “accustomed to sleeping eight to a room, the condensation weeping down the cellar walls, the baby coughing itself into the Infirmary“, he can design the perfect prison set for a well-reviewed production of Richard II. Uncle Vernon’s tenant, a pilot who suffered severe facial burns and has no eyelids, is mentioned repeatedly but never seen, a tragicomic reminder of the ordinariness of human suffering. The horrors of the Holocaust are hinted out, but understood by even the naive Stella: when Geoffrey says something she thinks is anti-Semitic, she concludes “[n]o one but a bigot, after what had happened, would lump rats and Jews together.”

It’s into this damaged world that Peter Pan, with its happy ending for children who believe in fairies, seems both fatally misguided and absolutely essential. Stella, too, has her own fantasy world, compulsively calling the Speaking Clock to listen to a recording of her dead mother. For all its Gothic flourishes and the creepy Freudian denouement, An Awfully Big Adventure is ultimately about death and grief. Nearly every character attempts, unsuccessfully, to cling onto withered past relationships, or in Hara’s case, “to catch up with that other, vanished self who, at this distances, seemed more the real than the person he had become.”

We end the story not knowing exactly how Stella will deal with her romantic disappointment, or if and how she will carry on. She appears to have retreated into a childlike fantasy, but also claims “I’ll know how to behave next time. I’m learning“. What exactly she’s learned is unclear, though as the strange man who gave her money for the phone is now pissing on the side of the road, it’s possible she still needs to learn to avoid weirdos. Bainbridge gives us both the ugly realities of life, while staying alive to the possibilities of comedy – and possibly of beauty – in the grimmest of circumstances.

While Bainbridge’s dirty realism isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, I’m delighted to have discovered her, and so grateful for the unflinching honesty and lack of sentimentality in her writing. She’s a great reminder that the good old days of Britain in wartime were actually quite ghastly, that people were as stupid, selfish and cruel as they are today, and that even the most talentless and self-deluded people see themselves as the star of their own show.

Quotable Quote:

“‘Did you enjoy it?’ he asked, not looking at her.
‘Not really,’ she admitted. ‘I expect there’s a knack to it. It’s very intimate, isn’t it?'”

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