An Awfully Big Adventure

In which I review An Awfully Big Adventure, Beryl Bainbridge’s 1989 novel about a naive young woman who joins a regional theatre company in wartime Liverpool.

What it’s about: Liverpool, England, 1947. Stella Bradshaw, a bright eccentric teenager, lives at a boarding-house run by her Uncle Vernon and aunt Lily. She joins the Liverpool Repertory Company, and navigates the outsized personalities in the troupe: the charming, bitchy director Meredith Potter; his stage manager Bunny, with whom he is having a discreet affair; Geoffrey, a fellow stagehand who unsuccessfully attempts to seduce her; Dawn Allenby, an alcoholic actress having an 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; and hack actor Desmond Fairchild, whom Stella calls a “cunt” before understanding the word’s meaning. Stella falls hopelessly in love with Meredith, unaware that he is gay, and is sexually molested by a newspaper journalist. O’Hara rejoins the company, playing Captain Hook in the Christmas production of Peter Pan, and becomes inexplicably attracted to Stella. Though still obsessed with Meredith, Stella goes to bed with O’Hara, intending to use him as practice. The sexual intrigues unravel at a New Year’s Day football match, at which Stella finally realises Meredith is gay and has been sleeping with Geoffrey. O’Hara discovers that Stella is his daughter from a war-time affair, and drowns accidentally. Meredith replaces him as Captain Hook and fires Stella, who leaves the theatre and calls the Speaking Clock, which is revealed to be the voice of her dead mother.

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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