#100WomenNovelistsofthe20thCentury: Beryl Bainbridge

Blog post 4: The Bottle Factory Outing (1974)

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The hearse stood outside the block of flats, waiting for the old lady. Freda was crying. There were some children and a dog running in and out of the line of bare black trees planted in the pavement.

‘I don’t know why you’re crying,’ said Brenda. ‘You didn’t know her.’

Written over forty years ago, ‘The Bottle Factory Outing’ is particularly relevant for our post-Brexit times. Brenda and Freda, two mismatched room mates, find work at the local Italian bottle factory in London. It’s not especially hard work, putting labels on bottles of wine, though it is very cold and they have to fight off the advances of some of the Italian workers, though mostly these men are respectful and slightly in dreaded awe of these English women.

Brenda has escaped an abusive husband, the bravest thing she has ever done or is ever likely to do. She has a tendency to let people walk all over her, Freda included. Freda delights in calling Brenda a victim. Freda is tall and big and sexy and rather intimidates Brenda. She is also a fantasist, in love with elegant Vittorio, a relative of the factory owner, Mr Paganotti. She dreams of a better life, preferably one where she is Vittorio’s wife, living happily and romantically in a castle in sun-drenched Bologna. She likes the Italians.

Brenda hinted she didn’t like foreigners – she found them difficult to get on with. Freda said it proved how puny a person she was, in mind and in body. ‘You’re bigoted,’ she cried. ‘And you don’t eat enough.’

The women’s relationship is complex and contrary. They need each other but they get on each other’s nerves.

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.

This central relationship makes the major event of the novel shocking and horrific. And yet bizarrely comic.

Bainbridge passes no judgements; she is not an authorial narrator, though she leaps from one viewpoint to another. We are in Freda’s head, then Brenda’s, then perhaps Vittorio’s, then maybe Patrick’s, the Irish delivery man that Brenda is reluctantly drawn to. But the writing is so clear and concise that we are never muddled, though frequently surprised. And often shocked.

This novel is a dark comedy. At times, a farce. But the overwhelming tone is one of unsettling menace. The action mainly takes place around the outing organised by Freda for the factory workers. They are to take a picnic and drive out to a stately home somewhere. But nothing goes to plan. What happens is macabre and funny and it is this fizzing cocktail that makes Bainbridge a guilty joy to read.

Six times shortlisted for the Booker, how did Beryl Bainbridge never win? Readers and writers alike will be asking this question for a long time to come.

 

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