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The Bottle Factory Outing by Beryl Baindridge – it puts the reader on edge

December 28, 2022 18 comments

The Bottle Factory Outing by Beryl Bainbridge (1974) French title: Sombre Dimanche. Translated by Françoise Cartano.

The Bottle Factory Outing is my second Beryl Bainbridge, after An Awfully Big Adventure and I can find similarities between the two books.

In The Bottle Factory Outing, we’re in London and our protagonists are two roommates, Freda and Brenda. They live in a boarding house and like each other well enough but have opposite characters. Freda is outgoing and flirty. She loves clothes and make up and wants to marry well. She’s energetic and knows what she wants.

Brenda landed in London after she escaped from an abusive marriage. She’s mousy, down-to-earth and wants to be left alone. She’s passive and her attitude sends mixed messages to people around her and gets on Freda’s nerves.

In the following passage, Freda and Brenda are watching a funeral from their window and their interaction gives away their personalities:

‘You cry easily,’ said Brenda, when they were dressing to go to the factory.
‘I like funerals. All those flowers – a full life coming to a close…’
‘She didn’t look as if she’d had a full life,’ said Brenda. ‘She only had the cat. There aren’t any mourners – no sons or anything.’
‘Take a lesson from it then. It could happen to you. When I go I shall have my family about me – daughters – sons – my husband, grey and distinguished, dabbing a handkerchief to his lips…’
‘Men always go first,’ said Brenda. ‘Women live longer.’
‘My dear, you ought to participate more. You are too cut off from life.’

See how Freda romanticize what she sees and projects her future and how Brenda remains practical and attempts to bring her back to reality? It’s typical.

Freda and Brenda work at the same bottle factory owned and managed by Mr Paganotti. He’s Italian and all the workers come from the same Italian village, except Patrick, an Irishman, Freda and Brenda.

Freda has a crush on Mr Paganotti’s nephew, Vittorio. He’s handsome, prances around the factory and flirts a little bit with Freda. She grows things out of proportion because she’s decided that he’s the perfect candidate for the handsome and rich husband she ambitions to marry.

She’s infatuated with him but she doesn’t know him well. In order to spend time with him outside of the factory, she organizes a factory outing on a weekend. But things don’t turn out so well…

Relationships between men and women are creepy in The Bottle Factory Outing just as they were in An Awfully Big Adventure.

Brenda was in an abusive marriage and even if nothing precise is revealed about her past, the reader guesses that it must have been pretty bad for Brenda to take action. And she’s barely started to work at the bottle factory for three days when she starts getting a lot of unwanted attention at work from Rossi, the foreman. She doesn’t know how to rebuff his advances because she doesn’t want to lose her job. Brenda the mouse also caught the attention of her coworker Patrick. He offers to fix her toilet to see her outside of work. At least this one seems respectful.

Freda has Vittorio’s attention but he’s unlikely to marry her and she sets herself up for deception. It’s a classic case of wishing to be the wife and being seen as a mistress. Usually, it only means a broken heart, nothing life-threatening. As far as Freda is concerned, the most disturbing events occur during the outing.

Beryl Bainbridge has a great sense of humour and it shows in her descriptions of her characters and of the outing. But the ending takes a very dark turn, one I didn’t expect. She’s an author who keeps her reader on their toes as her characters are a bit off, as they can sense that events are about to take a dramatic turn or that painful pasts lurk in the characters’ background.

This is a very well constructed novel.

Have you read books by her? What did you think of them? I still have The Dressmaker on the shelf.

Guy has reviewed several of them and his take on The Bottle Factory Outing is here.

An Awfully Good Book

March 4, 2012 21 comments

An Awfully Big Adventure by Beryl Bainbridge. 1989 French title: Le Dernier amour du Capitaine Crochet (Out of print)

First thing, I wonder why the French publisher decided to give such a silly title to such a wonderful book. Of course, it is out of print! Who would like to buy a book entitled Captain Hook’s Last Love? A Disney fan looking for a spin-off of Peter Pan? Are there many such readers out there? To top it off, it relates to events that don’t happen until the last third of the book. But enough ranting, let’s talk about the novel.

The novel opens on an incomprehensible scene, a theatrical one, warning the reader that dramatic events just took place. Then the narration goes backward and starts telling the story.

Liverpool, early 1950s, Stella is 16. She lives with her Uncle Vernon and her Aunt Lily who run a small hotel, more a pension actually. Their clients are mostly tradesmen. Stella is a strange child, her schooling didn’t go well. She keeps to herself and often sounds off the mark. Uncle Vernon realised it was useless to force her into studying and called in a favor to have her hired at the local theatre. Stella took acting classes and she starts as an assistant. Meredith Potter and Rose Lipman run the theatre. It’s the beginning of the new season, other actors have been hired to set up a company. Except for Geoffrey, all were already actors before the war and some were even famous. All have issues, broken hearts, fears and some suffer from loneliness. They’re aging and seem a little ridiculous too.

We follow Stella who doesn’t act as a “normal” girl of sixteen would. Beryl Bainbridge drops hints here and there and we slowly get the picture. The girl’s mother is missing but why? Sick? Selfish? Run-away? Remarried? Stella discovers another world, helps with costumes, runs errands for the actors, plays small parts, performs in the backstage during the shows. She observes a lot and she’s quite disconcerting because she either has a flat mind and misses the obvious or happens to have an incredible insight on people. We witness the rehearsals, the nights at the local pub where the company meets and Stella progressively unfolds their lives. She has a crush on Meredith who can’t return the feeling, actually.

Stella had believed herself in love with him. Now when he allowed her so much of her time, she realized that what she had felt before was but a poor shade of the real thing. The very mention of his name caused her to tremble, and in his company she had the curious sensation that her feet and her nose had enlarged out of proportion. When he spoke to her she could scarcely hear what he said for the thudding of her lovesick heart and the chattering of her teeth. Often he told her she ought to wear warmer clothing.

Beautiful description of teenage crush. She worships him as a god and of course, he can’t be wrong, he can’t be mean and he has to be perfect in everything.

It’s a coming of age novel. Some company members try to educate Stella as she’s terribly ignorant or candid or innocent, whichever way you choose to look at it. Here’s a reporter taking advantage of her, as it happens several times in the story:

She tried to pull her hand free, but it was held fast. The protuberance under her fingers felt soft and hard at the same time, an iron fist in a velvet glove. Attempting to bring what Meredith would call a philosophical approach to her predicament, she pondered on the differences in men’s and women’s clothing. Trousers, she now realized, were so designed not because their wearers had funny legs but because men were constantly worried that an essential part of themselves might have gone missing. They wanted instant access, just to make sure things were in place. What was more puzzling was why they needed everyone else to check as well.

This passage also shows the author’s wonderful sense of humour. Actors and other theatre staff feel responsible for Stella. For example, an actress buys bras for her when she discovers she doesn’t have any. Bunny, Meredith’s right hand and stage manager, is a real keeper, following her at night from a distance to make sure she goes home safely. Uncle Vernon also cares about her a lot; he needs to let her grow up and it is difficult for him to adjust. I wondered why he insisted that she became an actress. At the time, it wasn’t a glamorous career for a woman. But that was all cleared up at the end of the book.

It’s also a book about how the past can backfire on you; how things you thought well kept in a box in the attic suddenly spring free and get back to you.

As an aside, An Awfully Big Adventure is a vivid picture of post-war England. The war isn’t the theme of the book but it’s unforgettable, it’s all in the details. People still suffer from war restrictions; Uncle Vernon’s hotel is an example. Hot water for a bath is a luxury. Clothes are expensive. Men are broken, physically or mentally.

Next door to the hotel was a garden laid out in memory of some worthy citizen of an earlier century, its beds planted with roses pruned brutally to the soil. The municipal railings had been taken away for the war effort and through the gaps in the makeshift fence of galvanized iron he saw a tramp in an army greatcoat sitting on a green bench.

The company’s state mirrors the city’s state. It’s a bittersweet tale, humans and city try to recover from the war, resume the occupations they had before these shattering years. It has left its marks and the reconstruction is slow.

I read An Awfully Big Adventure in English, in a paperback edition. Pff. I’m not good at British English, I’m sure I missed part of the fun. I couldn’t figure out the food they had on their plates. (What can be a buck rarebit?) It’s full of local expressions, some of them I knew, some other not. But I recently found a new teacher for purely British idioms, I should improve in the next months.

An Awfully Big Adventure was made into a film by Mike Newell in 1995. Hugh Grant plays Meredith (I don’t know why but I imagined Kenneth Branagh in that role) and Alan Rickman plays P.L. O Hara. Georgina Cates is a wonderful Stella. I watched it and it’s an excellent version of the book, really faithful.

Last but not least, this novel was among Guy’s virtual Christmas gifts. . Well chosen again, Guy, it’s three out of four now. Thanks for making me discover a new writer.

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