When Annabel announced Beryl Bainbridge Week and posted a full bibliography, it wasn't hard for me to choose which of BB's novels I was going to start with. And believe me, this is going to be a hard act to follow.
This was, in fact and amazingly enough, BB's first novel, though it was the third to be published. When she wrote it in 1958, she failed to find a publisher because of the subject matter -- here's what one rejection letter said:
what repulsive little creatures you have made the two central characters, repulsive almost beyond belief! And I think the scene in which the two men and the two girls meet in the Tsar's house is too indecent and unpleasant even for these lax days. What is more, I fear that even now a respectable printer would not print it!
Apparently partly inspired by the Parker-Hulme murder (1954), in which two young girls bludgeoned a woman to death, this is the very disturbing story of fourteen-year-old Harriet and her friend, a year younger and never named, who narrates the story. Harriet is sophisticated, knowing, and highly manipulative, and has the other girl completely in her thrall. Both girls have already had some kind of sexual experience, mostly with Italian prisoners of war, and they have now homed in on a middle-aged man, Peter Biggs, who they call the Tsar. The Tsar fascinates the two of them -- 'slightly unsober, slightly dishevelled, always elegant, he swayed moodily past us through all the days of our growing up'. He is unhappily married, and is drawn to the younger girl in a mildly sexual way. She, in return, decides to be in love with him and is encouraged in this by Harriet, though Harriet warns her that at thirteen there is very little you can expect to salvage from loving someone but experience -- a warning that will come to have a huge resonance in the light of later events. The two girls follow the Tsar around, spy on him, and, in a most striking scene, watch through the window of his house as his wife pins him like a moth on the sofa as
Like an oiled snake, deep delving and twisting, Mrs Biggs poisoned him slowly, rearing and stabbing convulsively. Her body writhed gently and was still. Ignoring the woman above him the grey Tsar lay as if dead, pinioned limply, eyes wide and staring, speared in an act of contrition. Full-blown love eddied from the woman, blowsy hips sunk in weariness, soaking up virtue from the body beneath.
Perhaps from this you can get a flavour of the brilliance of the writing, and also of the immense skill with which Bainbridge captures the girl's perspective -- her combination of rather precocious knowledge and still childish innocence is extraordinarily well conveyed. And of course through her eyes we see Harriet, who the Tsar describes as evil, but who the narrator adores and at first unquestionably obeys, though as the novel progresses her willingness to do this is eroded to some extent. I can't tell you what happens in the final scene of the novel, in which the two girls spend an evening at the Tsar's house with two middle-aged men, but it is both like and unlike the way they have anticipated it before the event:
We both sat silent, imagining the scene at the house of the Tsar, drinking coffee out of thin white cups, locked together in the lamplight with the two men: the delicious secrecy of the night, the unfamiliar bitter taste of the dark liquid, the fearful danger, footsteps coming up the path, the Tsar crumpling paper-pale against the window as Mrs Biggs returned before time and fitted her key into the locked door. It was a lovely fearful thing to imagine and we kept the image of it all the way to the station.
Prepare, though, to be shocked by the final outcome. Of course you may well be shocked from page one, as this novel deals with some very thought-provoking matters, and it's easy to understand why publishers in the 1950s were not brave enough to take it on. But what is so impressive about it, apart from the quality of the writing, which is remarkable by any standards and quite extraordinary for a first novel, is the skill with which the moral issues are handled. You might think, reading about it, that the Tsar is despicable in his willingness to succumb to the girls, but this is not how he really seems -- essentially he appears a weak and unhappy man who gets drawn into something he has no idea how to handle.
I cannot recommend this novel highly enough. I've got three other BBs lined up for review this week, and I'm delighted that I got a chance to explore this terrific novelist. This one, in any case, goes straight onto my list of the best books ever. Thanks so much, Annabel!