The Girl in the Polka-Dot Dress 
by Beryl Bainbridge.
Little, Brown, 197 pp., £16.99, May 2011, 978 0 316 72848 5
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What is the relationship between fiction and knowledge? How much can Crime and Punishment tell us about the habits of Russian pawnbrokers? Would you know how to build a raft after reading Huckleberry Finn? Could Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho be construed as a guide to sniffing cocaine and murdering your date? There’s no doubt that one learns things by reading novels – and by writing them – but is that something rightly termed knowledge, or are we simply talking about the sparks that jump at you from the centre of an interesting blaze? You might argue that good novels depend on being able to dramatise what people don’t know: the author may know things, and so may the reader, but people not knowing things is always more interesting than what they know. In a good novel facts will seem incidental. Tolstoy gives us a picture of life on the Napoleonic battlefield no history book can compete with, but this isn’t because of the information that War and Peace contains. Even novels in which almost nothing happens – John McGahern’s, for instance – will speak in historical whispers, aiming to ‘disimprison’, as Coleridge once said, ‘the soul of fact’.

Beryl Bainbridge was one of the last of the pre-Google English novelists, the last, you might say, following Coleridge, for whom facts had a soul and were not simply pluckable. Take her novel Master Georgie, set in the Crimean War. While reading it, I decided to do a little background research. It was super-easy to find things out. I went online and read about Balaklava. It wasn’t long before I put ‘Lord Raglan’ into a search engine and soon I was listening to an 1890 recording of Tennyson intoning ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’. I was able to read the words as he spoke them and hear the crackles on Thomas Edison’s original wax cylinder recording. I was able to click through to Psalm 23, which finds its echo in the poem; able to learn how quickly Tennyson responded to Russell’s report of the battle in the Times; able to jump to Kipling’s response written 37 years later; and able, again in no time at all, to check a sample of the poem written in Tennyson’s own handwriting. In all, my research took about ten minutes – not much longer than it took me to read a couple of paragraphs in Master Georgie. But those told me so much more.

More than two-thirds of the way through the novel the reader accompanies the surgeon and photographer George Hardy on a journey past the Bosphorus, accompanied by a sister called Myrtle, a lapsed geologist, Dr Potter, and a Mrs Yardley. With gnats flying about their heads they ride into a wood:

We rode in single file and shortly passed two young men, bare-chested in the sun-dappled shade, one sitting with his back to the trunk of a tree, the other sprawled upon the ground, arms covering his face, bright hair bunched against the brown earth. Both were lazily humming, their scarlet jackets dangling from the branches above. Hearing the soft plodding of the horses’ hooves, the seated man opened his eyes and nodded respectfully; he had the rosy cheeks and snub nose of a country boy, and his lap was heaped with wild cherries.

The company ride on. At a house by a vineyard not far away, they drink from bowls of milk set on a rickety table by the head of a family, a moment of random hospitality that sets the company on edge. They ride on again. The women speak of birds and Mrs Yardley’s colonel. They speak of Myrtle’s face looking sad in repose and they come again to the trail that led into the woods, where they’d seen the two exhausted soldiers:

It was now past midday and we quickened our pace so as to be out of the glare. Ahead, the scarlet jackets blazed amid the leaves. A single beam of sunlight pierced the branches, framing in shimmering silver the outline of a man standing in the middle of the path. As we drew nearer he made no attempt to step out of our way and we were forced to rein in the horses. He stood with arms wrapped about himself, as though he was cold, and stared past us. Following the direction of his petrified gaze, I swivelled in the saddle and looked behind. The country boy still sat with his back to the tree, only now the pink had quite gone from his cheeks and his skin was mottled, like meat lain too long on the slab. He hadn’t eaten all the cherries; flies crawled along his fingers and buzzed at his mouth.

Among the things historical fiction does is put words back into the mouths of those too dead to speak them, and project images from the eyes of lost witnesses.

Bainbridge moved from writing dainty, passionate, witty, beautifully observed novels set in the Liverpool of her childhood to writing about worlds that lay beyond what she could have seen out of her window. For sure, there was always a hint of Scouse weather in language or origins or theme. Master Georgie sets off for the Crimea from the slums of Victorian Liverpool; and in Every Man for Himself, her novel of the Titanic sinking, the boom of the Liverpool docks can almost be heard behind the boom of the docks in Belfast, where the doomed ship was built. As Bainbridge grew, and grew famous, her imagination filled, in a way quite traditional for novelists, with distant lives and transferred selves, and so she turned increasingly towards history to give occasions for her sentences. To some readers, it seemed a long way from Marge and Nellie, the two Liverpudlian aunts who bring up Rita, a lovesick 17-year-old, in Bainbridge’s tightly autobiographical The Dressmaker, published in 1973. A long way, too, from the bedsitter girls, Freda and Brenda, in The Bottle Factory Outing (1974), who have the same jobs Bainbridge once had, and who want more from life than small wages and heavy gropes. Stella Bradshaw in the not-so-early novel An Awfully Big Adventure, with her starlust and her attempt to rip herself from working-class strictures, is a classic case of Bainbridge-on-the-move as the 1950s world of Liverpool rep shrinks before the young girl’s capacity for wonder. Bainbridge began to see that it isn’t, generally speaking, the past that is wanting, and not home either, but her own willingness to be simply one thing. It was inevitable that she would go in search of the many possible selves she might encompass, and she found them, a series of homes if you like, in places and times far apart from each other. She found one in the mind of Hester Thrale’s eldest daughter – observing Samuel Johnson in According to Queeney – and another in the Antarctic of Scott’s famous expedition. Five people told that tale, in The Birthday Boys, but they were all Beryl. On a good day, a novelist will find little parts of himself everywhere in history.

Bainbridge was working right to the end: last year, The Girl in the Polka-dot Dress was sitting unfinished on her desk. Rose, the protagonist, is a girl from Kentish Town who is newly sprightly in 1968, and at the start of the novel she arrives in America with $47 in her purse. You get a quick idea of the kind of English girl Rose is when she speaks of Co-op dividends and the fact that her mother has pernicious anaemia. She has an innocent practicality about her, and perhaps a wish for adventure and romance, but larger things happen while she is busy looking the other way. At first we don’t know the purpose of her journey. She has come to meet a man called Harold Grasse in Baltimore; both of them, we discover, are in search of a certain Dr Wheeler, whom Rose once had a kind of assignation with in Charing Cross Road. She has determined that Wheeler is her fate, though we may prefer to see him as some kind of Beckettian cipher, a man more interesting in the waiting for than in the arrival.

There must be many girls like Rose, who live in changing times but aren’t sure they’ll ever enjoy a change themselves. In Baltimore, Rose gathers, there are race riots going on downtown; more preoccupying for her, however, is the state of Harold’s toilet bowl and the possibility that ‘Americans didn’t know about Vim.’ Facts emerge slowly and their domestic plainness gives texture to the surrounding history. This is a Bainbridge speciality: a man could go to the moon, but the whole thing had to take account, say, of how things look from the doorstep of a Liverpool pub at closing time, where Uncle Fred had just stepped onto the pavement and dropped his house keys down a drain. In her journey across America, Rose will touch the fringes of the epoch, but what she really wants to find out about is herself. The mysterious Wheeler gave her a Box Brownie eight years before her journey. She is now here to claim him as an important person in her life, almost as if she were a storyteller going after one last character who might explain her relationship with the world. Rose is too practical to expect a revelation, but she’d like a nice time, and doesn’t see why everything can’t make room for that.

Harold is proud of his camper van and spends quite a bit of time feeling resentful that Rose is in it with him. He is unhappy to begin with and nervous at the prospect of an unspecified task. They drive to a Washington apartment to find Wheeler, but he isn’t there. Then they go to a dinner party with someone who might have been in the company of Dr King when he was assassinated in the Memphis motel. Rose enters history reluctantly, you might say squeamishly, attesting all the while to her own small concerns, displaying that weird combination of the sinister and the childlike that often typifies the working-class outlook on world affairs. ‘It’s only people who are comfortably off,’ she says at one point, ‘who can afford to be upset about coloured people.’ Someone at the dinner party thinks Rose is verging on the simple, but she’s actually quite intelligent about what the world has to offer. Though she doesn’t say so directly, history for her is a bit like the old Pick ‘n’ Mix counter at Woolworth’s: you take what you want, you weigh it, and you pay for it. And sometimes you regret what you chose.

You get the sense that Rose, who has known hard times in the past, is finding herself and losing herself at the same time. History is all around her, as it was for Bainbridge, but the tug of habit and the pull of belonging increasingly feel like the mechanisms of character. Big things are happening – we soon hear that Wheeler is on the Robert Kennedy campaign trail, and they follow him west – yet Rose is more than ever alert to the influence of her own past on the new life she is trying to imagine for herself. Her reveries, many of them about fathers and memories, are the best moments in the book.

He was wearing his Home Guard beret. I’ve been thinking, Rose, he said, what to get you for your birthday. Is there anything you really want? She said, Not really, which was a lie. She would have liked a watch with a strap made of crocodile skin … The blast of a gunshot followed her down the hall, then a thin scream. Someone always died in the Saturday play, and never from natural causes. She hadn’t bothered going into Mother’s room to say goodnight. She wouldn’t be back yet. She was down at the railway station reading her library book by the fire in the waiting room; it was where she went every night until Father returned to normal.

I was once standing against a fireplace with Bainbridge, back in the days when everybody smoked and everybody drank and nobody went to the gym. It was at some awards ceremony in the Draper’s Hall in Throgmorton Street. She was warming the backs of her legs and having a quick fag. She told me to touch her tummy. ‘Can you feel it, or not?’ she asked. ‘My daughter’s having a baby today. I can feel it, right there.’ There was undoubtedly something of Rose’s character in Bainbridge’s sweet and comical mystifications, and her last novel is an equally sweet, and sometimes dark, evocation of a young girl’s skirmishes with herself and with history. Rose is not in charge of world events, or even much involved in them, but she divines them, she feels them, and in this way ups the ante in the face of plain facts.

I won’t say more about the mysterious Dr Wheeler, but we get to know a thing or two about Harold Grasse. It seems his wife cheated on him and may have committed suicide by walking into a lake. His journey with Rose is also a journey around their own boundaries: who are they really, these people, and what is their game? They seem to bump into quite a few characters, and Rose, increasingly, has things to say about them. Many of these comments can be filed under Classic Bainbridge. A woman with a vague connection to politics leaves the room, having shown Rose a photograph of Ethel Kennedy with nine of her children, before she and Rose have had a chance to speak. ‘It was odd,’ we hear, ‘that someone so good at applying make-up should be so averse to talking face to face.’ The travelling companions, or the seekers, Harold and Rose, pick up a pushy priest who’s late for a funeral. On a whim, they make a detour to visit Harold’s old university, where he sees that the row of lockers ‘where once his name had been displayed’ has gone, along with the old photographs of the baseball teams. ‘Time,’ he thought, ‘was fast wiping out his life.’

The book has the bends, from time to time, and becomes breathless and weird. At one point, the pair are involved in a bank robbery in which Harold pees himself. At a trailer park – a sign of a trashier world to come, perhaps – they stop for the night and join a birthday party being run by a man called Hayland and a bunch of muscled racists. ‘“I tell you,” bawled Hayland, spitting hatred, “that the next time I come across a fucking nigger I’ll tear his head from his shoulders. Are you with me?” A boom of support echoed through the trees.’ They escape the party with a lawyer who knows about politics and the poetry of Robert Lowell. By this point, it seems that Bainbridge has with this book made another persuasive entry into the grain of another time, another place, and an argot not her own. She had that gift, and deploys it as effectively as Roth or Bellow on their own turf. ‘He’s come close, time and time again, to paranoia,’ the lawyer says of Richard Nixon, ‘but he never quite gives in to it. His style, don’t you agree, is a perfect mixture of rage and caution?’ This is five years before Watergate.

As the novel motors towards the shooting of Robert Kennedy at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, it vivifies what it might feel like to be a lone individual caught in the crush of history and the glare of a well-known story. We find Rose, as we found Beryl, listening across the years for the sound of present life. It was part of her tact to make that gigantic effort seem pocket-sized. But in her own way she was a mistress of time’s locomotion, and some of the last sentences she wrote easily connect with the young Liverpudlian who began writing a diary in 1942. The ‘voice was confident’, she says of her last character, the lawyer’s wife, ‘her eyes glittering; she was someone still endeavouring to make sense of the present. Rose wasn’t surprised; most of her own life had been spent dwelling on the wounds of the past.’

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