Tuesday, 10 May 2011

Master Georgie

Master Georgie - Beryl Bainbridge
Forward, the Light Brigade!' 
Was there a man dismay'd?
Not tho' the soldier knew 
Some one had blunder'd: 
Theirs not to make reply, 
Theirs not to reason why, 
Theirs but to do & die, 
Into the valley of Death 
Rode the six hundred.
(from Charge of the Light Brigade - Tennyson) 
"I am at least better off as far as transport is concerned; three days ago over two hundred cavalry horses of the Light Brigade stampeded into the camp, their riders having perished in a charge along the north valley."
(from Master Georgie - Beryl Bainbridge)

I was inspired to read this novel by the posthumous Man Booker Best of Beryl prize which it was recently awarded. That and my enjoyment of The Bottle Factory Outing late last year. And I was not dissappointed.
Bainbridge writes with great economy and wit and an acerbic sense of humour reminiscent of Muriel Spark. Master Georgie also displays a nihilistic streak, as Bainbridge takes on nationalism, religion and whatever else lies in her path and shows all to be little more than a Punch and Judy show but with dirt, misery, blood and gore. All this while making you laugh - quite an achievement. 
This achievement, however, seems somehow to be underestimated. Perhaps the act of so successfully pricking pomposity without being pompous means that you don't attract the literati, who may have a tendency towards the pompous. Maybe people are looking for answers rather than to have them so quickly despatched.
Perhaps the key character is Myrtle, who like Heathcliff in another novel, is a foundling from the streets of Liverpool who knows nothing about her identity. Brought home by Mr Hardy ("Until he was dead I'd liked Mr Hardy.") while a smallpox epidemic rages at the orphanage, she is kept when the daughter Miss Beatrice "set up howling" when the time came to send her to the orphanage. She is later replaced in Beatrice's affections by a dog. Miss Beatrice takes to saying that she might have "crawled from the bogs of Ireland", like the housekeeper who's responsibility she has become. (A minor quibble - the housekeeper's experience of the potato famine seems to have occurred before the famine) 
A  doorstop, something Bainbridge didn't write.
Having been taken in and kept rather in the way a pet is, she grows up following Master Georgie, the son of the house, like a faithful dog. One day, when following him she stops to watch a Punch and Judy show. The wagon gets overturned by a gentleman's horse who mistakes a cabbage for a puff adder. 
"It was all over in the blink of an eye. Then, wonder of wonders, the Punch and Judy man reared up before us, scrambling to his feet and waving his arms to fight off the flapping fold of the candy-striped front cloth. From his mouth flew a stream of oaths, which came out comical, not fearsome, for he still used that parrot voice. Beneath his sodden top hat his nose curved down to meet his chin."
Behind the facade - is a facade - nothing is what it appears. Swossage!
Each of the six chapters is named for a photograph and narrated in turn by Myrtle, Pompey Jones and Dr Potter. Pompey is a street boy who becomes an assosciate of Master Georgie's when he is present at the death of his father. Dr Potter marries Georgie's sister Beatrice. All have very different perspectives and voices. The mise en scene changes from the streets of London to the mud and misery of the siege of Sebastapol. This does not mine picturesque Victoriana but a rich seam of corruption, violence and existential doubt. 
Dr Potter is a lapsed geologist whose world has been rocked by the precursor to Darwin's Origin of the Species"Nothing has affected me quite so brutally as that manifesto of the new sciences, Principles of Geology by Mr Lyell. I was twenty-two years old when I first read it. Result, I have not been the same man since. Echoing the sentiments of Mr Ruskin, I have often lamented to Beatrice, 'Those dreadful Hammers! I hear the clink of them through every cadence of the Bible verses.It was not so much Lyell's shattering of the fairy tale of Creation that plunged me into mental turmoil, rather his assertion that the interchange of land and sea is perpetual." Shifting sands indeed.
The book doesn't just stick to scientific reasoning though. At one stage a passage seems to suggest that something demonic is happening.  "Uttering one querulous bleat, the goat gave birth. Mrs Yardley jerked back in shock, a fill of milk edging her open mouth. Raking the amniotic slime from the kids head, the woman blew into its nostrils, then gathered it up into her arms. A tiny fist poked from her bodice and waved beside a cloven hoof. Crossing the yard the woman flopped the infant goat down in the sun, alongside the rising bread."
The plate from the first chapter fades to black, the plate in the last chapter seems to gain someone who wasn't there. But whatever forces are at play they are not benign. Bainbridges pictures the horrors of war with precision and not a little poetry. "We found six men, comrades and foes, linked together, bayonets quivering in a daisy chain of steel." "Then I thought of him old, his hair grown white and me still a girl, and all that love I'd given him rotting like the cherries on the dead soldier's lap." 
When Dr Potter interrupts a horse loving Irishman lamenting the death of his favourite horse he causes offence by saying that Plato "held quadrupeds to be a form of deteriorated humanity and essentially brutal." He tells us that "I was saved by young Gormsby, mute until now, stammering out, "There is no more brutal species than man." This is satire as savage as it is Swift.
This is a book that deals with final things but lets us know that there is little reason to lament the final end of the human race. We are little but a geological aside.
'It's useful to know one's beginnings.'
'There are more urgent things to contemplate,' he muttered, 'one's end for instance,' and the water having come to the boil, made tea.
If you don't mind your tea strong, black and sugar free this could be a book for you. 

1 comment:

  1. You seemed to get a lot more out of this than I did - I'm glad. I could tell there was lots of good meaty stuff in here, I just kept finding myself drifting off when I should have been paying closer attention. I'm going to re-read Master Georgie though, as I think it's one of those books that will reward second and third readings.