If my memory is serving me correctly this is only the second Bainbridge novel that I’ve read so I am perhaps not the best of readers to comment on what was her last work and one which, at her death, remained unfinished. I am even more hesitant because I read The Girl in the Polka-dot Dress only because it was a book group choice and therefore one that I felt obliged to read to the end. You might be getting the impression that I wasn’t that impressed and therefore asking, quite rightly, why I am posting about it. Well, there are a number of reasons.
First, I wonder why I don’t warm to Bainbridge? There is one member of the group who will not hear a word against her and who insisted that this was as great a work as anything she had written. I’m not too worried that I couldn’t agree with that because none of the rest of the group had managed to make much of this book either. It’s set in 1968 in America during the period between the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy. Rose, a damaged young woman of twenty-eight, has made her way from the UK to the States in order to join with the much older Harold in search of a man who has in one way or another radically influenced both their lives. The relationship between the enigmatic Mr Wheeler and Rose is one that as far as I could see was never really established. Harold, on the other hand is much clearer about the part that Wheeler has played in his life. What does seem likely is that their motivations for wanting to locate him are very different. However, Mr Wheeler really doesn’t seem to want to be located and so the book turns into a road narrative as Rose and Harold trundle across the continent encountering a procession of very different individuals all of whom are also damaged to a greater or lesser extent. I didn’t warm to any of them, but then that was the same with the characters in The Bottle Factory Outing which is the only other Bainbridge I’ve read, so perhaps it wasn’t this book in particular, but her style of characterisation altogether. I don’t know. Why don’t I warm to Bainbridge?
The other reason I wanted to write about it here is that it isn’t that long since we discussed the whole question of publishing unfinished work and whether or not another writer should try and complete that which has been left incomplete. At the end of my copy of the book there is this caveat:
Beryl Bainbridge was in the process of finishing The Girl in the Polka-dot Dress when she died on 2 July 2010. Her long-time friend and editor, Brendan King, prepared the text for publication from her working manuscript, taking into account suggestions Beryl made at the end of her life. No additional material has been included.
Apparently, Bainbridge, who knew she was dying as she wrote this novel, said that she would need another thirty days to complete it ready for publication. Given that the actual storyline itself appears to be there, whole and entire, and that nothing has been added to that, it would seem to me that what she would have used those days for would have been tightening up the narrative and (hopefully) making clearer some of those areas, especially in relation to motivation, that so perplexed us as a group. However, that is simply speculation on my part and it struck me as I was thinking about this that one way to explore whether or not that would have been the case would be to look at any working papers that exist from novels that she had written in the past. In other words, to extrapolate from her known working process in order to try and understand what was left to do with this book in those thirty days Bainbridge was denied.
This is where the practice by Universities of snapping up the literary remains of writers might be seen to be of some value. At least, it might if the writers have kept their working papers and it’s possible to track the process of a book from preliminary ideas and sketches through to the finished product. What did Bainbridge do in that finishing off process? How did she go about polishing her work?
And yet, even then, would it have been possible to predict exactly what any alterations would have been? Surely it is precisely those tiny changes that lift a work from the ordinary to the exceptional and which define a writer as an individual? I think I am back where most of us ended up a fortnight ago; leave the work as it stands, even if it is then less than whole.
And, I think that this book is less than whole, at least I hope it is, because then I would have a good reason for coming away from it still not able to understand why Bainbridge is so well thought of, and could live in hope that another book of hers might open my eyes and make a convert of me.