- Master Georgie by Beryl Bainbridge
Duckworth, 190 pp, £14.99, April 1998, ISBN 0 7156 2831 3
All through Beryl Bainbridge’s latest novel, characters dwell on chance and fate, and the string of coincidences that link their lives. These aren’t new preoccupations for Bainbridge; one of the striking things about her earlier novels was the rather ambivalent way in which chance was used. There were random, grotesque accidents and sudden deaths, involving incidental characters who had no relevance to the plot until the moment of their intrusion into the narrative – a boy tripping forward into a pane of glass and dying instantly on the pavement (An Awfully Big Adventure); an unknown man staggering towards the narrator, to die in his arms (Every Man for Himself). Sometimes these episodes turned out to be significant; sometimes they were allowed to drop away altogether. In the same way, remarkable coincidences surfaced, but they tended to be unimportant or related to the past. Characters ascribed them to the workings of God or, having failed to explain them, decided they must be purely random.
In the first few pages of Master Georgie a character sees a Punch and Judy show collapse, kicked at by a startled horse. The illusion is shattered, the mysterious operator revealed for the first time. The analogy isn’t pointed up but it does seem to relate to the way Bainbridge’s characters often encounter death when they’re most self-absorbed, most taken up with the temporary distractions of life. Chance tears through this false reality, revealing a world of instability and mortality.
In some ways, it isn’t surprising that these themes are more prominent in Master Georgie than they have been before. Two thirds of the novel is set around the Black Sea during the Crimean War, and the chaotic conditions in the camps there, as well as the number of people Bainbridge suggests travelled out for reasons other than actual fighting, mean that there’s more scope for chance to seem to have a dominant role. The plot, especially in its early stages, is a series of coincidences.
George Hardy – a young medical student, the elusive ‘Master Georgie’ of the tide – takes an unusual route home from town one afternoon, distracted after an argument with a friend. Myrtle, the 12-year-old servant girl who’s expected to accompany him around Liverpool, running back to the house occasionally to check and report on his neurotic mother, follows him through the ‘mouldering disarray’ of the city’s poorest backstreets. A woman appears in a doorway, screaming. On an impulse, George goes to help her. The house, it emerges, serves as a brothel. Upstairs, a corpse lying half-naked on the bed turns out to be George’s father, dead from a heart attack. A boy – whom Myrtle noticed earlier in the day returning a stolen duck to its owner – happens to turn up. With his help, George and Myrtle take Mr Hardy home and put him in his own bed, so avoiding scandal. A van, belonging to the Punch and Judy show Myrtle saw earlier on, is hired to transport the corpse. Years later the same van appears in the Crimea, and with it the ‘duckboy’, Pompey Jones, now a photographer’s assistant.