Rose on the Run

Andrew O’Hagan

  • The Girl in the Polka-Dot Dress by Beryl Bainbridge
    Little, Brown, 197 pp, £16.99, May 2011, ISBN 978 0 316 72848 5

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:

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