When Meredith Potter, the producer, asks Stella, the heroine of An Awfully Big Adventure, what she thinks J.B. Priestley’s Dangerous Corner is about, she says: ‘Love. People loving people who love somebody else.’ He explains that she is mistaken, and that it is mostly about time. An Awfully Big Adventure is about people – members of the Liverpool Repertory Company in 1950 – loving people who love somebody else, as well as about Liverpool, about 1950, and about theatricals. What is to happen, and what has happened, are revealed in ways which only very retentive readers will twig; a second reading is even more satisfactory than the first. It deepens one’s respect for the drawing of Stella – a human catalyst who wills nothing evil, but whose character and history have shaped her to cause trouble. Through her, the psychology and mechanics of mischief, of why accidents are likely to happen, are wonderfully displayed.
P.J.O’Hara, whose fate turns out to be the beginning as well as the end of the book, would not have been in Liverpool at all if he had not been persuaded to take the place of the leading man, St Ives, who broke a leg falling down stairs when he heard the sound of Dawn Allenby’s musical lighter, which would not have been tinkling out ‘Come back to Sorrento’ if Dawn had not fallen into such a rage when she heard that it was he, St Ives, and not Meredith Potter who had insisted she be sacked. Was Stella to blame for all this? When she decided she might as well lose her virginity to O’Hara she could not have known that he had known her mother, or what the effect would be of his finding out that it was her mother he knew. She did tell Dawn Allenby about St Ives stabbing her (Dawn) in the back, but only because she was sorry for her, and did not want Potter (whom she loved – not knowing that he preferred boys) to be thought a brute. Potter who loves Hilary who does not love him; Dawn who loves St Ives who does not love her; O’Hara who cannot understand why he is drawn to Stella, who cannot understand why Potter should not be interested in her, and Stella’s Uncle Vernon, who loves Stella but cannot stop nagging her; Stella who cannot bring herself to be demonstrative to Vernon and Aunt Lily, although she is sensible of her obligations; and Stella’s mother who is not about, and whose loves and lack of love were perhaps the first cause of everything which happens: these are the elements of an intricate piece of emotional clockwork. Stella herself is the escapement by way of which, tick after tick, it unwinds.
But Stella, her emotional puzzlement abetted by feral cleverness, is too convincing for the story to become a mechanical roundabout of love. Beryl Bainbridge’s descriptions of Stella’s perceptions remind one of animal thoughts in the novels of Henry Williamson. Smells, for example, are important, and it is usually Stella who smells them:
She stayed behind dipping her nose like a pecking hen into the front of her jumper to sniff herself. She hadn’t known George smelled, or rather that the sour whiffs of stale tobacco and unwashed clothing constituted an unacceptable risk. Stink had an awful sound, on a par with putrefaction.
She raised her head and stood there, her hand cupped over her nose to trap the scent of her skin, and all at once she inhaled some forgotten familiar odour of the past. It wasn’t a bad smell: something between wood smoke and a house left empty. Her lips parted to give it a name but the word got lost before it was uttered, and all that remained was the sweet brilliantine caught on her fingers and her own breath smelling of the liquorice that George had given her.
She smells coffee and cigar smoke in the foyer of the theatre, coke fumes from the hot-water pipes, peppermint and Eau de Cologne in the dressing-room; rabbit glue, distemper and damp clothing in the props-room, and scented soap as Meredith Potter passes on the stairs. When O’Hara takes her back to his room she says she can smell something. Not damp: ‘I know that sort of smell. It’s sweet. This is different ... Turpentine. Turpentine and linseed oil.’ Which, indeed, turns out to be significant.
The power children (and adolescents like Stella) can have over adults is usually presented as something sinister. One variant shows the young as the occasion of supernatural occurrences – poltergeists, ghosts and so forth. Another (seen in A High Wind in Jamaica) shows them as amoral, powerful through a kind of animal innocence, not knowing their own cruelty. An Awfully Big Adventure could be said to relate to both genres. It is remarkable, however, in suggesting some of these mechanisms without making disturbed adolescent girls seem a different species.
The production which the events of the story bring to an end is of Peter Pan. In it Stella controls Tinkerbell’s torch and O’Hara plays Captain Hook – and Mr Darling, ‘as is traditional’. ‘There are numerous books on the meaning behind this particular play,’ Meredith says at the first rehearsal.
I am not qualified to judge whether the grief his mother felt on the death of his elder brother had an adverse effect on Mr Barrie’s emotional development, nor do I care one way or the other. We all have our crosses to bear. Sufficient to say that I regard the play as pure make-believe. I don’t want any truck with symbolic interpretations.
Beryl Bainbridge doesn’t want any truck with them either. Her book is very funny, partly because she is such a good mimic. In Uncle Vernon’s telephone conversations with Mr Harcourt, ‘an old boy of Liverpool Collegiate in spite of landing up in toilet rolls’, she catches the blandness of gentility, making of Vernon a comic chorus, who uses orders for lavatory paper and soap as an excuse for passing on anxieties about Stella’s missishness and news of her progress in the theatre. The same rhythms are found in Stella’s own sentences, which make her sharp observations prick the more. ‘The cooker bit sounds authentic. You don’t mention fat for nothing,’ she says, in a discussion on the genuineness of a string of theatrical anecdotes.
An Awfully Big Adventure is a very believable portrait of the theatrical life. In Mary Deare, for example, who plays Peter Pan as well in 1950 as she had a couple of decades before, the distinction between human personality and theatrical presence is convincingly established. When Mary is giving her last ‘save Tinkerbell’ speech, Stella, who has been set at some distance from the reader, allows all non-participants one wonderful moment of identification:
She could hear Mary Deare droning on: ‘Say quickly that you believe. If you believe, clap your hands.’ She dropped the torch and let it roll into the wings as the children brought their palms together to save Tinkerbell. The light swished from the back-cloth. For a moment the clapping continued, rose in volume, then died raggedly away, replaced by a tumult of weeping.
W.C. Fields would be proud of her.
Patrick O’Brian’s 13th story about Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin – appropriately called The Thirteen-Gun Salute – is as entertaining as its predecessors. O’Brian is a master of the narrative of action, but he has sustained interest through this long sequence of novels by expanding the genre to which they belong – the sea story of the Napoleonic Wars – so that it can include much else besides. Indeed, in this latest addition to the series there are none of the battles or the single-ship actions which are the natural climaxes in stories of naval conflict. On the other hand, the ratio of historical fact to historical fiction is unusually high. One recognises some characters as real-Raffles and Banks, for example; others make one look to reference books – was there a Dutch anatomist called Van Buren in Sumatra in the early 1800s?
A third group makes one think of modern instances. The homosexual couple Ledward and Wray – arch-villains who were unmasked as French agents in an earlier book (but not before they had inflicted very nearly permanent harm on Aubrey’s career) – reappear in The Thirteen-Gun Salute, attached to a French embassy to the Sultan of Pulo Prabang. They had escaped retribution (apparently tipped off by a third man whose continued presence in high places will surely cause trouble in a later book, just as the news filtering through to the Indies of bank failures in England will doubtless have its effect on Maturin’s finances) and now appear as a Burgess and Maclean in wigs and knee breeches, actors in a plot which centres on the efforts of French and British diplomats to make a treaty with the Sultan and thus safeguard or endanger the route of the East India Company’s ships. Similarly, Maturin’s attachment to the cause of Irish independence while working for British naval intelligence allows him to be disturbed by conflicting allegiances in a way which is not foreign to readers of, say, John le Carré’s stories.
Picking up such parallels is one pleasure. A deeper reason for the effectiveness of the books is the escape they offer from present anxiety into past discomfort. When Aubrey sets sail for the East Indies with the British envoy, Edward Fox, the dangers of the voyage would make any modern actuary refuse the most skeletal travel insurance; the passage of the frigate Diane through the low southern latitudes is superbly described; the details of how a sailing ship behaved, and of the concerns of the seamen sailing her, feel as secure, as well founded in historical reality, as the description of Raffles’s Javanese menagerie.
The greatest escape, however, is into the world as it was before the explorations and migrations of the 19th century had laid its natural mysteries bare, and begun the process of global simplification which is the root of current millenarian fears. By casting the physician-cum-intelligence agent Stephen Maturin in the mould of an 18th-century naturalist-explorer, O’Brian is able to suggest how the world looked to an intelligent scientist when wildernesses were challenging, not fragile. The end of the book finds its heroes in danger, not from the machinations of enemies but from the elements. The final escape for the reader is into a fantasy of competence. Looking back from a time when sick machines are either given organ transplants or left for dead, to one where a ship’s company had the tools and skills to construct from scraps of wreckage much of the vessel which would carry them to safety is to be reminded of the greatest tale of competence, Robinson Crusoe.
William Trevor’s latest collection of stories. Family Sins, takes one into a time-warp. They are set between 1948 and the present – ‘Children of the Headmaster’, for example, describes a prep school in 1988. But Mr Arbuary, the owner of the school, believes in ‘older values’, and the problems which arise for his son Jonathan, who lives on both sides of the door dividing the Private Side from the School Side, seem to be from another age. Similarly, the Irish farming family in ‘A Husband’s Return’ watch television, but the shame of a husband running off with his wife’s sister congeals their life in a way that suggests a world very far from any seen in a soap opera or even a news bulletin. The parsimonious and selfish routines of a remittance man in Perugia are briefly unsettled by an accidental meeting with his daughter, who has not (as he supposes) come to see him. Remittance men may not have disappeared off the face of the earth, but they are no longer commonly found in fiction. An interview between a man and his wife’s lover about arrangements for the separation leads to a moment of self-discovery which takes its force from the straightforward representation of a kind of bourgeois life now more usually presented with a distancing irony. To say that these stories are beautifully written is too mild, and evasive: they are within, and not inferior examples of, the tradition which includes Dubliners and the stories of Frank O’Connor. They unsettle one’s sense of period by suggesting (no doubt correctly) that there are hidden tribes close to home practising rites and obeying taboos which have dropped below the horizon of fictional recognition.