People who love people who love somebody else

Peter Campbell

  • An Awfully Big Adventure by Beryl Bainbridge
    Duckworth, 193 pp, £10.95, December 1989, ISBN 0 7156 2204 8
  • The Thirteen-Gun Salute by Patrick O’Brian
    Collins, 319 pp, £11.95, November 1989, ISBN 0 00 223460 2
  • Family Sins, and Other Stories by William Trevor
    Bodley Head, 251 pp, £11.95, January 1990, ISBN 0 370 31374 7

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:

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