Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Master Georgie, by Beryl Bainbridge

Beryl Bainbridge has come to be known as the Booker Prize bridesmaid -- short-listed five times, but never a winner. In 1998, Master Georgie was her fifth novel to make the short list. I had mixed reactions to this novel, ranging from the vague sense that it wasn't much of a novel to the nagging concern that I hadn't read it with adequate attention. The Guardian reviewer noted that "Beryl Bainbridge has remarked that 'most people have to read [Master Georgie] at least three times before they understand it'."

This comment intrigues me, partly because I intuitively believe it to be true, but I can't quite put my finger on why. It's not a voluminous novel -- about 125 pages.  The writing style is straightforward. The trick, I think, is in the subtlety and artistry of the story's construction.  Each of the six chapters opens with the title of a photographic plate, the first being 'Girl in the Presence of Death', dated 1846. The narrator of that chapter is Myrtle, the adopted and adoring sister of George Hardy, or Master Georgie, the young doctor and amateur photographer. She is 12.

They live in a household that barely functions:  George's mother is chronically miserable, and he finds his father dead in a brothel.  Myrtle is slavishly devoted to him, and her upbringing is largely the combined efforts of George, Dr. Potter (the resident scholar) and Mrs. O'Gorman, the housekeeper. Theirs is not a unified approach to child-rearing.
The evening before, Mrs O’Gorman had trapped me in the scullery to acquaint me with the Assumption. She said someone had to school me, seeing I was being raised in such a Godless house. That was a dig at Dr Potter, for being under the sway of the new sciences. Dr Potter held that the world wasn’t created in six days; it was more like thousands of years. Why, even mountains hadn’t always stayed in the same place. St James’ Mount, which overlooks the sunken cemetery, may once have been a flat stretch of earth, grassless under a sheet of ice. It didn’t worry me like it did Mrs O’Gorman, who moaned that it wasn’t for the likes of her to doubt the permanency of rocks. But then, her rock was the Kingdom of Heaven and she didn’t want it shifted. 
Another character winds his way through the novel, narrating another chapter -- he is Pompey Jones, a lower-class photographer's assistant who pitches in to help George and Myrtle remove the body of the deceased Mr. Hardy from the squalid room where he died and return it secretly to his own bed. Pompey's relationships with George and Myrtle grow more complex than one might expect.
I’d seen that face on him once before, after we’d laid his father down and Myrtle had been sent off to the kitchens to fetch water for washing. He’d thanked me for my help and declared I was remarkably practical for my age and that he would never forget my kindness, nor my reticence. It was my intelligence, he said, that rendered me incapable of taking advantage of the present situation. His words, spoken with such apparent sincerity of feeling, took me aback. Up until then I’d been biding my time, having every intention of squeezing five shillings out of him before I left the house. We were standing on either side of the bed, his dead father between us, and for one warm moment I did indeed imagine I was possessed of a superior sweetness of character. ‘You’re a good boy,’ he murmured, and then he raised one knee on to the coverlet and hoisting himself up leaned across to touch my cheek. I knew instantly what he was about, and quit the room. I wasn’t a stranger to that sort of happening, nor unduly alarmed by it, and if he’d not laid on the flattery I might have indulged him - it’s not a vice restricted to any one class, though it’s my experience that the better off bend to it from inclination and the poor more often out of necessity.
As the novel progresses, George is married to Annie, but it's Myrtle who has borne his children. Dr. Potter is married to Beatrice Hardy, George's sister, and the five of them set out for the Crimea so that George can serve as a medic in the war effort. Here they're reunited with Pompey Jones, who reappears in spectacular fashion as a fire-eater, travelling with a troupe of performers.

When the situation worsens, Annie and Beatrice return to England with the children, leaving Dr. Potter, Myrtle, George and Pompey to narrate the final chapters.  The ferocity and madness of the war reveals each one's fundamental character.  Myrtle continues to doggedly trail her beloved George despite the horrors, and Dr. Potter retreats to the scholarly library within his head when he can no longer cope with them. The two of them ride their horses to a nearby hillside to collect some fruit, and when dismounted, Myrtle finds herself standing next to a severed human leg.
‘I wish to go back,’ Myrtle said, turning her white gaze from the thing at her feet.
‘Homer,’ I told her, ‘describes the Laestrigones as cannibals.’ She appeared too distressed to respond and rode on ahead. 
I wish to go back, too, and re-read this novel, and not simply because its author told me I should. I need to address that feeling that I missed too many connections on the first reading. To be continued.

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