Sweet William is my second Bainbridge novel, published in 1975 – so, a couple years before Injury Time, which I reviewed earlier this week. I’ve read both as part of Gaskella‘s Beryl Bainbridge Reading Week – and I’m very grateful that she prompted me in this direction. Although I’ve only read two, I feel like I’m getting a greater sense of Bainbridge’s range.
Unlike Injury Time, Sweet William isn’t an out-and-out comedy. There is a certainly a lot of humour in it, but it’s a darker humour – where the darkness isn’t merely incidental, but brings with it tones of genuine hurt and despair. But it’s far from bleak – Bainbridge throws in enough of the surreal and unexpected to prevent this being a Hardyesque paean to misery.
Ann is a BBC secretary, recently – impulsively – engaged to Gerald, who is heading off to America as the novel begins. She has rather a fiery relationship with her mother, who invariably cows or embarrasses her, and is equally sick of putting up with her cousin Pamela. She is attending a children’s performance on behalf of her landlady (as you do) when she first encounters William…
Her first impression was that she had been mistaken for someone else. She looked behind her but there was no one in the open doorway. The stranger was beckoning and indicating the empty chair beside his own. His eyes held such an expression of certainty and recognition that she began to smile apologetically. It was as if he had been watching the door for a long time and Ann had kept him waiting. She did notice, as she excused herself along the row of seated mothers, that he had yellow curls and a flattish nose like a prize fighter. He was dressed appallingly in some sort of sweater with writing on the chest. On his feet he wore very soiled tennis pumps without laces.
Not entirely the most beguiling of portraits, is it? But William definitely has a way with women, and it isn’t long at all before Ann and William have, er, become better acquainted – all thoughts of Gerald apparently banished.
Only William isn’t the world’s most faithful of men.
It gets a bit dizzying, trying to work out how many women – and, Bainbridge hints but never states explicitly, men – are besotted with William – and he certainly isn’t slow to reciprocate. Sweet William is only 160 pages long, but in that space Bainbridge manages to wind and weave quite a complex tangle of relationships – in fact, the complexity is mostly due to the fact that William is far from honest. He says he’s going to certain places; he’s actually elsewhere. He doesn’t even mention some of the people he’s having dalliances with, until much later. It’s a little confusing for the reader, but that helps get us in Ann’s frame of mind – and Bainbridge’s style is never confusing. It’s a very organised, precise confusion, if you understand what I mean.
William reminded me quite a bit of Dougal Douglas in Muriel Spark’s The Ballad of Peckham Rye (which I read for Muriel Spark Reading Week, and reviewed here) – and not just because he’s Scottish. They’re both deceptively charming men who appear suddenly and create havoc, never telling much of the truth. We see Sweet William from the woman’s point of view, and so it does have some of the frustration and heartbreak woven in. Me and my sensitive heart, ahem, I callously preferred the conversations between Ann and her mother – who is strident and occasionally rather hysterical. (Spoiler ahead, by the way.)
Voice beginning to rise in pitch, her mother said, “His wife should be told.”
“She has been,” Ann said. “She thinks William’s a beautiful person.”
“Shooting’s too good for him,” said her mother shrilly. It was as if she’d promised herself, or someone else, that she would not shout recriminations at Ann and was now relieved that there were others on whom she could vent her feelings.
All in all, I didn’t love this as much as Injury Time, because I thought Bainbridge managed farce so beautifully there. Sweet William is a different kettle of fish, and it’s not fair to fault Bainbridge for not achieving something she didn’t set out to achieve – indeed, I imagine a lot of people would prefer the subtler narrative in Sweet William where actions matter and feelings can get hurt, unlike the surreal hostage-situation in Injury Time. Whichever one comes out on top, they’re both fantastic novels. I can definitely see why Bainbridge is mentioned in the same breath as Spark, and I’m intrigued to read more.
And now I’m wondering whether or not Bainbridge wrote any novels without mistresses in them?