Posted by: Lizzie Ross | May 3, 2010

Amateur photographer

Master Georgie, Beryl Bainbridge (1998), Carroll & Graf, 190 pp.

The reviewer* who inspired me to read Master Georgie compares Bainbridges’ books to “elegant teacups that contain a strong, dark, possibly sinister but remarkable brew.” Such a perfect encapsulation of Bainbridges’ style. This was the first work I’d read by her, and it made me a devoted fan. There’s something about the well-crafted scenes, distilled to their essence with nothing spare or extraneous. Yet you still get full characters. Bainbridge knows what you need to be able to see and understand the people in her books. She makes you work, but she’s a writer who trusts her readers.

Four characters live in this book, three of whom tell us what’s happening to the fourth in just six chapters that take us from Liverpool in 1846 to the Crimea in 1854. The fourth character, George Hardy (Master Georgie), is the photographer, a doctor inured to scenes of violence and pain and only too happy to photograph such scenes, if only the subjects will hold still for long enough.

This isn’t a history of how Britain found herself fighting in the Crimea, nor of photography, nor even of mid-19th century British life. Yet I still felt I knew a bit more of each, especially of the tragedy of the Crimean War (the setting of Tennyson’s Charge of the Light Brigade). George and the others find themselves in the middle of battle, just a few days after Lord Cardigan’s infamous charge, and Bainbridge shows us individuals dealing with the horrors of war.

Bainbridge’s books aren’t happy ones; they aren’t “entertaining”. They all end in some kind of moral or spiritual or physical disaster. But it’s a treat to read such fine writing. We first hear one character’s voice as he tells of George “suggesting” a time for him to be at George’s house:

That was just his manner of speaking. Had I taken it simply as a suggestion and arrived five minutes later he would have bitten my head off. Most people thought of him as bookish and of a saintly disposition, but I knew better. He’d said he could promise me an interesting day, which, when it was explained what he had in mind, was nothing short of the truth.

Coming right after the loving portrayal of the previous chapter, this paragraph forces us to rethink what we’ve heard. The third narrator provides another view of George, and we have to sift through it all to decide what’s true. By the end of the novel, we know it’s all true, and that even photographs can lie.

*Francine Prose, The New York Times, 11/29/98

Addendum: Bainbridge died July, 2010. Her obit in The Economist is good.

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