Poor Beryl Bainbridge. Nominated for the Booker Prize this year for an astounding fifth time, she’s just been passed over yet again — a fate analogous to reaching the Balcony on Mount Everest on five separate ascents without ever getting to the summit. With luck like this, Bainbridge could end up as the Susan Lucci of British literature.
Not that “Master Georgie,” the Booker-nominated title in question, necessarily deserved the prize. Yes, Bainbridge seems incapable of writing less than superbly, but this novel, her third foray into historical fiction in recent years, pales a bit in comparison to its predecessors. Whereas “The Birthday Boys” and “Every Man for Himself” covered highly dramatic territory familiar to American readers (the doomed Scott expedition to the South Pole and the sinking of the Titanic), “Master Georgie” plumbs the murkier tragedy of British involvement in the Crimean War. And although Bainbridge is justly revered for her teasing, elliptical take on her material, this time she may have been a little too cryptic for her own good.
But screw the cavils: “Master Georgie” is a marvel of narrative subtlety, teeming with the chaotic energies and half-submerged intrigues of life untidied by artifice. Its central character is George Hardy, a surgeon, photographer and sexually ambiguous dabbler who decides to exchange his dissolute existence in Victorian Liverpool for a life of morally defining action abroad. With the intent of providing medical care to wounded troops in the Crimea, he heads off to Turkey, bringing along an entourage of hangers-on (his wife, sister, brother-in-law and children, among others) more appropriate to a weekend country jaunt than to a posting in a theater of war. As you might expect, things don’t go quite as planned, and the little party ends up spending more time battling fleas and filth and tummy bugs than aiding the British war effort. But “Master Georgie” does reach a real battlefield eventually, and the resulting apotheosis is as brutal and gruesome as anything written by members of the testosterone-advantaged sex.
In this and her other historical novels, Bainbridge seems intent on deflating — with delicacy and a good bit of humor — the bankrupt mythology of British heroism. These Crimean War scenes, after all, are the same ones that Tennyson tried to invest with an aura of doomed nobility in “The Charge of the Light Brigade.” But you need only compare a page of that poem to a page of “Master Georgie” to see what happens to history when it is filtered though an ironic and subversive intelligence like Bainbridge’s instead of an earnest, romantic one like Tennyson’s. Bainbridge doesn’t exactly poke fun at the martyrs of history, but she does pose their actions against a background of confusion and futility that undermines all simple notions of honor — without impugning the courage or determination of the poor saps being slaughtered.
Reinforcing this compassionate skepticism is an instinct for grotesque detail that keeps her meandering narrative from becoming diffuse. Whether Bainbridge is describing a wounded soldier deliriously shaking people’s hands, “the blood flying in all directions as he pumped,” or a series of “six men, comrades and foes, linked together, bayonets quivering in a daisy chain of steel,” she writes with the unsentimental vividness of an actual eyewitness to the horrors of war. Earlier this year, Steven Spielberg spent $70 million trying to depict those horrors minus the soft-focus glow of gung-ho propaganda. In “Master Georgie,” Beryl Bainbridge does the job a lot more cheaply — with less overt drama, perhaps, but with a lot more sophistication.