A man in a Thurber cartoon asks a woman: ‘But Myra, what do you want to be enigmatic for?’ Or words to that effect. The question kept coming into my head as I read Beryl Bainbridge’s new novel, which is set on the Titanic during the four days before she sank, and narrated in the first person by a survivor whose first and only name is Morgan. The title, Every Man for Himself, suggests that human selfishness is going to be the theme. In fact, almost everyone – or rather every man – behaves rather well, observing the women-and-children-first injunction when it comes to piling into lifeboats. ‘Every man for himself’ seems to refer rather to the inscrutability, the enigma of other people. There is a mystery about almost every passenger, and one of them, a middle-aged lawyer called Scurra, is opaque mystery all the way through, down to the scar on his lip – which some say he got in a duel, and others from the bite of a South African macaw. Morgan is only 22, and he develops a crush on Scurra, who is given to portentous and mostly cynical pronouncements. ‘Every man for himself’ is one; but the most portentous of all – because it opens and closes the book – is ‘Not the height, only the drop, is terrible.’ What can it mean?
Bainbridge’s haunting previous novel, The Birthday Boys, is about Captain Scott’s expedition to the South Pole, which ended in death and disaster in March 1912. The Titanic’s maiden voyage ended the same way a month later. One might think that Bainbridge was obsessed by Edwardian man’s hopelessness at challenging nature; or else that she couldn’t bear to waste any of the material she’d stashed away from her research on the period, especially about ships. (There is more about ships in The Birthday Boys than one might think.) Morgan is a trainee naval architect; ‘the sublime thermodynamics of the Titanic’s marine engineering’ intoxicate him, and he begins to think ‘that if the fate of man was connected to the order of the universe, and if one could equate the scientific workings of the engines with just such a reciprocal universe, why then, nothing could go wrong with my world.’ Still, even he complains of the ‘wearisome trudge’ of the deck’s length, ‘and an even longer scrutiny of its cranes, winches and ventilators’. The excess (if that’s how it strikes you) of nautical detail is certainly deliberate, and may even be a sly put-down for readers who don’t expect a Kiplingesque infatuation with technical know-how in novels by women.
It is clear from his optimistic view of thermodynamics that Morgan is no believer in chaos theory, and of course the career of the Titanic will prove him wrong. He is a fictional character, but named after a real one. His uncle is the American millionaire Pierpont Morgan, who owns the White Star Line, which in turn owns the Titanic. Morgan is an orphan. His father died before he was born, his mother three years after. She was a French girl, name unknown, who worked in a café and once sat for Cézanne. His father’s exact identity is not revealed. This is Morgan’s mystery, and at one point he thinks he’s solved it and that Scurra is his father. He would rather like that. Disconcertingly, for the reader as well as for Morgan, that turns out to be a false trail. The mystery stays a mystery. Morgan’s rich uncle sent him first to a posh school, then to Yale, and finally to work in the drawing office of the Harland and Wolff shipyard in Belfast, where the Titanic was built. The young man is on his way to New York for a holiday. Naturally, his fellow passengers on A deck are all rich or at least well connected, and most are real: Lord Melchett (Morgan’s 19-year-old buddy), Lord Astor and his bride, Lord and Lady Duff Gordon, a Frick, a Vanderbilt, Mr and Mrs Straus who own Macy’s, and also Thomas Andrews, the architect of the Titanic, and Bruce Ismay, a White Star official. Real or fictional, they divide roughly into a group of young bloods and flappers, on the one hand, and older establishment people, on the other.
The naive Morgan falls in love with one of the flappers. She leads him on, but when he goes to her cabin he finds her in bed with Scurra. Apart from the actual sinking of the ship, that’s the plot. There’s a minor one, more mysterious and improbable, about a singer who tries to jump overboard (but is dissuaded by Scurra) because her lover has broken his promise to join the ship at Queenstown. The reason is that he died of a heart attack in Manchester Square the night before the Titanic sailed. The person who saw him collapse happened to be Morgan, on his way from his uncle’s house in Princes Gate to meet Melchett at the Café Royal. The dying man gave him a photograph of a Japanese woman, which puzzles him, and the reader too. It drops from his pocket on the Titanic, and the distraught singer identifies it as herself in the role of Madam Butterfly. So Japaneseness was a false clue, as meaningless as any in a routine detective story; or, perhaps, it should be read as an illustration of the randomness of events, and of our interpretations of them. Bainbridge’s story-line is a series of reminders that lives are made up of strings of coincidence and chance. It emerges, for instance, that Scurra twice glimpsed the infant Morgan: once just after he was born, and once when his uncle commissioned Scurra to remove the child from the orphanage where he had landed after his mother’s death. But Bainbridge does not imply that there is anything significant about Scurra’s irruptions into Morgan’s life: they are just more false trails.
In Every Man for Himself she seems to have decided to disturb her readers without moving them. For a short novel, it has too many characters of more of less equal importance. They are vivid and easy to keep in mind, but two-dimensional like cartoon figures; and sometimes – with delightful sepia effect – like people sharing jokes in ancient copies of the Tatler. None of these characters is particularly attaching, except just possibly the puppyish Melchett; certainly not Morgan himself, who is much too crass and supercilious. The Birthday Boys is quite different in every respect: it has only five characters, all interesting by definition, simply because they are men who chose to seek the Pole. They range from working-class to fox-hunting class, and take turns to narrate successive stages of the journey. Bainbridge reconstructs and re-assesses them: in her version, Scott and Oates don’t come out so very well, whereas Wilson and Bowers break your heart. She invents idioms for them all with so much intuition and ingenuity that each man’s class and ethical underpinnings are revealed, together with his quirks, hang-ups and yearnings. The voices pull you into each separate consciousness. You observe the ominous unfolding of events and everyone’s behaviour through five different pairs of eyes. You judge as each successive narrator judges, and feel as he feels; and it is harrowing. Every Man for Himself is not harrowing at all, though very exciting; an upmarket disaster movie, with all the thrills and terrors expertly calculated and brought off; brilliant camerawork and brilliant sound.
Both novels are more preoccupied with class than Bainbridge’s previous books were, and especially with the ruling classes. Relationships bristle with class-generated edginess. Condescension is resented by one man and regretted by the other, noblesse oblige looms over behaviour like an unwelcome but unejectable guest. Captain Scott has a partition put up in the expedition’s tent: ‘I’m quite sure the arrangement is to the satisfaction of officers and men alike,’ he notes in his usual stuffy tone. ‘Whatever conversations take place on the other side of the divide, however audible and no matter of what purport or subject – it’s possible I would have to make an exception in the plotting of a mutiny – we are honour-bound to respect privacy and react, to all intents and purposes, as if stone deaf.’ (The mutiny bit is a typical Bainbridge joke; so furtive and deadpan that it might easily be missed.) On the Titanic, Morgan has a prickly relationship with the steward who fetches his cigarettes and lays out his evening clothes. He tips the man – too little, the steward thinks. But Morgan misinterprets his ill-humour as a sign of wounded pride because tipping is humiliating. They are at cross-purposes, even though Morgan expresses irritation with the old-school-tie world in which he moves, and likes to think of himself as a socialist. ‘You’ll grow out of it as the years pass,’ says Scurra (who also maintains that ‘love is what women feel’).
Bainbridge’s sardonic contempt for the way things are (or were) pervades both books. You could make out that she is blaming the public-school ethos for the catastrophes she describes, and that may be another reason for setting her last two books in the Edwardian era. Snobbery, male chauvinism and stiff upper lips were more visible then than they are now, but not that much more. During the recent fuss about Humphrey Carpenter’s biography of Archbishop Runcie, the Archdeacon of York wrote a letter to the Times attributing Runcie’s shortcomings to his feelings of social inferiority when an undergraduate at Oxford. Not many English writers can manage a novel in which class is not an issue at all. Bainbridge can and has many times.
That is not to say she doesn’t describe class. Class as milieu – as opposed to class as problem – and nothing is more enjoyable than wallowing in milieu, whether it’s the Russian aristocracy in War and Peace or provincial England in Middlemarch. Many of Bainbridge’s earlier novels – Harriet Said, The Dressmaker, The Bottle Factory Outing, Injury Time, An Awfully Big Adventure – are genre pieces, with everything and everybody soaked in the social atmosphere of wherever it may be: the North of England, Camden Town, Kilburn. These places are frequented by other contemporary novelists like Margaret Forster, Hilary Mantel and Jeanette Winterson; two of them black humorists like Bainbridge, but none quite as funny, and certainly not as unexpected and disturbing. She is a cross between a witch and a clown. Clowns unleash chaos, and that is what she does. Unlike Morgan, she believes in it. Her unforgettable, quirky characters and stunning settings are merely the people it touches and the places where it is unleashed. The Bottle Factory Outing, for instance, is about a badly planned expedition a works picnic that turns lethal; a black comedy dry-run for The Birthday Boys, though with only one corpse. The Dressmaker is a superb picture of a respectable North Country lower-middle-class family just after the Second World War – the tightest, tidiest milieu imaginable. Like The Bottle Factory Outing, the story ends in a murder that is unforeseeable, unplanned, unmotivated, unintended, almost an accident. The funniest novel of all, An Awfully Big Adventure, is an autobiographical rites-of-passage tale of growing up absurd in Liverpool rep. It ends with a death that really is accidental. The middle-aged actor who plays Captain Hook in the Christmas production of Peter Pan and who seduces the teenage heroine, slips on an oil patch on the quayside, knocks himself out and drowns in the Mersey. The girl is convinced that he has committed suicide because of her. Trying to find reasons for what happens is naive. What happens is chance – or chaos.