George Hardy, surgeon and photographer, travels from 19th century Liverpool to the Bosphorus at the start of the Crimean War. Chapters are narrated by different characters. These are Myrtle (his adoptive sister taken in as an orphan), Pompey Jones (a former street urchin turned photographer's assistant and sometime fire-eater) and Doctor Potter (his geologist friend).
Beryl Bainbridge writes superbly and both time and place are brilliantly captured. We are not spared the horrors of war but her approach is subtle. The disastrous charge of the Light Brigade is conveyed by the description of the many riderless horses appearing in their camp.
She cleverly uses the new technology of photography to help with the structure of the book and each chapter title describes a photographic scene - like a series of wonderful tableaux.
I was however less convinced by some of the characterisations. Georgie never really came alive for me and I remained unconvinced as to why Myrtle and Pompey should have been so devoted to him.
on 23 March 2001
Beryl Bainbridge's novel Master Georgie is a fascinating insight into the Crimean war and the complex relationships of human beings. Written from differing persepectives, Bainbridge draws on the idea that all experiences are unique, and highlights differing techniques for dealing with extremes of human suffering.
Master Georgie, doctor and medical photographer, has a tremendous hold over all characters in the novel - so much so that they travel to accompany the doctor in his war efforts. Myrtle is besotted with George and vows never to leave his side, despite his obvious lack of interest in women. Bainbridge infers that he prefers the attentions of Pompey Jones, a photographer with whom he is having an implied homosexual relationship. Dr Potter seems to have the least tie to George, but is probably the most endearing character in the novel.
An ageing academic, Dr Potter avoids the personal trauma he is experiencing to think about his wife. He is a man of learning and an avid philosopher, who is used to dealing with situations rationally. War to Dr. Potter is merely unorganised chaos. When the group are ordered on to different locations, Dr. Potter's interest in geography takes over, and he takes in the scenery - his intellect is often his saviour. But Potter is a complex character. His coping mechanism tends to be to create humour out of potentially life-threatening situations. He admits that life is nothing without reading books and lying close to his wife. Potter's sentimentality is his downfall, and he sinks further into disarray by the end of the novel.
The novel is of interest as it deals with the stark clarity of the war situation and juxtaposes the ambiguity of relationships. It is most fascinating for the way in which different characters engage with the trauma surrounding them. An interesting comparison is Barker's novel, Regeneration, which deals with psychological and mental repercussions of war. A really good read.
on 4 February 2008
At first glance Master Georgie by Beryl Bainbridge suggests it might be quite a light book, an easy read, a period piece set in the mid-nineteenth century. This would be wrong. Master Georgie is no safe tale of country house manners, of marriages imagined by confined, embroidering young women. Beryl Bainbridge's Master Georgie is anything but a tale of such saccharine gentility.
Master Georgie is a surgeon and photographer, and the book is cast in six plates - photographic plates, not chapters. Death figures throughout. From start to finish morbidity crashes into the lives of the book's characters. We begin with Mr Moody, dead in a brothel bed, his host of minutes before in shock. Later we move to the Crimean War, where the carnage is graphic, extensive and apparently random. And even then individuals find their own personal ways of adding insult and injury to the suffering.
The book uses multiple points of view. We see things Master Georgie's way. Myrtle, an orphan he takes in, adds her perspective. The fussy geologist, Dr Potter, imprints his own version of reality. And still there are less than explained undercurrents, undeclared motives which affect them all. Thus, overall, Master Georgie is a complex and ambitious novel. Though it is set in a major war, the backdrop is never allowed to dominate. The characters experience the consequences of conflict and register their reactions, but we are never led by the nose trough the history or the geography of the setting.
But we also never really get to know these people. Myrtle, perhaps, has the strongest presence. She has a slightly jaundiced, certainly pragmatic approach to life. But even she finds the privations of wartime tough. Why the characters of Master Georgie are all so keen to offer themselves as support for the war effort is an aspect of the book that never fully revealed itself. And ultimately this was my criticism of Beryl Bainbridge's book. While the overall experience was both rewarding and not a little shocking, I found there was insufficient delineation between the characters and their differing motives. The beauty of the prose, however, more than made up for any shortcoming. The language created the mixed world of mid-nineteenth century politeness and juxtaposed this with the visceral vulgarities of soldiering and the general struggle of life. This rendered Master Georgie a complex, moving and quite beautiful book.
More novella than novel, the book is set out as six 'Plates' (code for chapters). A different member of Georgie's entourage narrates each 'Plate' and Georgie never speaks for himself.
The narrators are all participants in Georgie's 'shame' as they follow him from Liverpool to the Crimean War. The 'shame' part was interesting and the diseased aspects of the Crimean War were strong. However, this was a low-key read overwhelmed by issues of technique and structure.
Ms Bainbridge is quoted as saying that Master Georgie needs to be read three times to 'appreciate' it, one wonders whether the fault lies with the author rather than the reader.
on 18 February 2014
Bainbridge, Beryl. Master Georgie
Historical novels have a habit of being history in fancy dress. The interest lies in the differences between say, Roman, Medieval or Renaissance times and our own. The emphasis is on disparities in thought, politics, scientific advancement, religion and so forth. The reader is captivated by the way things have changed and how unlike the presented fictional world is to the way we live now. Introductions, footnotes and bibliographies tend to bolster up these frequently massive tomes. Appreciation depends on knowing who’s who (Mantel) or what’s what’s what (Peter Carey). Beryl Bainbridge simply gets inside a consciousness (as in Queenie in According to Queenie) and tells the story from a point of view.
In Master Georgie a novel set in the time of the Crimean War, the reader is taken inside the minds of Myrtle, a vivacious young woman, Dr Potter, an uxorious geologist and Pompey Jones, a photographer’s assistant. By chance all end up in the hideous slaughter of the war, Georgie sawing off legs and staunching the blood flows of the wounded, Myrtle, a loyal follower of the hero, her seeming brother, and Potter, whose immersion in Lyell’s geological discoveries isolates him from the present horrors of war. Pompey Jones once aloof from the war gets reluctantly drawn into it, capturing images of the maimed and slaughtered.
The eponymous hero is seen through the eyes of the bystanders, each one having a different ‘take’ on George the reformed drunkard, now a tight-lipped saviour of dead and dying. Hence the over-riding theme of the book illustrating that human beings cannot be pinned down even by photographic methods. The various sections of the book are separated by captions with dates rather than photographs, emphasising the simultaneous need to record with the limitations of the visual image.
Unlike the typical historical novel Bainbridge doubts the stability of facts. She gives us a different kind of truth, the feeling behind the facts. The reader never questions the accuracy of her facts about the Crimean War – and embedded within the novel there are many – because of the book’s truth to the shifting perspectives that humans are heir to, seeing the world merely through a glass darkly.
on 3 February 2003
The idea of writing this novel about a character, George Hardy, but confining its “voice” to the three people most close to him gives George, the person, an almost mystical air and at the same time is a very good device to reveal snippets of his life as the story progresses.
The three narrators are, predictably, very different and the events they describe often clash amusingly. Myrtle is the most reverential to George and it is through her voice we perceive the sensitivity of Bainbridge’s story- she is also the most sympathetic. Dr Potter provides the humour (at his own expense) that lightens an otherwise bleak situation. Finally, Pompey Jones is similar to Myrtle in his devotion but almost her rival in love- he also provides the first hand account of the battle scenes at the end of the book which are unfortunately the least interesting or polished part of the book.
Bainbridge infuses the book with ambiguities of sexuality that sit beside the harshness of the war very well. What is interesting is the amount of gore and unpleasantness that permeates the supposedly “prim” Victorian values of the characters.
By far superior to Every Man For Himself and deserves its Booker Prize nomination. The length of MG was a disappointment; however, at only just over two hundred pages long I felt it didn’t develop its characters as well as it could- especially having three different narrators. Also the conflict near the end didn’t have the dramatic tension or interest I thought it should. A fine novel but much too short.
on 28 December 2011
This was my first Beryl Bainbridge and also my last . I found the different viewpoints from which the book was written to be irritating and confusing . The characters seemed flat on the page and frankly I felt I did not care about what happened to them . I am sure she is a good writer but what a dull book .
on 9 May 2015
The writing is superb and a pageturner. Full marks, and thanks for the entertainment. But at book’s end I was left puzzling over the author’s choice of treatments. The Crimean War is described in gory horrific detail, and yet the subject of surrogate birth in the Victorian era gets only nudge-wink-nudge whispers. Written in 1998, surely readers deserve more explicit and lengthier development of a fascinating and original theme.
The characters interact well, although Master Georgie raised no particular interest with me, either good or bad.
‘Maid Myrtle’ might have been a better title, because this is her story. The first-person narrative is shared by several people, including Myrtle from age 12. I was reminded of ‘Run Maggie Run’ by John Ivor which portrays similar brutal times without the rare and hesitant hints that Beryl divulges with seeming reluctance.
on 16 March 2012
This story follows a number of characters from Liverpool to the Crimea War. The characterisation is excellent and the background detail really informative. However, it is quite a light, easy read. A good one for holidays.
this is a strange little book. Excerpts written by various characters, all focussing one the Master Georgie of the title, except they don't really tell us that much about him. Similarly the conceit is that each section is based on the pivotal moment in which a photograph is taken, except that it is hard, sometimes to see where that particular vignette fits into the larger scheme of things. It is well written and curious, but not gripping and because of the fragmented nature of the work I found it hard to immerse myself in it. I found the sections in the Crimea much more interesting and I really got absorbed in it just as it ended, unfortunately.