Master Georgie Paperback – 1 Apr 1999
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Beryl Bainbridge seems drawn to disaster. First she tackled the Unfortunate Scott expedition to the South Pole in The Birthday Boys; later (but emphatically pre-DiCaprio) came the sinking of the Titanic, in Every Man for Himself. Now, in her third historical novel (and her 16th overall), she takes on the Crimean War, and the result is a slim, gripping volume with all of the doomed intensity of the Light Brigade's charge--but, thankfully, without the Tennysonian bombast. "Some pictures," a character confides, "would only cause alarm to ordinary folk." There's a warning concealed here, and one that easily disturbed readers would do well to heed: Master Georgie is intense, disturbing, revelatory--and not always pretty to look at.
Bainbridge's narrative circles around the enigmatic figure of George Hardy, a surgeon, amateur photographer, alcoholic and repressed homosexual who counters the dissipation of his prosperous Liverpool life by heading for the Crimean Peninsula in 1854. His journey and subsequent tour of duty are told in three very different voices: Myrtle, an orphan whose lifelong loyalty to her "Master Georgie" becomes an overriding obsession; Pompey Jones, street urchin, fire-eater, photographer and George's sometime lover; and Dr. Potter, George's scholarly brother-in-law, whose retreat from the war's carnage and into books takes on a tinge of madness.
United by a sudden death in a Liverpool brothel in 1846, these characters plumb the curious workings of love, war, class and fate. In between, Bainbridge frames an unforgettable series of tableaux morts: a dying soldier, one lens of his glasses "fractured into a spider's web"; a decapitated leg, toes "poking through the shreds of a cavalry boot"; two dead men "on their knees, facing one another, propped up by the pat-a-cake thrust of their hands." Glimpsed as if sideways and then passed over in language that is as understated as it is lovely, these are images that sear into the brain. Master Georgie is full of such moments, horrors painted with an exquisite brush. --Mary Park
It is hard to think of anyone now writing who understands the human heart as Beryl Bainbridge does (THE TIMES)
Another masterly exploration by an author at the peak of her form ...She was always good at funny dialogue and acute observation of the oddities of human behaviour, but her recent historical explorations have given full reign to her startling powers of d (DAILY TELEGRAPH)
A quirky and compelling book, packed with witty observations and extraordinary characters, which really ought to have won the Booker prize, but missed it by a whisker. (DAILY MAIL)
The economy of Bainbridge's writing, for which she is famous, results in a slender novel with an astonishing range. (INDEPENDENT ON SUNDAY)
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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.
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.
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.
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.
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However. the book left me dissatisfied with my choice.
Historical novels have a habit of being history in fancy dress.Read more