Photography is the common thread weaving together three different points of view that span the years from 1846 to 1854. The first “plate” opens with the account of Myrtle, a young orphan girl, as she is taking a photograph of her adoptive father, Mr. Hardy, who has just passed away in Liverpool. The sudden and unsavory circumstances of Mr. Hardy’s death bind Myrtle and the other characters of this story together as history propels them toward the frontlines of the Crimean War.
Myrtle’s adoptive brother, George Hardy, or “Master Georgie” as he is called, is an amateur photographer and handsome surgeon. When he heads east in 1854 to offer his medical services to the conflict raging between Russia and Turkey—a war it seems England will inevitably enter—Myrtle follows him, as does George’s brother-in-law, a high-minded geologist named Dr. Potter. The group travels to Valetta, Malta, and Constantinople, then on to Varna, where George will be stationed.
As the caravan proceeds, the group crosses paths with Pompey Jones, a street urchin, photographer’s assistant, and sometimes fire breather, who is a dear friend of George’s and was with him the day his father died. It soon becomes clear that George’s affections are torn between Pompey and Myrtle. Dr. Potter, meanwhile, pines for the affections of his wife, who is hundreds of miles away. The conflicting emotions in the travelers’ hearts are amplified by the misery, disease, and filth they must endure—as well as the other, more unthinkable, horrors of war.
A sparse yet vivid historical novel, Master Georgie delves into themes of distorted truth, the psychological effects of war, unrequited love, and the will to survive. Called “a true novelist’s novel” by the Guardian, it was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize.
This ebook features an illustrated biography of Beryl Bainbridge including rare images from the author’s estate.
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About the Author
Born in Liverpool and raised in nearby Formby, Bainbridge spent her early years working as an actress, leaving the theater to have her first child. Her first novel, Harriet Said . . ., was written around this time, although it was rejected by several publishers who found it “indecent.” Her first published works were Another Part of the Wood and An Awfully Big Adventure, and many of her early novels retell her Liverpudlian childhood. A number of her books have been adapted for the screen, most notably An Awfully Big Adventure, which is set in provincial theater and was made into a film by Mike Newell, starring Alan Rickman and Hugh Grant. She later turned to more historical themes, such as the Scott Expedition in The Birthday Boys, a retelling of the Titanic story in Every Man for Himself, and Master Georgie, which follows Liverpudlians during the Crimean War. Her no-word-wasted style and tight plotting have won her critical acclaim and a committed following. Bainbridge regularly contributed articles and reviews to the Guardian, Observer, and Spectator, among others, and she was the Oldie’s longstanding theater critic. In 2008, she appeared at number twenty-six in a list of the fifty most important novelists since 1945 compiled by the Times (London). At the time of her death, Bainbridge was working on a new novel, The Girl in the Polka Dot Dress, which was published posthumously.
Read an Excerpt
By Beryl Bainbridge
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1998 Beryl Bainbridge
All rights reserved.
Plate 1. 1846
GIRL IN THE PRESENCE OF DEATH
I was twelve years old the first time Master Georgie ordered me to stand stock still and not blink. My head was on a level with the pillow and he had me rest my hand on Mr Hardy's shoulder; a finger-tip chill struck through the cloth of his white cotton shirt. It was a Saturday, the feast of the Assumption, and to stop my eyelids from fluttering I pretended God would strike me blind if I let them, which is why I ended up looking so startled. Mr Hardy didn't have to be told to keep still because he was dead.
I say I was twelve years old, but I can't be sure. I don't recollect a mother and never had a birthday until the Hardy family took me in. According to Master Georgie, I'd been found some nine years before, in a cellar in Seel Street, sat beside the body of a woman whose throat had been nibbled by rats.
I didn't have a name, so they called me Myrtle, after the street where the orphanage stands. It was intended I should be placed there, and I would have been if the smallpox hadn't broken out. Instead, a business gentleman on the board of the Liverpool Health Committee and known to Mr Hardy pressed him to house me until the epidemic was over. When this happened and it came time for my departure, Miss Beatrice set up howling; she'd taken a fancy to me. She lost interest the following year when Mr Hardy brought home the dog, but by then Mrs O'Gorman had taken me in hand, so they let me be.
I was fortunate, for I was taught to read by Mrs Hardy, and Mr Hardy sometimes chucked me under the chin and asked how I did. Often, I was allowed to play with Master Freddie, before he went away to school. It was only Mrs O'Gorman who ever beat me, and that for my own good. I was not loved and counted it a blessing; it meant my affections raged undiluted and I could lavish all on Master Georgie.
I don't remember anything about being found. Master Georgie once told me that if I concentrated hard enough the memories might come back, like the images that reared up on his photogenic plates. That scared me, for he performed such magic in the dark, and sometimes, after he'd put the idea into my head, waking at night to the shuffle of leaves along the guttering, I fancied there was a ghastly picture about to imprint itself upon the windowpane. Noticing the shadows under my eyes and ferreting out the cause, Mrs O'Gorman declared he was a wicked boy for spooning me such nonsense.
Twice I went back to that house in Seel Street and stood at the railings. The basement area was flooded and the window glass too grimy to peer through.
That particular afternoon in damp August – the one that ended so curiously – began with Mrs Hardy plummeting into one of her states. I'd been summoned to see to the tiger-skin rug. The dog had got in again and Mrs O'Gorman had shooed me upstairs to stiff-brush its grey hairs from those blazing stripes. Master Georgie and Mrs Hardy were seated at opposite ends of the dining-room table.
I didn't like the tiger; its jaws gaped open and unlike Mr Hardy it didn't have any lids to its eyes, which meant they glared. Mrs Hardy detested the rug as much as I did, though for different reasons. Mr Hardy swore he'd bagged the beast himself, in the Madras Province, in the days when he'd been employed as an overseer of Irrigation Works. It was a boast Mrs Hardy had shaken to fragments on more than one agitated occasion; she spat he'd bought it cheap at Riley's auction rooms in Water Street and carried it home over his shoulder.
The rug was positioned in front of the french windows overlooking the garden and the orchard beyond, so I had my back to the table when Mrs Hardy said, 'Georgie, dear, you won't be going to the Institute today, will you?'
He agreed he wouldn't.
'Though I expect you'll be going out on business.'
Young as I was I sensed this was more in the nature of an accusation than a supposition. The brush turned to stone in my hand. Mrs Hardy frightened me, for she stared so. Often, when her mouth smiled it didn't signify she was pleased. All the same, she had rescued me, taught me my letters, and I didn't want her upset. I fixed my gaze on the plum trees in the orchard. Miss Beatrice was out there, pirouetting under branches laden with round, rotten fruit. Fat Dr Potter stalked her, face raised to the cloudy heavens.
I heard Georgie say, 'Not business, Mother. I'm meeting William Rimmer.'
'Of course you are,' she replied. 'You men always have friends to see ... either that or business to see to.'
There was a silence for a long minute, broken by tapping. I swivelled on my haunches, making believe I was attending to the bony head of the tiger. Mrs Hardy was stabbing at the food on her plate and giving one of her stares, eyes lachrymose with bulging misery; gravy splattered the cloth. Master Georgie had explained to me that the stare was peculiar to a malfunction of the thyroid, a gland common to us all, only in Mrs Hardy's case it had started growing. As for her misery, why, that was all due to her husband; she was a neglected wife. Mr Hardy had promised to come home at midday and already it was five after three by the clock on the mantelshelf.
Master Georgie rose then and stooped to kiss his mother on the cheek. She jerked her head away and he made a small mew of annoyance.
'For pity's sake,' she whined, 'help me, for I can't help myself.'
'I don't know how to, Mother,' he said, and the defeated slump of his shoulders pierced me to the quick.
Usually he offered to stay with her when she was out of sorts, and almost always she told him not to be foolish. This time he didn't utter a word. He just stood there, looking down at her tear-stained face. She was harder on him than on either Master Freddie or Miss Beatrice. It was because he was her first born and she'd been torn to pieces before he plopped out. Mrs O'Gorman told me that. I didn't doubt he loved her still, but those childhood days when he could show clinging proof of it had gone for ever.
She said bitterly, 'Don't look so worried, Georgie. You mustn't let my little misfortunes spoil your day,' to which he retorted with equal bitterness, 'To hear is to obey.' I ran out of the room because I couldn't bear it any longer.
The hall kept changing from dark to light as clouds ran over the sun. When I dragged the plug of dog hairs from the brush a current of air from the leaded window whirled it, dandelion fashion, up the well of the stairs to circle the antlers of the stag's head on the landing.
The evening before, Mrs O'Gorman had trapped me in the scullery to acquaint me with the Assumption. She said someone had to school me, seeing I was being raised in such a Godless house. That was a dig at Dr Potter, for being under the sway of the new sciences. Dr Potter held that the world wasn't created in six days; it was more like thousands of years. Why, even mountains hadn't always stayed in the same place. St James' Mount, which overlooks the sunken cemetery, may once have been a flat stretch of earth, grassless under a sheet of ice.
It didn't worry me like it did Mrs O'Gorman, who moaned that it wasn't for the likes of her to doubt the permanency of rocks. But then, her rock was the Kingdom of Heaven and she didn't want it shifted.
She'd pinned me to the chair at the scullery table and trumpeted that tomorrow was a special day, one on which the body of Our Lord's mother had been wafted up to heaven to be united with her soul. The worms hadn't got to her like they will with me, on account of Our Lord loving her so. I only half believed her.
Above me, the web of hair began to drift apart. I mouthed He loves me, he loves me not, though I wasn't thinking of Our Lord.
Presently Master Georgie emerged and began to button himself into his outdoor coat. His fur-lined cloak, the one I tugged out later, hung abandoned in the hall closet. He'd left off wearing it because Mr Hardy, returning merry with drink from mornings at the Corn Exchange, had cried out once too often, 'O Vanitas vanitatem.'
A noise of busted china came from the dining room. Master Georgie flinched; Mrs Hardy's heart was in pieces for the umpteenth time and she was taking it out on the dinner plates. A sunbeam pierced the fanlight above the front door, painting his hair with silver.
Just then, Mrs O'Gorman came up the basement stairs and said calmly enough, 'You be on your way, Master Georgie. No sense both of us being put upon.'
He dithered for a moment, during which time Mrs Hardy, wailing like a banshee, rushed from the dining room and clambered clumsily up the stairs. Mrs O'Gorman stood her ground, her face giving nothing away. The sun went in again and Master Georgie faded. Looking across the hall he crooked his finger for me to follow.
I did as he bid, running behind him as he marched down the drive and strode the blackberry-hedged lane leading to Prince's Boulevard. I threw Mrs O'Gorman's sweeping brush into the nettles. He didn't look back, but then, why should he? I was his shadow. He swung his arms like a soldier and his boots splashed mud.
Master Georgie needed me with him so that he could enjoy himself without becoming jittery over conditions at home. If the afternoon proved convivial and he wanted to stay out for supper, I'd be required to run off to see how the land lay with his mother. If Dr Potter had given her one of his powders or Mr Hardy had come home, I had no cause to return. If she was still under her black clouds I'd have to hare back to fetch him.
Along the Boulevard, under the summer trees, nursemaids wheeled their infants out. Earlier there had been a downpour and small girls screamed as sudden gusts of wind scattered raindrops on their heads. The Punch and Judy man was setting up his box alongside the carriage stop. Already the Jew-boy employed to gather a crowd was squeezing on his accordion. The horse that pulled the purple van stood tossing its nose in its feed-bag.
No one I knew had ever set eyes on the man who jiggled Mr Punch into life. Some said he was a dwarf and others that he was nine foot high. He fixed up his stall against the doors of the van and crept in from behind, so as to keep up the illusion. Besides, when it came time for the Jew-boy to pass round the hat, we children generally melted away. The dog Toby was real; he nipped at your ankles if you tried to crawl under the front cloth.
I loitered, waiting for the striped curtains to open. The best bit was always when Judy went off to collect the washing and Mr Punch started thwacking the baby to make it leave off bawling – then the young folk broke out shrieking and sniggering, particularly those that got whipped regularly.
I didn't fret over Master Georgie going on ahead. I knew I'd find him at the Washington Hotel where he was meeting his friend, William Rimmer, a fellow student at the Medical Institute.
The curtains had just been pushed sideways to reveal Mr Punch leant over the cradle, swinging the bellowing baby back and forth, when the accident happened. There was a sudden hiss from the crowd, a surge backwards and a shower of droplets from above as the stall tipped through the lower branches of the trees and toppled to the ground. Mr Punch fell out altogether and lay in a lump in the puddles. Dog Toby jumped and snarled, jumped and yapped.
It was all over in a blink of an eye. Then, wonder of wonders, the Punch and Judy man reared up before us, scrambling to his feet and waving his arms to fight off the flapping fold of the candy-striped front cloth. From his mouth flew a stream of oaths, which came out comical, not fearsome, for he still used that parrot voice. Beneath his sodden top hat his nose curved down to meet his chin.
The van with its golden letters on the side hadn't suffered so much as a scratch, though it had been shoved a foot or more towards the crowd, thus rocking the stall from its support. In the uproar, a lad ran off with the Jew-boy's accordion but a woman hit him over the head with her gamp, at which he howled and let it drop. She was comical too, for as she whacked at him she squawked out, 'Who's a naughty boy, then?', imitating Mr Punch when chastising the baby. We children fairly burst with laughter, skipping about in the wet with the dog Toby snapping at our legs.
The incident was explained and settled satisfactorily enough, the gentleman responsible for the hoo-ha fishing out money to cover the damage. At cock-crow, so it was said, a vegetable cart had spilled cabbages on to the road, all of which, save one, had been recovered or run off with. The gentleman's horse, who had seen service with a cavalry regiment, mistaking it for a puff-adder, had reared up and crashed down sideways, striking the van with its flank.
The animal had recently returned from Africa, where puff-adders were quite common. They hadn't any teeth but if they bit you their tongues imparted a poison that could turn your blood to treacle.
Presently, the gentleman climbed back on to his horse and trotted away, after which the Punch and Judy man bundled his dismembered box into the van and shut up shop for the day. He was still swearing, though not so loudly as before.
It began to rain before I reached the Washington Hotel. I hadn't my shawl, but a spot of damp was nothing to me. In winter, when the wind howled up from the river, I huddled in the doorway of the Star Theatre. Once, an actor came by and said I was pretty and why didn't I come inside to get warm by the Green Room fire. I didn't go because the rouge on his cheeks made him look more angry than kindly. Besides, I knew he was buttering me, the line of my mouth being too determined for prettiness and my eyes too deeply set, which lends me a melancholy look. Another time, in December, my feet turned quite blue and Mrs O'Gorman had to rub them with goose-fat to restore the circulation. What did I care! I'd freeze stiff for Master Georgie.
In summer, my favourite place was on the granite steps of the entrance to the railway station in Lime Street. From there I could see down the slope to where the hotel stood within its square of garden, the red roses bobbing tall in the wind. On clear days, beneath high blue heavens, the humps of the Welsh hills rode the horizon. Now, the grey river met the grey sky, and a low white sun, sliced by the masts of ships, sailed through a splash of scarlet petals.
Mr Hardy had an oil painting of the same view hung on his study wall. The masts were there, and the row of cottages sloping down towards the tobacco warehouse, but the Washington was missing because it hadn't been built. It was a very old painting and had belonged to Mr Hardy's father, yet the colours were as fresh as new, unlike Master Georgie's photographic pictures which turned black after a week.
I had been sitting for an hour or more, watching the people bustling back and forth, the smoke from the steam engines spurting into the lowering skies, when I witnessed a Christian act. A woman who had been standing at the bottom of the steps, a child in her arms and a wicker basket at her feet, was approached by another woman, better dressed than she and holding her skirts up from the wet. A live duck sat squashed in the basket, its neck tied to the handle, its beak bound with string. The woman pulled back her shawl so as to show off the baby nestling at her breast. Just then a boy sneaked through the crowd and snatching up the basket ran off with it. Unaware, the woman went on cooing. Seconds later, another boy appeared at her elbow and deposited the basket back at her feet. He didn't utter a word. Straightening up, he caught me watching him. He was three or four years older than myself, dark of complexion, either from dirt or nature, and his mouth was disfigured by what I took to be an epithelioma of the upper lip. I noticed such things because Master Georgie let me read his medical books, though, as yet, I didn't understand them perfectly.
At that instant William Rimmer came out of the hotel. I waited until I saw Master Georgie emerge, then sped down the steps, across the square and into the doorway of the Union Warehouse. Master Georgie got irritated if I hung about too closely. I couldn't hear what they were saying, but from the agitated manner in which William Rimmer walked off a few paces, then returned, I gathered they were arguing rather than talking. Mostly, they discussed cadavers and blood vessels and the like, so I reckoned it was a medical rift. All the same, Master Georgie looked hang-dog, which was out of character, and I felt a sudden flutter of distress. Gauging they were too locked to notice, I stole nearer and hid behind the roses. It was still raining and water sprayed from Master Georgie's hat.
Excerpted from Master Georgie by Beryl Bainbridge. Copyright © 1998 Beryl Bainbridge. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
I agree with the other reviewers. This is a wonderful book but not for the ordinary reader. I found myself wishing for more historical detail but that is just me. This is the way Ms Bainbridge writes and I am a big fan. My favourite of her books remains "The Birthday Boys".
I never cared for historical fiction until I read this book. Perhaps I was finally ready to see what I was missing, and to discover how mankind makes the same errors again and again.
First off, I would definitely recommend this book, but not to the casual reader. It's not an entertaining beach read nor is it something that you can get through easily. It requires much concentration and focus. I have never yet met with a book by Beryl Bainbridge that I did not like and this one is no exception.first, a bit about the Crimean War (the backdrop for this book): The Crimean War 1854 - 1856In 1853, Russia sent troops to defend Christians within the Ottoman Empire. Within months, Russian troops had occupied parts of the Ottoman Empire and the Turks declared war. On 28 March 1854, looking to prevent Russian expansion, Britain and France (with Austrian backing) also declared war on Russia. In September 1854, Allied troops invaded the Crimea and within a month were besieging the Russian held city of Sebastopol. On 25 October 1854, the Russians were driven back at the Battle of Balaclava (including the foolhardy Charge of the Light Brigade). Eleven days later, the Battle of Inkerman was also fought (with high casualties on both sides). Poorly supplied and with little medical assistance ... the British troops suffered immense casualties - 4,600 died in battle; 13,000 were wounded; and 17,500 died of disease."With this as the setting for Master Georgie, the book is divided into six "plates," or photographs, each capturing a specific moment in time as related by three separate narrators. Each is a focus on love and death, although through the story, you get the sense that the author is looking at the realities of war as set against the notion of the heroic history of war during the period of British empire. The main character is George Hardy, who tries to enlist in the war as a surgeon, but who is rejected due to his marital status. He signs up independently instead, and takes his family including wife, kids, brother-in-law Dr. Potter and his wife (George's sister Beatrice) and Myrtle, a woman in the employ of the Hardys who has some mysterious connection to George. Eventually the family is sent home after George is ordered to serve as doctor for the British in the Crimean theater, and the rest of the book is a look at the effects of war and the realities of life as viewed by those who are a part of it, even though their experiences and place in the scheme of things are largely different to one another.It is a fine piece of writing, and should not be missed. Highly recommended.