By Beryl Bainbridge
Looking back on the literary fiction of the past 20 years, we can make out a number of trends. One of the most interesting of these has been the relentless excavation of the Victorians. There have been a number of recent writers (it probably started with Fowles) who have felt drawn toward deeper explorations of the English character in the last century. After all, what did the Victorians know about such modern inventions as psychology and sex?
Master Georgie is a book in this same vein. It deals, at times obliquely, with the hidden life of a Victorian surgeon and amateur photographer named George Hardy. The story is told by three narrators, each giving us a different perspective. To starry-eyed Myrtle, an orphaned waif adopted into the Hardy household, George is Master Georgie, a heroic gentleman. To Pompey Jones, a street kid on the make, he is both patron and occasional lover. To his intellectual brother-in-law Dr. Potter, he remains a distant and mysterious dilettante.
The first part of the novel, set in Liverpool, is very good. The events are well-selected and the characters exactly, if sparingly, drawn. Throughout the opening chapters Bainbridge prepares the ground well for an examination of one of her favourite themes, the relationship between loyalty and love.
Unfortunately, this early promise is never fully developed. Soon enough all of the major characters improbably embark for the Black Sea to take part in the Crimean War. George finds work as a surgeon while the others either tag along or find themselves there by accident. As the campaign develops, the action becomes awkwardly episodic, finally dissolving into a number of battle scenes that are more silly than chaotic.
But a more serious problem is the writing itself. Bainbridge has always had a tendency to slip into cliché, and in Master Georgie this habit seems to be getting worse. Carping about the “heaven sprinkled with stars,” the “blood-red ball of the sun,” and the soldiers screaming like madmen may seem picky, but it all starts to add up. In a longer book the eye passes over stuff like this, but in a novel this short it’s hard to miss.
Bainbridge has a deserved reputation as one of Britain’s finest novelists. This makes it an even greater disappointment to find such flaws.
Review first published February 13, 1999.