251 Menlove Avenue L25 is more often than not beset by tourists come to pay homage at John Lennon’s childhood home. But few if any appreciate that if they cast a glance to the opposite side of the road there is another significant Liverpool landmark. On 21st November 1932 Beryl Bainbridge, one of the most significant post-war British authors, was born at 294 Menlove Avenue.
Throughout her life Bainbridge would make reference to her childhood as a key influence on her work, once depicting her writing as essentially a cathartic process to “write the poison of her childhood out of her system”. In particular she cited the antagonistic relationship between her parents exacerbated by her father’s business failure and bankruptcy in the years just before her birth. Richard Bainbridge had, from relatively humble origins, built up a successful business in the 1920’s but it foundered, like countless other thousands, in the aftermath of the 1929 crash. In his extensive biography of Bainbridge, Brendan King casts doubt on the accuracy of her recollections of her parents and her childhood. In particular he cites a considerable body of events and facts she referred to about her family which are simply not true and also the quite different view which her older brother, Ian, had of their home life.
The family moved from Liverpool to Formby and Beryl was educated at nearby Crosby, at Merchant Taylors Girls’ School until her expulsion aged 14 for her artistic efforts in relation to a rude limerick. She then spent a couple of years at a boarding school in Hertfordshire before taking becoming an unpaid assistant stage manager at the Liverpool Playhouse. Graduating from minor to more significant roles for over a decade she travelled the country in repertory theatre, one of her final dramatic appearances being on television in 1961 as Ken Barlow’s girlfriend in Coronation Street.
While working at the Playhouse she had met an art student, Austin Davies, who painted scenery and they were married in 1954 at Little Crosby. By this time Davies was a lecturer at Liverpool Art College and the couple moved into a flat at 45 Catharine Street L8. After the arrival of two children Davies bought a large house at 22 Huskisson Street L8 for £900. The couple divorced in 1959 but Davies continued to support her and she remained in Huskisson Street until moving to London in 1963. In London she had another child to the writer Alan Sharp, a relationship that finished the day the child was born. It was in 1967 that she moved to the house in Camden Town which was to be her home for the rest of her life. This was bought for her by her ex-husband, Austin Davies.
For much of the 1960’s Bainbridge was as active as an artist as she was a writer and whilst the pen was a somewhat tortuous cathartic process painting she found a relaxing activity. In the 1970s she firmly established her name as a significant new author with works such as The Dressmaker (1973) and The Bottle Factory Outing (1976). Many of her works drew on her own experiences, An Awfully Big Adventure (1989) depicting the trials of a young girl starting out in a Liverpool theatre. Her later novels drew on historical events such as Scott’s Antarctic expedition and the sinking of the Titanic.
Appointed a DBE in 2000, she won many literary awards but despite being short-listed a record five times the Booker Prize eluded her. Bainbridge died in 2010. Enigmatic to the end, it was at her request that mourners at the graveside sang the Rolf Harris song Two Little Boys.
Bainbridge’s own life had the
content to fill a number of novels. Struggles and fame, mental health problems,
attempted suicides, self-induced abortions, countless lovers and an undisputed
literary and artistic muse.
She made two appearances on Desert Island Discs in 2008 and 1986 (click date to listen on BBC Sounds).
Beryl Bainbridge's family home at the time of her birth in 1932
Bainbridge and Austin Davies' first home after their marriage. They occupied the ground floor flat.
Austin Davies bought this house for £900 in June 1958. Beryl Bainbridge lived here until 1963.
The most thorough and perceptive insight into Beryl Bainbridge must be Brendan King's Beryl Bainbridge: Love by All Sorts of Means [Bloomsbury 2016]. Between 1987 and 2010 he worked for Beryl Bainbridge and the research he undertook is clearly meticulous. Beryl Bainbridge: Artist, Writer, Friend [Thames & Hudson 2012] focuses upon Bainbridge's painting. There are entries at the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography and Wikipedia. A documentary on her screened on BBC4 can be found on You Tube.
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