The Dressmaker


And, finally, the third Beryl Bainbridge novel. The Dressmaker. Full details of the week, organised by Annabel, can be seen on her blog, Annabel’s House of Books. The link to her first review is here. Here we have 17-year-old Rita, a lonely, old-fashioned girl, brought up by her aunts after the death of her mother. There is Nellie, a dressmaker, rigid in her outlook on life, who raises Rita exactly as she herself was raised, and keeps everything in the house the way it was when her own mother (Rita’s grandmother) was alive, and still follows the code of conduct laid down by her mother. And there is widowed Marge, who smokes, and works in a factory, and likes a good time (when she can get it), and wears unsuitable, rather flamboyant  clothes. Her chance of remarrying was wrecked by Nellie and their brother Jack, who is actually Rita’s father, although she calls him Uncle Jack.

Apparently most (if not all) of Bainbridge’s early work was based on her own childhood, and one can only feel sorry for her if her home was as cold and cheerless as Rita’s. As with so much of her work there is no warmth or cheer in this house, no love or human contact. At one point Marge reflects:

“Jack and Nellie had moulded Rita, cramped her development, as surely if they had copied the Chinese, binding the feet of infants to keep them small.”

Small wonder that Rita falls in love with an American soldier (this is World War Two, and the Yanks are camped just down the road). Immature for her age, she is obsessed by Ira, and imagines a future where they will lie side by side as husband and wife (but her imagination doesn’t take her any further than that). All her life she has been waiting for him. He, as everyone else can see, is no good, but she is convinced he must love her, and refuses to take the hint when he tries to drop her. It is heart-breaking to read how she chases him, writes to him, begs and pleads.

In contrast we also follow the fortunes of neighbour Valerie Mander, much-loved daughter of wealthy parents, who  is everything Rita is not – good looking, well-dressed, smart, clever, confident, able to take care of herself and is about to become engaged to American Chuck, who is handsome, polite, thoughtful, and well to do (and not at all like Ira). They are a golden couple with, one hopes, a golden future ahead of them.

But we know there is no such happiness for Rita. The story moves inexorably towards the climax, which is both shocking and unexpected, and is precipitated by Marge, which is ironic since she is the aunt who appears to be more loving and sympathetic towards Rita. But Marge knows about men, and Ira, who wants a woman rather than a callow, inexperienced girl, recognises that fact, and it leads to disaster.

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