I've always been attracted to the character of Beryl Bainbridge, (1932 - 2010), but up to now had read nothing by her. Browsing in the new Foyles in London the other week for a new book to read I decided to make amends and made my way to the 'B's and there was 'According to Queeney' (2001) as a token example of her large literary output. I'm not usually one for 'Historical fiction' (not quite sure why) so I was a little trepidatious. Perhaps one of the reasons for this hesitation was the fear that it would be weighted down with historical detail. What else to do with all that research? This does not happen in this novel. Bainbridge's fluid, easy style soon put me at ease. A style that seems to owe something to Waugh, and reminds me, also, of both Colette and Mauriac - perhaps Flaubert too.
This book, make no mistake, was a brave undertaking for 'According to Queeney' is the story of Dr Johnson, one the great men of English letters, and the curious relationship between him and Hester Thrale, wife of the Southwark brewer Henry Thrale. In passing we meet any number of the great and the good of eighteenth century London society: Boswell, Reynolds, Dr Burney and his daughter Fanny, and also, at the other end of the social spectrum, the residents of the somewhat chaotic, dysfunctional home of Johnson. All these are people who have long been the subject of scholarly research and some popular imagination. (A new biography of Johnson servant/secretary Francis Barber has only just come out.) And here I have to confess to myself knowing something about Johnson and the Thrales. It is unlikely therefore that anybody could come to this novel with out some pre-formed idea of what the characters ought to be like. And this makes minefield for a novelist. Bainbridge navigates her way with immense skill. It is totally convincing, and quite captivating.
The image on the cover of this particular edition is a reproduction of the Reynolds double portrait of Mrs Thrale and her daughter Queeney. Hester is in some sort of reverie, aware but not interested in her daughter who looks inquisitively at her mother. The portrait forms a sort of summary of the relationship between mother and daughter that forms the other narrative strand in the novel: a sort of benign indifference, perhaps a wearisome tolerance, from the mother and need that turns to cynicism from the daughter, Queeney who is a intelligent, sharp girl. Mrs Thrale is depicted in this novel is more interested in formation of a cultural salon at her residences in Southwark and a then rural Streatham, and interested too in a succession of men, including Dr Johnson, who could be her lovers, and all seemed destined to become tutors to her daughter. Johnson, the 'Great Cham', taught Queeney Latin. Perhaps this was a contrivance of Mrs Thrale to make their presence in the Thrale household acceptable to her husband, but there is a sense too that Queeney is a special project of her mother. Certainly Queeney is the only one of her children who Mrs Thrale involves herself with. The child is taken on trips and social visits, but is often made to think her presence irksome to her mother, although Mrs Thrale is quite happy to use her daughter as a spy when it suits her. This close interweaving of their lives means that Queeny is often a witness to adult dramas and transactions. (Contrary to expectations the narrative is not in the first person but in the third person, which gives us more access than had if Queeney was relating these events directly to us.)
Towards the end the novelist Fanny Burney flits across the pages almost ghost-like, hardly speaking but - one feels - doing a lot of listening. (Here Bainbridge appears to have been influenced in Burney's description of her own self, but apparently that is as much a self-construct of Burney's as it is an accurate self-portrait.) Bainbridge is perhaps like Burney; her tread is very light. And yet her ability to suggest, and to manipulate the reader is is deeply assured.