BOOKS: Fiction: The Artful Dodger goes to war

GEORGIE by Beryl Bainbridge Duckworth pounds 14.99
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NOW THAT all our most successful novelists are people just like us, writing about people just like us, living lives just like us, Beryl Bainbridge's singularity becomes ever more valuable.

True, a certain proportion of her well-publicised eccentricity is simple show-business, but for all that she remains a representative of a different, more interesting Britain: older, tougher, stronger, where life was something you experienced rather than watched on television.

Master Georgie is Bainbridge's third venture into historical fiction, if we can reclaim that label from Jean Plaidy. Once, Bainbridge elaborated upon incidents from her own life. In this new phase, she builds on events in the life of the nation: first the Scott expedition in The Birthday Boys, then the Titanic disaster in Every Man For Himself, and now the Crimean War.

The new novel is more comprehensively "invented" in terms of plot, incident and character than either of those two. But invention has never been Beryl Bainbridge's interest. Instead, she concentrates on inhabiting an era, presenting not just the furniture, as it were, in the manner of costume drama, but the mental furniture of its inhabitants.

In Master Georgie, as in the other historical books, an ill-assorted group assembles, makes jokes, frets about domestic arrangements and trivial discomforts before being thrown into horrors that might be called unimaginable, were it not that Bainbridge goes on to imagine them.

Her interest is in depicting relationships - love is a better word in this case - tested to destruction and beyond. But she is a shrewd enough storyteller to know that what pulls people through a narrative is not information imparted but information withheld. The reader's questions about these characters and the events portrayed, are not answered until the end - and not quite then. The book is only 190 pages long, which is perhaps just as well. You may need to read it twice. You will certainly want to.

The story is told by three characters associated with George Hardy, firstborn son of a wealthy Liverpool family, a medical student and amateur photographer. We follow them from Britain to the Crimea, where George feels obliged to employ his surgical skills.

Myrtle, an orphan brought into the Hardy family, forms an unbreakable attachment to Georgie and goes with him, posing as his sister. Dr Potter, George's brother-in-law, a pompous but thoughtful geologist, goes along as "an observer", convinced his knowledge of classical history will prove invaluable to the war effort. Pompey Jones, a street youth turned photographer's assistant, bumps into them amidst the squalor.

The three take turns to tell the story. Only Master Georgie is mute, his character and history sketched, with great skill, through the insights, misunderstandings and hesitant judgements of the others.

Of course, the characters don't really speak as we suppose people really spoke in 1854. Pompey Jones, for instance, has a touch of the Artful Dodger about him, or someone out of Mayhew. They are the novelist's mouthpieces: their observation, both of objects and mood, is absurdly acute.

But Bainbridge makes such objections look silly. There may be the odd false note in her characters' voices, but in general their language is so plain, so English, the diction so hard and gritty, that they manage to appear both timeless and classless.

They certainly have to cope with an emotional range. The early parts of the book, in Liverpool, are funny, startling and occasionally grotesque. Then George, accompanied by his wife, children, sister, brother-in-law and false sister, sets off for the Crimea, and there are a series of farcical and tender scenes on board ship and in Constantinople before war is declared. Then, as we know it must, the mood darkens.

Bainbridge's Crimea is a relation to the Flanders which has drawn so many fine novelists in recent years, but with more disease, hunger and animal suffering, especially the latter. It is excellently done, but, as ever, Bainbridge's interest is less in the material facts of the conflict than in attitudes and the effects on people. The passages in which the atheist Potter, overcome by suffering and homesickness, wanders into the no- man's-land between madness and religious experience are particularly affecting.

It seems unlikely this book will win any prizes for Beryl Bainbridge - as if she cared. It lacks the strenuous exoticism demanded by a certain type of literary judge. And most people will complain that it fails to speak directly to our age. Actually, it does, but it may not be saying anything we want to hear. It seems to say that our present comforts, our peace and civility, our tolerance and sensitivity are not the natural order of things after all - just a temporary aberration.