Roy Foster: Her unique voice spoke of the shy and insecure

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The Independent Culture

When she sat down to write a novel about the past, Beryl Bainbridge followed the advice of the great historian of Victorian England, GM Young: "Read until you can hear the people talking."

In a marvellous 1985 television portrait of Bainbridge and her world, Tristram Powell showed the way that her early novels (The Bottle Factory Outing, Another Part of the Wood, Harriet Said, above all A Quiet Life) dramatised her own early experience; but she had already begun to change direction and head off into history.

The first departure, published in 1984, was Watson's Apology, which explored a Victorian murder and a dysfunctional marriage – at once chilling and hilarious in the true Bainbridge mode. Perhaps because of its uncharacteristic length and density, it did not receive the acclaim it deserved. But the bravura performances that followed – The Birthday Boys, Every Man for Himself, Master Georgie, According to Queeney – brought together a genius for elliptical dialogue, an eye for the detail that tells all, and a connoisseur's taste for the macabre.

Bainbridge deftly recreated the various lost worlds of Scott's Antarctic expedition, the Titanic disaster, the Crimean War and Dr Johnson's circle by leaving things out rather than cluttering up the scene. Like Maria Edgeworth, with whom she had something in common, she believed that people revealed themselves by "careless conversations and half-finished sentences". These novels achieved the level of masterpieces through an additional quality – a profound but unsentimental empathy for the insecure, the shy, the guarded and the wounded victims of history.

She was a great novelist of repression, the tyrannies of social ritual and expectation, and the workings of the law of unintended consequences.

The unique quality of her fiction also relied upon a great deal of hard work. She loved raffish company and seemed most at home brandishing a cigarette and a glass of wine at the memorable parties held by her publisher Colin Haycraft, and her best friend, his wife Anna (the novelist Alice Thomas Ellis) in their Gloucester Crescent kitchen.

But in the morning, she would be on the bus to the British Museum Newspaper Library at Colindale, where she once told me all her ideas came from.

This could not have been entirely true: she had a theatrical sense of exaggeration, as well as an actress's instinct for timing. But her work profited from immersion in the everyday minutiae of past times, and a recognition of the contingency whereby great events collide with little ones. And she never began to write until she could hear the people talking.

It is unbearably sad to think that her own inimitable voice will not be heard again. But her work will last far longer than that of novelists who received more contemporary réclame.

That long-ago television programme about her was called Words Fail Me, but they never did.

The author is Carroll Professor of Irish History at Oxford University