'Granta' Young British Novelist with a sharp eye for social detail
Wednesday 14 April 2004
Ursula Bentley was selected by the literary magazine
Granta for the original "Best of Young British Novelists" in 1983 - a distinguished group that included Julian Barnes, Ian McEwan, Martin Amis and Pat Barker.
Ursula Mary Bentley, writer: born Sheffield, South Yorkshire 18 September 1945; married 1969 Alan Thompson (one son, one daughter; marriage dissolved 1987); died 7 April 2004.
Ursula Bentley was selected by the literary magazine Granta for the original "Best of Young British Novelists" in 1983 - a distinguished group that included Julian Barnes, Ian McEwan, Martin Amis and Pat Barker.
Her first and most successful novel, The Natural Order (1982), is a knowing and witty take on the Brontës, a subject that was tragically appropriate for the circumstances of her own life. Her mother died giving birth to her and she lost one of her brothers, Chris, when she was 19. Theirs might have been a sombre childhood. The household was elderly, their father already middle-aged, grieving and preoccupied, and the responsibility for the children's upbringing falling on their grandmother and beloved great-aunt. It was transformed, however, by the rich imaginative life that Ursula shared with Chris, who qualified as a doctor before his early death, and her second brother, Paul, who became an actor and writer. In effect they created a world of their own, where the need for self- expression was satisfied.
At the Roman Catholic grammar school (the Ursuline Convent in Wimbledon) where we formed a lifelong friendship, Ursula Bentley was an unusual girl who disrupted the categories that schoolgirls use to place each other. She was clearly intelligent, but too unorthodox in her opinions and range of interests to be regarded as a swot. In a school that made rigid distinctions between the academically gifted, the arty and those destined for a life of sacrifice or Catholic motherhood (a rather nebulous group that included the genuinely pious and those who were uncomfortable with an academic syllabus), Bentley crossed the boundaries.
She was passionately interested in literature and history; excelled as an actress (a career that her father prevented her from taking up); championed the domestic crafts of cooking and sewing, which were regarded by the nuns as guarantors of virtue; and when she left school began training as a nurse, until she tired of the petty regulations.
Most of all, she was distinguished by her sense of irony. This owed nothing to teenage disaffection and everything to her early awareness that life never matched the expectations and ideals invested in it.
She went on to Manchester University to read English, one of a generation of clever women who benefited from the greater educational opportunities of the post-war period. The traditional constraints on women were still firmly in place, however. While her husband, Alan Thompson, whom she married in 1969, pursued his career as a geologist, at Harvard and then in Zurich, she worked when she could, at what was available, and began to write.
By the time The Natural Order was published Bentley had two small children, a son, Alexis, and a daughter, Ishbel. When her marriage collapsed shortly afterwards she dedicated herself to their well-being. Motherless herself, she was unwilling to compromise her role as a mother and thereafter her writing took second place in her life.
Her later novels, Private Accounts (1986), The Angel of Twickenham (1997) and The Sloping Experience (1999), are comedies of manners that show her sharp eye for social detail, pretence and self-deception. There is a relish in all her novels for the absurdity and helplessness of the human being in the grip of sexual passion. That taste for the ridiculous is balanced, however, by a keen appreciation of the pleasures to be found in children and friendship, on the one hand, and on the other by a kind of existential bleakness.
Bentley was surprised by her early success and, when she settled again in England with her children, too modest to claim the attention that her talent should have ensured. Brought up in London suburbia, she was by inclination a countrywoman, and for the last eight years of her life lived in Suffolk. During that time, she wrote the last of her novels, indulged her passion for dogs and gardening, sang in a choir, was an active Liberal Democrat and worked conscientiously for a number of voluntary groups concerned with prison conditions, youth crime and reforms in the judicial system.
Ursula Bentley had a rare gift for friendship and never lost touch with the friends she made at all stages in her life, in the many places where she had lived. As a friend she was loyal, generous, hospitable, endlessly interested and affectionate, a wonderful raconteur and the best of company.
In her cruel final illness, she was stalwart, stoical and without bitterness, concerned only by the possible impact of her early death on her son and daughter, now in their early twenties. Ishbel, the younger, was still living at home with her mother when illness struck. Ursula's anxiety for them was entirely natural and characteristic. In their devoted and mature response to her suffering, however, and in their courage in facing her loss, they have shown themselves to be very much their mother's children.
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