We were thrilled when short-story writer Vicky Grut offered to write a piece on the friendship between Beryl Bainbridge and Bernice Rubens. Ever since 2014, when Emma wrote about an inspirational meeting with Rubens, we have been hoping to profile the friendship she enjoyed with Bainbridge.
Beryl Bainbridge (1932 – 2010) and Bernice Rubens (1923 – 2004) were friends for almost thirty years. They met on a British Council trip to Israel in July 1977, the first of many such outings. Describing this trip in the Independent’s ‘How We Met’ column, Rubens recalled: ‘The group was Fay Weldon, William Trevor, Ted Willis, Iris Murdoch, Melvyn Bragg and Beryl, who made an impression on me immediately because she was wearing a hat and was quite clearly out to lunch.’
Bainbridge’s version of the occasion was that she was extremely nervous and the flight was delayed, which meant that she overdid it in the hospitality lounge and had to be wheeled out to the plane on a luggage trolley. ‘I didn’t even get going as a writer until 1971 and Bernice had won the Booker Prize before then,’ Bainbridge remembered. ‘I had read her and was quite in awe of her and the rest of the group.’
Bainbridge was hardly a newcomer in 1977. She had been publishing steadily since A Weekend With Claude in 1967. Shortlisted for the Booker in 1974, she had won the Whitbread Prize with her eighth book three years later. But Rubens was six years older and probably did seem more confident and established. She was the first woman ever to win the Booker – in 1970 for her fourth novel, The Elected Member. Today she is perhaps best remembered for her second book, Madame Sousatzka (1962), which became a John Schlesinger film in 1988, starring Shirley MacLaine.
Rubens was the author of 26 books and Bainbridge 24, but neither started out as writers. Bainbridge left school at sixteen to join a theatre company in Liverpool, an experience vividly portrayed in her 1989 novel An Awfully Big Adventure. Rubens initially took a more conventional route: a scholarship to study English at Cardiff University, then marriage and teaching English in schools. She followed this with a career as a documentary film maker and scriptwriter, and the novels came later still, when she was in her thirties, as was the case for Bainbridge.
Physically, Rubens was bulky while Bainbridge was girlishly slight. Rubens was Jewish, Bainbridge a Catholic, and their personalities, too, were radically different. ‘When praised I took refuge in a smirk,’ Bainbridge said, ‘Bernice lashed out. When confronted with tragedy I shed tears and crept away; she made inquiries and organised relief.’
But they had some important things in common. Both came from difficult families. Both were devoted to their children and grandchildren but lived alone. Both believed that if they had been happier they would not have needed to write. They also shared an interest in other art forms. According to Bainbridge’s daughter Jojo Davies, her mother would do a painting each time she finished a book. In the attic room where Rubens worked there was a grand piano and a cello next to her desk so that she could reward herself by playing when the writing went well.
Writing in The Times after Bainbridge’s death, their friend Paul Bailey said of the two of them: ‘Bernice could best be described as a fiery particle, for she blew very hot or cold, especially with those she loved. Beryl, by sweet contrast, never judged anybody.’
This was a quality that Rubens valued greatly. ‘Although I have many friends who are writers, I don’t want to talk about [my work] to any of them except Beryl, because – like the Midland Bank – she listens, and she is terrifically loyal. […] I’ve never heard Beryl talk evilly about anybody.’ In their later years, the two friends met fortnightly for breakfast at the Cafe Delancey, just around the corner from Bainbridge’s house in Camden Town.
There are many anecdotes about Rubens sweeping in to avert disaster for Bainbridge, the most dramatic being A. N. Wilson’s assertion that when her publisher Duckworth ran into financial difficulties, the head of the company Colin Haycraft, whom she adored, came to see her and suggested that she sign her house over to them. ‘For a few hours she seriously considered this monstrous demand. Then the steely common sense surfaced – helped by her friend Bernice Rubens shouting from the sidelines.’
Bainbridge once talked about the nurturing quality of their friendship. Remembering that they had never quarrelled, and had ‘no rivalry’, she said, ‘If one of us is miserable then we ring the other. I got drunk at one of her dinner parties and she rang me the next day because she knew I’d be feeling remorse, to tell me I behaved beautifully, which wasn’t true.’ If one of them saw a bad review about the other, she added, then they would ‘ring and not refer to it directly, but support the other in a roundabout way’.
What more could anyone ask of a friend?
Vicky Grut’s short fiction has appeared in anthologies published by Picador, Granta, Duckworths, Serpent’s Tail and Bloomsbury. Live Show, Drink Included: Collected Stories is published on October 5, 2018, by Holland Park Press. Find her on Twitter @VickyGrut.
Edited by Kathleen Dixon Donnelly, who posts at Such Friends, and is currently working on a book, ‘Such Friends’: A Scrapbook Almanac of Writers’ Salons, 1897-1930. Follow Kathleen on Twitter @SuchFriends.
It has been a particular pleasure to feature Vicky’s post on a historical pair of female writer friends today since tonight she will be celebrating the publication of Dear Evelyn by her own close writer friend, Kathy Page. On October 5th, Vicky and Kathy will be letting us into the secrets of their long-standing friendship to mark the publication of Vicky’s book, a short story collection called Live Show, Drink Included.
If this has inspired an idea for a future Something Rhymed post, please do get in touch. You can find out more about what we are looking for here.