At first glance Master Georgie by Beryl Bainbridge suggests it might be quite a light book, an easy read, a period piece set in the mid-nineteenth century. This would be wrong. This is no safe tale of country house manners, of marriages imagined by confined, embroidering young women. Beryl Bainbridge's Master Georgie is anything but a tale of such saccharine gentility.
Master Georgie is a surgeon and photographer, and the book is cast in six plates - photographic plates, not chapters. Death figures throughout. From start to finish morbidity crashes into the lives of the book's characters. We begin with Mr Moody, dead in a brothel bed, his host of minutes before in shock. Later we move to the Crimean War, where the carnage is graphic, extensive and apparently random. And even then individuals find their own personal ways of adding insult and injury to the suffering.
The book uses multiple points of view. We see things Master Georgie's way. Myrtle, an orphan he takes in, adds her perspective. The fussy geologist, Dr Potter, imprints his own version of reality. And still there are less than explained undercurrents, undeclared motives which affect them all. Thus, overall, Master Georgie is a complex and ambitious novel. Though it is set in a major war, the backdrop is never allowed to dominate. The characters experience the consequences of conflict and register their reactions, but we are never led by the nose trough the history or the geography of the setting.
But we also never really get to know these people. Myrtle, perhaps, has the strongest presence. She has a slightly jaundiced, certainly pragmatic approach to life. But even she finds the privations of wartime tough. Why the characters of it are all so keen to offer themselves as support for the war effort is an aspect of the book that never fully revealed itself. And ultimately this was my criticism of Beryl Bainbridge's book. While the overall experience was both rewarding and not a little shocking, I found there was insufficient delineation between the characters and their differing motives. The beauty of the prose, however, more than made up for any shortcoming. The language created the mixed world of mid-nineteenth century politeness and juxtaposed this with the visceral vulgarities of soldiering and the general struggle of life. This rendered Master Georgie a complex, moving and quite beautiful book.
The Hardy family is viewed through the eyes of three outsiders: the orphan girl they take in and who is obsessed by son George Hardy from the age of three, the doctor who marries daughter Beatrice Hardy and the duck-boy, who helps prevent a scandal when father Hardy dies in the arms of a prostitute. Against the backdrop of Victorian Liverpool and the Crimean war, relationships, obsessions and family secrets are gradually revealed and seen for what they are.
Incredible book. I loved it.