The Dressmaker by Beryl Bainbridge


It was Tony’s enthusiasm for Beryl Bainbridge that took me to this book which he described as “a humorous gothic horror novel.” It was set in Liverpool in 1944, a bleak time. The blitz began in the summer of 1940 and continued erratically until January of 1942. Liverpool, along with Birkenhead, across the Mersey River, were hit very hard by the German bombardments to disrupt the port where goods arrived from North America.

The dressmaker is Nellie, older sister of Madge, both aunts to Rita, the 17-year-old who lives with them. Jack is Rita’s father, a widower, who lives nearby over his butcher shop. A much admired neighbor about Rita’s age has an attentive American soldier boyfriend. Rita meets another soldier at the neighbor’s house and convinces herself against all evidence that Ira will fall in love with her and take her to the land of plenty.

Some of the characters take the ferry across the Mersey to go to Birkenhead so of course I was thinking of that 1965 pop song “Ferry Cross the Mersey” and am so happy to be able to see a video of Gerry and the Pacemakers singing it. I had been thinking the river name was pronounced “mercy,” but it’s “merzey.”

The characters unpleasantness to each other is impressive, and is only exceeded by their unkind thoughts of anyone different from themselves.

Jack wavered between hatred and pride — pride in his daughter that she had got herself a young man, and hatred of the blond stranger in his tell-tale uniform, a product of a race of mongrels, the blood of every nation in the world mingling in his veins — nothing aristocratic, nothing pure. It was astonishing he hadn’t a touch of the Jew or the black in him.

Jack is given that old familiar quote, “There’s only three things wrong with them Yanks. They’re overpaid, oversexed, and over here.” Just in case there’s a question of their views, their black cat has an unmentionable name.¬†With a minimum of words Bainbridge tells us who they are.

The horror part of the story occurs when Nellie sees Ira thoughtlessly scratching the top of her mother’s precious rosewood table. She has scissors in her hand and he does pay a high price.

This was the first of Bainbridge’s five novels that were nominated for the Booker Prize.

Beryl Bainbridge, The Dressmaker, Duckworth, 1973, 152 pages. I read it online on the library app Freading, on my iPad. That app needs some work.

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