Knowingly undersold

The difficult birth of Beryl Bainbridge's final novel.

My last conversation with Beryl Bainbridge took place over the phone in May last year, during the general election campaign. She was in a bit of a quandary about where to place her vote. David Cameron was a new kind of Tory, wasn't he? I assured her that Cameron was very much of the traditional school. "Well, in that case," she replied distractedly, "I suppose I'll have to vote for old Frank [Dobson]."

Beryl was much more interested in reporting the progress she was making on her latest novel. At last the finishing post was in sight. She was writing and rewriting, cutting out extraneous material so that the book said just as much - or as little - as she wanted. It was a finely balanced exercise. She used to say that she hated books where you read a page and could tell immediately what was going to happen next. Her own novels were painstakingly designed to give away no more than was necessary, even to the extent of forcing readers to retrace their steps in a fruitless exercise to attempt to establish exactly what had taken place. "Darling we'll have brekkie at the beginning of July," she said as she signed off, "when it's all over."

Beryl had told friends that the cancer for which she'd been operated on several years earlier had returned. At dinner in April she had appeared fragile, suffering unduly from the cold, the sparkle of her conversation uncharacteristically dimmed. But it came nevertheless as a great shock to learn of her death in the first week of July after a short spell in University College Hospital, London.

My first thought, after the news had sunk in, was for Beryl's novel. It seemed cruel that she should have died without seeing the book in print. The pain and misery of writing it had dominated much of the final decade of her life. For the first time in her career, she had found herself suffering from writer's block. Previously she had kept up an extraordinary rate of production, publishing a work of fiction every other year over almost three decades, but this 18th novel had almost defeated her. She was worn out and drinking more to compensate for the feeling of detachment she experienced whenever she went to a literary event or party. And she found it impossible to write without the perennial cigarette in hand. She was jubilant when she found a doctor who permitted her to smoke, having realised that writing was more important to her than life.

I suggested to Beryl my own solutions to her dilemma - an autobiography, perhaps. "But my life's all in the novels!" she exclaimed, and at times she did appear to have difficulty distinguishing between the fictional re-creations of her life and actual events. She remembered the first novel she wrote, Harriet Said, completed in 1958, and how one publisher had described

it as repulsive beyond belief. The twist in the tale was based on a trip the 16-year-old Beryl had made to Paris with a business acquaintance of her father's. "He seemed to me about 60, but I suppose he was 40. It seems a bit daft, but I can't remember whether we had an affair. At the hotel, I do remember the concierge at the desk saying, 'Courage, mademoiselle,' as we were going upstairs. That's the first novel."

I pressed on Beryl the idea of writing a book about Dr Crippen. We were both fascinated by the survival until the late 1960s of Ethel Le Neve, Crippen's mistress, and Beryl pointed out the site of the old Bedford Music Hall in Camden Town where Crippen's wife, the unfortunate Belle Elmore, had performed. But when, one Christmas, Beryl presented me with her copy of The Trial of Dr Crippen in the Great Trials series, I realised that the idea had no appeal for her.

For a time she was attracted by the idea of a novel that would play with different notions of time, suggested by Time and the Conways, a play by one of her heroes, J B Priestley. The novel she eventually decided to write, however, took its inspiration from a trip she had made to the United States in the late 1960s. The book would begin and end at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, where Robert Kennedy was assassinated in 1968, and the plot would revolve around the mysterious sighting of "a girl in a white dress with polka dots" who reportedly ran from the scene of the crime.

Beryl's The Girl in the Polka Dot Dress, published on 26 May, is a bitter-sweet masterpiece. It possesses all the elements of tragicomedy associated with the Bainbridge name, and at the same time leaves us with an unforgettable self-portrait of the author as its heroine, Rose. Like Beryl, she has a hatred of confrontation, born out of a dysfunctional upbringing, and a native intelligence that is constantly underestimated.

People found it easy to patronise Beryl. As Lynn Barber once said, she practically did the job for you, telling you how clever you were and how stupid she was. Yet, underneath it all, she was proud of her achievements as a writer and consistently strove to make the next book as good as, if not better than, the last. Publishers took her seriously, too. She may have been paid peanuts by Colin Haycraft, but his successor at Duckworth, Robin Baird-Smith, gave her a hefty sum for her 1996 novel about the Titanic, Every Man for Himself, and saw a solid return on his investment when the paperback sold more than 100,000 copies.

If anything overshadowed Beryl's genius as a novelist, it was the warmth of her personality. Ronald Harwood, raising a glass to her memory at the "Beryl Booker", the public competition to select the best of her five shortlisted titles, put it well. "Beryl Bainbridge," he said, "was a terrific writer and a glorious woman." l

Mark Bostridge's most recent book is “Florence Nightingale: the Woman and Her Legend" (Penguin, £14.99)

This article first appeared in the 30 May 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Hands up who knows how to fix our schools