Wednesday 11 April 2018

Queeney According to Beryl

As one who's been browsing the book shelves of charity shops for many years, I've noticed how, from time to time, a particular author or title will suddenly start cropping up repeatedly. Leaving aside discarded dross such as Fifty Shade of Grey (still multiple copies everywhere) or the works of Dan Brown, literary authors and titles are also subject to these spates and gluts. Iris Murdoch has been turning up a lot in recent years, and Muriel Spark is an oddly persistent presence, while Hilary Mantel's Fludd continues to show up, invariably in the Penguin edition and often accompanied by Wolf Hall.
  But the most recent phenomenon I've noticed is a curious one – a sudden glut of Beryl Bainbridge's According to Queeney (published 2001). I've no idea why this should have happened, but in the past couple of weeks I've come across it four times, in three editions. I rather fancied re-reading it, as it had been a long time and I wasn't sure I still had it at home, so I bought a copy – the American first edition, as it happened. 
  It's a very clever piece of work, spry and sparely written, presenting the relationship of Samuel Johnson with his sometime protectors and friends, the Thrales, largely through the cool, sharply observant eyes of the young Hester 'Queeney' Thrale, for whom Johnson had a special fondness (I think I have a copy of The Queeney Letters somewhere). Bainbridge also skilfully recreates the bizarre goings-on in Johnson's house, recounting farcical and macabre incidents and misunderstandings in her usual matter-of-fact tone, and making surprising, under-the-radar connections. The narrative revolves around certain key incidents, each of which is given a chapter, and between the chapters are dismissive letters from the grown-up Hester to the inquiring biographer Laetitia Hawkins, letters that often seem to disown the novel's narrative. This injects an intriguing note of uncertainty into this fictional version of the best-documented life in English literature, while suggesting new levels of meaning and emotion barely hinted at in the biographies.
  Like Penelope Fitzgerald, Beryl Bainbridge found a new lease of authorial life when, quite late in her career, she turned to the historical past for inspiration. According to Queeney was her fourth historically-based novel – and, as it turned out, her last published work. If you spot it in a charity shop near you, do pick it up. 

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