Sunday, 17 October 2021

Watson's Apology

 I've been reading a Beryl Bainbridge novel that I'd somehow never noticed (let alone read) before – Watson's Apology. I found it, needless to say, in a charity shop and snapped it up. 
  Watson's Apology dates from 1984, and is the second (after Young Adolf) of what might be called Bainbridge's 'historical novels': The Birthday Boys, Every Man for Himself, Master Georgie and According to Queenie – a truly impressive body of work – were to follow. Watson's Apology has nothing to do with Sherlock Holmes's sidekick, but is a fictionalised account of a real-life murder, and a most perplexing one. One Sunday morning in 1871, a respectable and scholarly former headmaster, the Rev. John Selby Watson, bludgeoned his wife to death at their house in Stockwell. He kept her body in a back room for two days, then made a half-hearted suicide attempt by drinking prussic acid. Through all the police inquiries and court hearings that followed, Watson remained impassive and uncommunicative, explaining only that his wife had goaded him to a fit of ungovernable rage. In court, he filed, unusually for the time, a defence of insanity.
  Bainbridge's novel draws on documentary evidence, and the characters – and even the house where the murder took place – are drawn from life. However, as she writes in a prefatory note, 'what has defeated historical inquiry has been the motives of the characters, their conversations and their feelings. These it has been the task of the novelist to supply.' And supply them she does, in a thoroughly persuasive manner, painting a portrait of an unhappy, awkward and frustrated man who made an unwise marriage and whose career ended in failure. As a picture of an unhappy marriage, Watson's Apology is brilliantly effective, not least because Bainbridge lets us glimpse how it might have been a happy one, if only Watson had been less self-absorbed and his wife had not drifted into alcoholism. 
  Like Penelope Fitzgerald, Bainbridge has the gift of total immersion in the period she is writing of: there is no sense of strain in this, no sign of half-digested research. The sights, sounds and smells of Victorian suburbia are vividly evoked, as is its everyday social life. But the great strength of the novel is its compassionate and convincing characterisation of the unhappy Watson and his equally (but differently) unhappy wife. It is a dark tale, but, thanks to the lightness of Bainbridge's touch, never unbearably oppressive. As it proceeds, however, the impending murder hovers ever more menacingly over the action. In the event it is not described (except by way of forensic reports). This is, I think, wise: by the time of the murder, we have seen enough, we know enough. 
  Translations from the Latin and Greek by John Selby Watson can still be found, some in Bohn's Classical Library and Everyman's Library. He also wrote several biographies, a book on The Reasoning Power in Animals, and Geology: A Poem in Seven Books. Watson made almost no money from these exertions. 

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