“She’d always wanted to go to Spain–she was very interested in flamenco dancing.”
In Beryl Bainbridge’s darkly funny novel, The Bottle Factory Outing, two roommates in a London boarding house, complete opposites in character and temperament, both work in an Italian-run, wine-bottling factory. Both young women have problems with men. Theatrical Freda, “she walked on in television serials very occasionally, either as a barmaid or as a lady agitator,” a large, domineering blonde, has a crush on trainee manager, Vittorio while Brenda, who’s fled a husband and a fearsome mother-in-law, spends most of her working day fending off the advances of her married boss, Rossi. Unfortunately Brenda, who never wants to make waves, and never wants to offend anyone, sends Rossi mixed signals. She tries to avoid his frantic requests that she join him in the cellar for a quick grope while he plies her with wine, but she’s so passive, she goes along hoping, futilely, that she can thwart his more aggressive moves.
She couldn’t think how to discourage him–she didn’t want to lose her job and she hated giving offence. He had a funny way of pinching her all over, as if she was a mattress whose stuffing needed distributing more evenly. She stood there wriggling, saying breathlessly “Please don’t, Rossi,” but he tickled her and she gave little smothered laughs and gasps that he took for encouragement.
“You are a nice clean girl.”
“Oh, thank you.”
He was interfering with her clothes, pushing his hands beneath her tweed coat and plucking away at her jumpers and vest, shredding little pieces of newspaper with his nails. She tried to have a chat with him to calm him down.
Freda took Brenda under her wing after meeting her in a butcher’s shop but what attracted Freda to Brenda in the first place,”Brenda’s lack of control, her passion,” has grown stale. Now Freda is mostly annoyed by Brenda:
“You’re a born victim, that’s what you are. You ask for trouble. One day you’ll go too far.”
She lay down again and rubbed her toes together to warm them. “It’s probably all that crouching you did under dining-room tables during the war.”
The novels centres on, as the title suggests, a work outing arranged by Freda who is trying various tactics to ramp up her relationship with Vittorio, and she decides “she would have a better chance of seducing him if she could get him out into the open air.” The outing is supposed to include a visit to a stately home and a relaxed picnic. Of course, on the day of the outing everything goes horribly wrong, and while, by the time the outing takes place, numerous things have already gone badly in the lives of Freda and Brenda, author Beryl Bainbridge exceeds reader expectations as the plot takes an extremely dark, twisted turn.
When you read a book for the second, or as in this case, the third time, new things seep out of the pages. For this reading, I was struck by how Freda and Brenda drove people to extreme behaviour. There’s Brenda’s “obviously deranged” mother-in-law trying to kill her, and what exactly did happened in Brenda’s marriage? It must have taken a great deal of bad behaviour for passive Brenda to take action. Then there’s Irishman, Patrick, who’s attracted to Brenda and who offers to come and fix her toilet. He’s another man who misreads Brenda’s rather limp signals. He’s also the odd man out at work:
Rossi treated him with suspicion, seeing he was Irish, following him about the factory in case he slipped a bomb beneath the cardboard boxes and blew them all to pieces.
And then there’s Freda, militant, aggressive Freda, who pulls out all the stops to lure Vittorio to her room in a shabby boarding house. Freda also drives men crazy, and there’s something nastily funny about how these two women handle the men in their lives. Freda pursues Vittorio avidly, and Brenda, tries, rather meekly, to fight men off. It takes the factory outing to bring these situations to a head with some very unpleasant results.
There’s a wonderful sense of comic timing to the novel–the attempted seductions and the thwarted seductions, along with the comic comings and goings that reminded me of a Shakespearean comedy, but also there’s wonderful timing in the silent, ignored horror of lives glimpsed off in the sidelines:
Brenda withdrew into a corner of the room, seating herself at the table beside the window. Across the road on the balcony of the third floor an elderly woman in a blue dressing gown and hat with a rose pinned to the brim waved and gesticulated for help. Brenda knew her gas fire had blown up or she was out of paraffin or the cat had gone missing. It was unfortunate that Freda had rented a room opposite a building devoted to the old and infirm-there always someone in need of assistance.
Here is Max’s review
23 responses to “The Bottle Factory Outing: Beryl Bainbridge”
I don’t really have anything to say except that I love Beryl Bainbridge’s work, from the early experience-based novels to the extraordinary historical fiction of the final period. She’s as good, in her way, as Penelope Fitzgerald, who followed a similar trajectory from her own past to the historical past. And they appreciated brevity as well.
I just finished the Birthday Boys. I’ve always avoided her historical fiction–obviously a mistake.
I love Beryl too and this is one of her best. You;re right about the timing, and she’s a master of the understatement that encompasses a whole sweep of experience, as in the last quote.
have you seen the film of this?
No, when was it made?
I saw it as a child on television. It may have been made for television rather than the big screen. Anyway I always remembered it and then I was looking at books one day (I think the library?) and I saw the title and memories came flooding back. That’s how I found Beryl Bainbridge.
I enjoyed her final novel far more than this one. Some aspects I found poignant rather than funny. here’s my review https://bookertalk.com/2013/08/24/bottle-factory-outing-review/
have you read An Awfully Big Adventure?
Not yet. I have that one and Every Man for Himself on my shelf to read sometime.
You might like An Awfully Big Adventure a bit more.
It’s on my wishlist because I really like Beryl Bainbridge. I’ve read four of hers, and really like them.
What Freda has to deal with at work would be called sexual harassment these days…
Have you read An Awfully Big Adventure or the Dressmaker?
I’m still very new to Beryl, but this book is definitely on my list for the future. It must be good if you’re still finding something new or different to think about on the third reading, always a good sign.
I’ve never read a Bainbridge I didn’t like
My favourite Bainbridge. (The deranged mother-in-law incident is based on real life I understand!). I have a special page devoted to Beryl (my favourite author) Reading Beryl.
This is the only one of hers I’ve read, but really enjoyed it.
I have Every Man for Himself on the shelf. Have always thought her “historical” stuff sounded very interesting, but I haven’t really thought of it as “historical” for some reason. I usually consider books where the recreation of the period or milieu is the be-all and end-all to be “historical”, whereas for books like Bainbridge’s (or Fitzgerald’s, mentioned by BookerTalk) it strikes me more as being about characters or situations that just happen to be situated in e.g. pre-Revolution Russia or on the Titanic.
Possibly a silly distinction, but the mind works in funny ways to create these biases.
No, I think I understand. She certainly pulled it off, IMO, with The Birthday Boys
I got this on my piles as well. It sounds great. It must be or you wouldn’t have reread it a second time. I’ve only read The Dressmaker so far but really enjoyed it.
There’s a film of The Dressmaker too
Oh, I love her – she is so funny and disturbing. I highly recommend the recent biography about her written by Brendan King. It’s called Love by All sorts of Means and if you love her fiction you’ll find a lot to enjoy in that book including the episode when her own mother-in-law tries to shoot her!
Thanks Vicki. Sounds like an extreme relationship with the mother in law.
It is excellent, though I preferred Awfully. Thanks for the link back by the way.
I don’t think that cover does it any favours. It features a conventionally attractive slim young woman, but neither Freda nor Brenda are that. Bainbridge avoided that kind of easy characterisation and it’s a bit of a shame the cover doesn’t.
There is a sense here of victim culpability, though much more I think for Freda than Brenda. Brenda is a perennial victim, but the men harassing her do get the impression from her that she welcomes their attentions which makes everything rather muddy. In that sense it’s quite a complex and challenging portrait – Rossi for example is a harasser as Lisa rightly says but as your quote shows Brenda never really makes it clear to him that his attentions are unwelcome. Of course, why should the onus be on her? But still, it’s muddy.