‘The Dressmaker’ by Beryl Bainbridge – A Humorous Gothic Horror Novel


‘The Dressmaker’ by Beryl Bainbridge     (1973) – 183 pages


Bainbridge has no truck with counting your blessings or happy endings or spelling out the psychology of her disparate characters. She writes as she sees life (I think) – she knows that our struggles and hopes make comic figures of us all and sometimes, quite often, turn us nasty. I have never heard Bainbridge be pompous; I have never heard her suggest that she has ever got life right, or, indeed, that there is a right way.” – Mavis Cheek, The Guardian

I didn’t miss much in my early days of fiction reading, but I surely neglected a great fiction writer in Beryl Bainbridge. I am making up for my mistake now, and the down-to-earth novels of Beryl Bainbridge are one of my major reading pleasures today.

‘The Dressmaker’ was the first of five of her novels to be shortlisted for the Booker Prize. It captures perfectly the ambiance of English working class life during World War II in Liverpool, including “the spam fritters cooking on the stove”. The two aunts Nellie and Margo have brought up their niece Rita since she was not yet five when her mother died. Rita’s father Jack, who is a butcher and is Nellie and Margo’s brother, visits them often. Now Rita is 17.

A German bomb blast in the neighborhood had killed 12 people and “cracked the little mirror bordered in green velvet with the red roses painted on the glass” in their living room. Now young United States soldiers are flooding into Liverpool, and they are of much interest to the young women including Rita. When Rita attends an engagement party for a neighbor girl and her US beau, Rita meets her own young US soldier Ira. Aunt Nellie invites Ira to dinner to determine if his attentions with Rita are good or bad.

Not all of the Liverpudlians welcomed the US soldiers. Jack says,

There’s only three things wrong with them Yanks. They’re overpaid, oversexed, and over here.”

This is a Gothic horror novel, but I had a smile on my face the entire time I was reading it. Each of the characters is flaky in his or her own way. Much of the fun stems from that.

Nellie is the dressmaker, “and it was her instrument, the black Singer with the hand-painted flowers.” Nellie is practical minded, but she does have her rages.

At this she made a funny little gesture of contempt with her elbows, flapping them like a hen rising from its perch in alarm.”

Margo, who works in a munitions plant, is flighty.


Margo was a follower. She’d do what anyone wanted, provided it was silly enough. Her intentions were good, but she lacked tenacity. She was the big blaze that died down through lack of fuel.”

And the niece Rita is in love with her Yank soldier.

Every time he spoke to her, color flooded her cheeks. She wondered how anyone survived being in love, let alone get married – condemned to live forever in this state of quivering anxiety…”

Later, this story which starts out as a deadpan English working-class comedy of manners takes a very wicked turn indeed.


Grade:   A




7 responses to this post.

  1. Only read one book by her always meant to try others

    Liked by 1 person


    • Hi winstonsdad,
      In my recent dive into Bainbridge’s fiction, I have been reading her early work. By the late 1980s, she said that she ran out of ideas for fiction from her own life and started writing fiction based on historical events. I am really impressed with her early personal work. Maybe later I will try one on these later less personal novels.

      Liked by 1 person


  2. I must read this one, I have read a few by BB but I hadn’t heard of this one, and it sounds really interesting.

    Liked by 1 person


  3. I love Beryl Bainbridge and haven’t read this one. It sounds brilliant.

    Liked by 1 person


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