The Bottle Factory Outing by Beryl Bainbridge

First published in 1974, The Bottle Factory Outing was Beryl Bainbridge’s fifth novel. It’s only the third of her books that I’ve read (my first was An Awfully Big Adventure, a darkly comic gem); but on the evidence of this, I should probably aim to read some more.

Ostensibly, The Bottle Factory Outing focuses on two mismatched young women, Brenda and Freda, who share a shabby bedsit while also working together at a local wine bottling factory. While Brenda is mousey and pessimistic, Freda is loud and outgoing, forever dreaming about the life she would like to be living – preferably that of a successful actress surrounded by friends and family.

In the opening paragraphs, Brenda and Freda are watching the early stages of a funeral with the removal of a coffin from another flat in their building. As they speculate on the deceased – an old lady who lived with her cat – the differences between the two women become increasingly apparent.

‘You cry easily,’ said Brenda, when they were dressing to go to the factory.

‘I like funerals. All those flowers – a full life coming to a close…’

‘She didn’t look as if she’d had a full life,’ said Brenda. ‘She only had the cat. There weren’t any mourners – no sons or anything.’

‘Take a lesson from it then. It could happen to you. When I go I shall have my family about me – daughters – sons – my husband, grey and distinguished, dabbing a handkerchief to his lips…’

‘Men always go first,’ said Brenda. ‘Women live longer.’

‘My dear, you ought to participate more. You are too cut off from life.’ (p. 2)

Twenty-six-year-old Freda is a force of nature, a tall curvy blonde who dresses flamboyantly, her cobalt blue eyeshadow and purple pantsuit adding considerably to her striking appearance. Brenda, on the other hand, cuts a dowdy figure in her dark stockings and shabby, over-sized coat. At thirty-two, Brenda already seems old before her time. Having fled an abusive relationship with her selfish husband, Brenda now wishes to hide from the world, far away from Stanley and his deranged mother.

The differences between the two girls are also noticeable at the factory – an establishment owned by Mr Paganotti, an enterprising Italian businessman who has built up the business from scratch. While at work, Freda spends much of her time chasing after Vittorio, the handsome trainee manager and nephew of Mr Paganotti. In truth, however, Vittorio shows only limited interest in Freda in spite of her persistent efforts to attract his attention. Nevertheless, there is nothing that Freda would like more than a romantic dinner for two with Vittorio, a situation she tries to engineer with mixed results.

He was a man of sensibilities and everything was against her – his background, his nationality, the particular regard he had for women or a category of womanhood to which she did not belong. By the strength of her sloping shoulders, the broad curve of her throat, the dimpled vastness of her columnar thighs, she would manoeuvre him into her arms. I will be one of those women, she thought, painted naked on ceilings, lolling amidst rose-coloured clouds. She straightened and stared at a chair. She imagined how she might mesmerise him with her wide blue eyes. Wearing a see-through dressing-gown chosen from a Littlewoods catalogue, she would open the door to him. (p. 40)

Brenda too faces her own particular challenges at work; in this instance, the difficulties involves Mr Rossi, a manager at the firm, who persists in trying to grope Brenda in the seclusion of the cellar. Far from calling out Mr Rossi for sexual harassment, Brenda is too timid to say anything, preferring instead to suffer in near silence. From a young age, Brenda was brought up to be deferential – drilled into saying ‘yes’ when what she really wanted to say was ‘no’ (and vice versa).  Now in her thirties, Brenda continues to remain passive while being taken advantage of by others, afraid to speak up for fear of causing a problem.

As you’ll have guessed from the novel’s title, the centrepiece of the story revolves around a staff outing, an event that Freda has arranged much to Brenda’s horror. (In truth, Brenda would much rather stay at home, content to remain invisible while others go off to enjoy themselves.) All the other employees are looking forward to the event, especially as Mr Paganotti – notable by his absence – has donated four barrels of wine to be enjoyed during the trip.

On the morning of the outing, the van booked for the trip fails to show up, much to Freda’s disappointment. Nevertheless, Rossi cooks up a new plan for the day (largely with the aim of seducing Brenda) by offering his own car together with that of a colleague as alternative transport. It’s at this point in the story that events begin to turn increasingly surreal, culminating in a demented drive through the wilds of Windsor Safari Park as the afternoon unravels.

I don’t want to give away too many details about the trip, save to say that it feels as if the reader is watching a slow-motion car crash, powerless to look away as the horror unfolds. The tone is darkly comic and farcical, a little like a cross between Willy Russell’s play Our Day Out and Mike Leigh’s Abigail’s Party – maybe with a touch of Nuts in May thrown in for good measure. The off-the-wall touches are beautifully done, heightened by a sharp eye for detail and freakish imagery.

The safari bus when it came was painted with black stripes like a zebra. It looked as if the whole pride of lions had hurled themselves at the rusty bonnet and ill-fitting windows and torn the tyres to ribbons. The driver was dressed in a camouflage jacket of mottled green and a hat to match, one side caught up at the side as if he were a Canadian Mountie. When he opened the double doors at the back of the van, Brenda saw he was wearing plastic sandals, bright orange and practically luminous, and striped socks. (p. 148)

The female characters are also particularly well observed, vividly brought to life by Bainbridge’s skills as a writer. At the time of publication, the book was praised in a review by William Trevor who described it ‘as though Muriel Spark had been prevailed upon to write an episode of The Liver Birds,’. (Warning: this excellent piece on Bainbrdge does contain spoilers.) It’s a great description as the novel has something of both the sharpness of Carla Lane’s writing and the savagery of Spark’s worldview. The observations on life on a low wage, social class, worker’s rights, and the harassment of women in the workplace are also keenly felt.

As the novel hurtles towards its startling denouement, the tone begins to change, shifting from black humour to deep pathos. It’s a testament to Bainbridge’s skills as a writer that this transition works so well, prompting the reader to feel some degree of sympathy for each of the characters concerned, in spite of their failings.

In essence, this is an excellent, well-crafted tragi-comedy, shot through with Bainbridge’s acute insight into human nature. It is the juxtaposition between the ordinary and the absurd that makes this such an unsettling yet compelling read.

For other perspectives on this novel, here are links to reviews by Max and Cathy. Thanks, both, for encouraging me to read this.

The Bottle Factory Outing is published by Abacus Books; personal copy.

33 thoughts on “The Bottle Factory Outing by Beryl Bainbridge

  1. Tredynas Days

    I’ve had mixed experiences with BB. She can write beautifully, but I find she also lapses into whimsy. But I’ve often considered trying this one – I like the sound of its darkness! Did wine bottling factories exist in England at that time?

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      The darkness is fantastic, wonderfully twisted and surreal! I think you’d like it as long as you’re in the mood for that kind of tone; otherwise, it could be seen as a bit gross.

      It’s interesting to hear you say that you’ve found some of BB’s work a bit whimsical at times. That’s not a quality I’ve encountered in her work so far, although it’s still early days for me. Which of her books did you find a bit disappointing? Then I’ll know which ones to avoid in the future…

      Reply
      1. Tredynas Days

        Good question. I looked up her catalogue and think I was confusing her with others. I’ve read Master Georgie, according to Queeney and Every Man For Himself. None could be described as whimsical. All have their merits as historical fiction

        Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          Ah, that explains it. I couldn’t quite envisage Bainbridge as a writer of whimsy! According to Queeney has come up a few times in the recommendations, so I’ll definitely take a look at that. I’m not normally a fan of historical fiction, but there’s always scope for an exception or two, especially if it’s a writer of Bainbridge’s calibre.

          Reply
  2. J. C. Greenway

    Have been meaning to read this for ages and I think you’ve given me the final nudge! I read According to Queeney earlier this year and really enjoyed it, would recommend it in return – the characters are wonderful.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yay! I really hope you like it, Joanne. It sounds as if you know what to expect with Beryl, so hopefully you’ll be fine with this. Many thanks for recommending Queeny to me – I’ll definitely take a look at that, especially as the characterisation sounds good. She’s good on dialogue, I think. It’s one of the things that feels very realistic here, possibly as a consequence of BB’s association with the theatre .

      Reply
  3. A Life in Books

    I’m tempted by the promise of dark humour although mention of Abigail’s Party and Nuts in May makes me want to curl up into a squirming ball of social embarrassment! Reading rather than watching might make that easier.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Ha, yes! It does have that car crash quality – a push-pull or repulsion-attraction dynamic to the narrative that makes it so horribly compelling. As you say, it’s a little easier to maintain somewhat distanced from the action when you’re reading it on the page, more so than if you were watching the drama unfold on the screen.

      Reply
  4. Claire 'Word by Word'

    Wonderful review Jacqui, reading it reminds of watching the excellent film Made in Dagenham and the girls working at the Ford Motor Plant. The excerpts you provide give an excellent insight into the two characters.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Ah, yes – Made in Daghenham! Why didn’t I think of that? It’s a great reference point, absolutely spot on in terms of the spikiness of the characters. There’s a lot of the Jaime Winstone role in Freda, in terms of both looks and spirit. Good call!

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, there’s definitely an undercurrent of sadness here, particularly towards the end. This also reminded me a little of those early William Trevor’s in that respect, a seam of pure tragedy lurking beneath the more visible comedy.

      Reply
  5. heavenali

    This was the first Beryl Bainbridge novel I read, and it definitely made me want to more by her. It’s definitely quite dark, and just like watching a car crash happen in front of you. Great review.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thank you. There’s something horribly compelling about it, I agree. You just know right from the beginning of the outing that something dreadful is going to happen. Once that minibus fails to show up, the whole thing is doomed…

      Reply
  6. kaggsysbookishramblings

    Great post, Jacqui. I’ve got close to reading Bainbridge in the past but never quite made it! This sounds marvellous though, if a little excruciating to read – I have mixed feelings about watching total car crash situations develop, depends on my mood! I’ll have to give her a try sometime!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yeah, it’s a difficult one. I really enjoy this kind of thing; but then again, my sense of humour is probably quite twisted. So, I’m fine with things going off the rails as long as there’s some degree of empathy or redemption for one or two of the characters. Bainbridge manages that balance pretty well here as she makes it easy for the reader to empathise with Brenda. I’d recommend it, but only if you’re in the mood for something barbed and twisted.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      You’re very welcome, Cathy. I recall you enjoying it a few years ago. it definitely has that train-wreck quality, doesn’t it? Absolute carnage unfolding in front of your eyes…

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I’m so glad you enjoyed this too. It’s nuts, isn’t it? Completely surreal. Just when you think things can’t get more absurd, Bainbridge steps it up another notch to keep you on your toes.

      Reply
  7. Jane

    I haven’t read any Bainbridge but (yet again) this does sound good, and the early seventies setting and the reference to the liver birds make it especially appealing!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I love anything to do with the ’70s, so this was manna from heaven for me! Either this or An Awfully Big Adventure would make a great entry point into Beryl’s world. She’s definitely worth considering if you like this kind of era. :)

      Reply
  8. Pingback: A-Z Index of Book Reviews (listed by author) | JacquiWine's Journal

  9. Caroline

    I’ve only read The Dressmaker so far but remember liking it a lot. I’ve got this too. Guy went through a phase and reviewed several of her novels. She’s unique. A bit like Muriel Spark but works better for me.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, definitely some similarities with Spark, that’s for sure. I really felt that here – much more so than with An Awfully Big Adventure, which was my introduction to BB. Thanks for the tip-off about Guy’s archive – I’ll have to take a look.

      Reply
  10. 1streading

    I read a couple of Bainbridge novels many years ago (not this one) and enjoyed them but nothing since. It may simply be that she fell out of fashion and,in the days where you could only really buy what bookshops stocked, that could mean an author disappearing. Nice to be reminded of her.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I think she has fallen out of fashion. A pity, really, as there’s much to admire in her work. I think you’d like this, not least because it’s in the style of a Muriel Spark. That somewhat twisted, off-kilter way of viewing the world is very much in evidence here!

      Reply
  11. Grier

    I’ve read Injury Time and recall that it had the same slow motion car crash quality about it. I’d definitely like to read more Bainbridge. Your review makes this sound so appealing.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, great! A couple of other readers have also mentioned Injury Time, so I’m glad to hear you were impressed with it too. It’s definitely on the list for the future. :)

      Reply

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