In Sweet William, Beryl Bainbridge takes the darkly comedic tone that she previously used in her novel The Bottle Factory Outing and turns it into something even more bitingly ironic and disturbing. This marked change is in part due to the focused subject matter of this novel. The novel’s unassertive protagonist, Ann, finds herself swept up into a bizarre relationship with a playwright, despite being engaged to a professor.
I think the comedy of this novel in part stems from the fact that Ann has somehow caught the attention of two relatively intelligent and academic men, despite the fact that she is relatively dull and mousy in comparison. In some ways, she is very much like Bainbridge’s character Brenda in The Bottle Factory Outing. Essentially, Ann is a soft touch. Yet perhaps it is Ann’s unworldly timidity that makes her an easy target for William’s dominant perceptions and cajoling ways.
Throughout the novel, Ann is described as lofty…someone in a constant state of befuddlement and stubborn confusion. However, this almost dreamlike hypnotic state can’t entirely be attributed to William’s presence alone. Her interactions with her mother and her fiancé Gerald at the novel’s outset also convey that same lack of clearheadedness. While Ann could arguably be described as a naive innocent, her inflexible willfulness undermines her irreproachability.
That said, Ann does experience moments of sudden awakening…moments where she recognizes that something is not right and will act on impulse to correct the situation. However, these steps are only half-heartedly made, since she ultimately finds herself reverting back to and accepting the way things were…the prior dreamlike fantasies preferable to the stark and barren reality she must face.
The story itself can be quite disturbing to the reader, especially considering how easily it was for Ann to fall into this dependent relationship with William. From a psychological standpoint, however, the novel makes for a compelling study, especially considering Bainbridge’s later admission that William’s character was in part modeled after her ex-lover Alan Sharp. Another asset of the book is Bainbridge’s adept use of irony. Her verbal attacks are always on point. Even a baby’s cry is used to maximum effect, yielding a strong final commentary regarding what has come about and what perhaps will come to be.
Copy provided by NetGalley