Everyman for Himself marked a change of direction for Beryl Bainbridge. For most of her writing career she’d focused on fiction with a psychological, sometimes macabre dimension, but this1996 novel saw her venture into the realm of historical fiction.
Everyman for Himself re-imagines life on board the RMS Titanic as it makes its fatal voyage across the Atlantic in 1912. The events of April 15 and the catastrophic outcome is a familiar story but Bainbridge gives it a fresh perspective with her focus on the personal experience of one young Anglo-American passenger.
Morgan is a 22-year-old orphan adopted by the family of the banking magnate J. P. Morgan, one of America’s wealthiest men. The youngster is invaluable as a narrator. His connections mean he can move easily amongst the upper-class passengers, showing us their eccentricities and minor intrigues. But he can also access parts of the ship that few others get to see, like the luxury cars stashed in the holds and the engine houses that resemble a writhing monster:
… rearing on splayed legs … its glittering head vibrating inside its steel helmet, its thunderous intestines of lubricated pistons and crank-shafts pounding and pumping in perpetual motion
Morgan gives a lively account of his fellow passengers who are a mix of wealthy industrialists, dignitaries and socialites. Some are fictional characters but others existed in real-life such as the elderly owner of Macy’s department store and John Jacob Astor, heir to the vast Astor family fortune. People who played a leading role in the tragedy have walk on parts too, including the Captain; Thomas Andrews, the ship’s architect and the owner of the White Star Line, Bruce Ismay.
Through Morgan, Everyman For Himself shows us a slice of upper-class society at a point in time. These people have every possible luxury at their disposal yet they don’t seem particularly happy. Morgan’s wealthy friends on board come across as generally shallow and pompous, wasting their time on drinking, gambling and generally horsing about until their fathers die and they come into their inheritance.
A fellow passenger opens his eyes to the true nature of these ‘friends’:
My friends, he argued, were not living in the proper world. Their wealth, their poorly nurtured childhoods, their narrow education, their lack of morals separated them from reality. Some, those with more intelligence, might struggle to break away, and succeed for a short time, but in the end, like the action of a boomerang, it was inevitable they would return to the starting point. ‘
Morgan can hold his own with these people but we become aware early on that he’s not quite “one of them”. His wealth is not inherited and his uncle expects him to earn a living – so Morgan has tried various jobs including designing some of the Titanic’s plumbing system. He’s also more of an idealist than any of his acquaintances, aware of the lower class passengers on board and the crew members.
The contrast between him and his friends is reinforced by their differing behaviours once the ship hits the ice-berg and begins to sink. I won’t say if Morgan survives, just that the disaster awakens his capacity for decency .
Everyman For Himself is a slow burning novel. It’s not until we get to the calamitous encounter with the ice-berg (about 40 pages from the end) that the pace ramps up. Suddenly the conviviality and jollities come to an end and every individual has to decide for himself how to act.
Did I enjoy the book?
Not at first. It wasn’t the measured pace that turned me off but the fact there were so many characters. It was hard to keep tabs on them, particularly because Morgan’s friends seemed all of a kind. They’d been to the same schools, dined at the same clubs, been at the same parties and on board, they keep pretty much to themselves.
If it hadn’t been for the way Morgan’s character changes during the course of the novel, I’m not sure I would have finished reading the book. He begins the journey all at sea about his identity and his future , stupidly mooning over some socialite on board. But as the clock ticks down the hours until the collision, he begins to shed his old life and look forward to the new.
It won’t be one of my favourite reads of 2020 and I was surprised to discover that it won the Whitbread Prize and was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1996. But the novel did grow on me and I admire the way Bainbridge created tension in the narrative even when we know the fate that is to befall her characters.
Everyman For Himself by Beryl Bainbridge: Endnotes
Beryl Margaret Bainbridge hailed from Liverpool, Lancashire. She began her working life as an actress in her home city but later moved to London and began writing.
She wrote her first novel, Harriet Said, during the 1950s, although it was not published until 1972. Her first published novel, A Weekend with Claud, appeared in 1967.
Bainbridge won the Whitbread Award twice and was nominated for the Booker Prize five times (though never won the title). In 2008, The Times newspaper named Bainbridge among their list of “The 50 greatest British writers since 1945” – her obituary in The Guardian gives a good sense of why she was so highly respected.. She was made a Dame of the British Empire in 2000.
Beryl Bainbridge died from cancer in July 2010. Her unfinished last novel, The Girl in the Polka-Dot Dress, was published posthumously in 2011.