The short (192 pages) Beryl Bainbridge novel seems to have gained more appreciation with critics than readers, collecting as it did the New York Times Book Review Notable Book of 1998 as well as being shortlisted for the Booker Prize.
Master Georgie is not only short – it is somewhat slight. Told in six chapters, the story is set in 1850 Liverpool and the 1854 Crimea War and essentially follows four characters – Myrtle, Pompey, Potter and George ‘Master Georgie’ Hardy himself – inextricably linked by an event in a Liverpool brothel. Hardy himself, whilst central to the narrative, is the aloof focus of the other three, all having chosen to follow the surgeon to the battlefields.
Besotted Myrtle owes her position in the Hardy family to George – an orphan who hovers somewhere between maid, companion, sister and child-bearer (George’s wife Annie having continually miscarried). Pompey, a former street-urchin, is the giver of sexual favours to ‘gentleman George’ in return for opportunity to better himself. Potter, amateur geologist, is Hardy’s pompous brother-in-law.
None are particularly interesting, sympathetic or empathic: their motivations vague and unclear. The result is that, overall, Master Georgie is a somewhat vague and unsatisfying novel.
There are beautifully lyrical moments alongside barbed commentary on the ineptitude of privilege in war and subsequent death, squalor and misery: Bainbridge is never afraid to make it clear where her political sympathies lie – whether in the Crimea or Liverpool. Master Georgie therefore becomes about linked moments scaffolded by a narrative that simply ‘is’. It’s not overly engaging but is easily read – and at 192 pages, in a short time frame.