Ann is a young woman who works at the BBC in London and when we first meet her she is waving off her fiancé, academic who is flying to America to start a new life. Soon Ann will follow. Ann’s mother is very proud of the new life, less enamoured it would seem of Gerard, the fiancé particularly his carnal desires, in reality than on paper.
I wonder how differently this story would play out if it was set now, and not in the midst of the sexual revolution. Why? Because Ann meets William, a married man who captivates and thrills Ann in a way Gerard never has. William visits Ann’s bed and then cycles off to look after his children while their mother works and has a font of bizarre tales to distract from his frequent absences, the furtive phone calls and crucially his intentions. However William is an important man, he is putting on a play which will tour England, and even though Ann is less than impressed by the play itself, she understands that her role is to support, so out goes the job at the BBC so that she can devote herself to this exceptional man. Oh the irony.
This is not only Ann’s story but in the shadows are other women connected to William, the wife, the mother, her landlady, her cousin and those women who phone up looking for him at odd times of the night and day. It is also the story of Ann’s mother, a woman who lives in Brighton with Ann’s father, a man who seems entirely eclipsed by his indomitable wife, who represents those who lived before the sexual revolution.
Ann felt it was funny that anyone should call Mrs Walton ordinary. It wasn’t an adequate word. She thought of her mother’s piano playing her scheming, her ability to read French, the strength of her convictions, the inflexibility of her dreadful will.
The truth is that when Ann met William, she was woefully unprepared, she’s an unworldly girl who it seems has none of the support that most women today enjoy. Perhaps because the women that knew them both were complicit in covering up William’s fickle ways, his selfishness and his disregard for Ann’s feelings.
She didn’t know enough about men. Her mother said they were brutes, self-absorbed and secretive. But William wasn’t like that: he was open and he loved her and he had forced her to meet his wife.
This love story takes a turn for the worse, as well you might expect but there is plenty of black humour, something that Beryl Bainbridge employs to great effect. To be honest the black humour is made infinitely easier because I don’t think I am the first person to read this book who wants to shake Ann and truly open her eyes to the half-truths she knows. So while I felt a smidgen of sympathy for her plight, I couldn’t believe she couldn’t see what was right in front of her. After all William may have lied but when pushed he really makes the situation very obvious:
‘But Edna needs to look after me. I give her money for the housekeeping… she doesn’t want to be done out of cooking for me. Who am I to deny her that?’
He bent his head humbly. There was a flaw in his argument, she knew, but she couldn’t put it into words. He’d denied Edna everything else; it didn’t’ seem particularly cruel to tell her he didn’t want any food.
The more I read of this author’s work, the more I enjoy it. Beryl Bainbridge is definitely my find of the year with her exceptionally clever writing and yet still immensely readable. This black comedy published in 1975 both conjures up a bygone time and yet, I know that Sweet William still exists, maybe in a slightly different guise, although I suspect this was his true era, when there were plenty of naïve women just waiting to fall for his charms and willing to shake of the older generation’s morals that had protected the majority of previous generations.
I received my copy of Sweet William from the publishers Open Road Integrated Media who are republishing a number of this authors books, this one on 29 November 2016.
Reviews of other books by Beryl Bainbridge