The Bottle Factory Outing by Beryl Bainbridge
Published in the autumn of 1974, Beryl Bainbridge’s award-winning black comedy, The Bottle Factory Outing, hones in on the grim realities of working-class life in mid-1970s Britain, offering an eye-opening insight into a North London wine factory from the perspective of two women, Freda and Brenda, living together in a gloomy bedsit. The hapless duo seem more like chalk and cheese rather than Thelma and Louise.
Brenda is shy and reserved, beset with insecurity after divorcing her abusive husband, wearily having to fend off the touchy-feely romantic advances of the factory manager. Freda, on the other hand, is dreamy, cocksure and full of gumption, keeping her head in the clouds whilst falling in love with the factory owner’s nephew. As two English women working in a factory full of male Italian immigrant workers, it’s fair to say that the sexual politics of Beryl Bainbridge’s day surface quite frequently throughout the novel.
Grimly mining a cringe-inducing brand of gallows humour out of their inescapable predicament, Freda and Brenda’s treatment is made all the more pertinent in light of the Harvey Weinstein scandal and the #MeToo movement. Although written over forty years ago, Bainbridge was knowingly exposing workplace harassment and acts of indecency perpetrated by men, which by today’s standards would amount to sexual assault. The fact that this arterial nerve is split open with dry quintessentially British humour (with an almost Carry On relish) makes it all the more sinister and unsettling to read.
The novel even takes a turn for the tragic when Freda organises an outing where her and Brenda head to the countryside with their male co-workers, though what transpires nevertheless remains blackly comedic. I won’t say more for fear of spoiling the plot, but despite the many sharks circling its waters this novel possesses a humorous tenacity laced with a dark seam of gender politics which is not easily forgotten long after you’ve put it down.
Exploring the social behaviours of men and women in 1970s Britain and tackling notions of everyday sexism years ahead of its time, The Bottle Factory Outing is a darkly comic tour de force which continues to address the social problems women still face today. Though it’s easy to see this novel as (in part) a feminist exposé, it’s in the characterisation of Freda and Brenda where Bainbridge’s writing truly shines. The story is rooted in Bainbridge’s working-class upbringing and even took inspiration in her real-life experiences working in a bottling factory in 1959.
What’s sad and even more telling is how criminally overlooked Beryl Bainbridge remains as an author to this day. She was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize five times in her career but sadly never won before her death in 2010. Her legacy as a much-respected author, however, should be all-too-apparent within the pages of The Bottle Factory Outing. This novel (her best, in my view) should most certainly be read by those who wish to bask in a tragicomic glimpse of life as it was for women, rather than how we all wish it could be, yet planting the seeds for how we can hope to build a better tomorrow for both men and women alike.
© 2019 Luke Edley
Available under the Thanet Writers Education Policy
Humorous fiction writer, poet and novelist. Fond of satire. Interested in comic novels, black comedy and tales of satirical derring-do.