is a 1973 novel by British writer Beryl Bainbridge. Set in 1944, following the devastating WWII bombings of England, it is the story of a small, working-class family and their vicious cycle of mutual sabotage. Rita, age seventeen, is the ward of her aunts, sisters Nellie and Marge. A study in contrasts, Nellie is starchy and excessively proper, while her younger sister, at fifty, suffers from stifled sensuality and longs for love. Rita is caught in the middle. As Mavis Cheek writes in The Guardian
, it’s “a novel in which ignorance, repression, narrow-mindedness can lead only to tragedy.”
The structure of the novel is circular. It begins after the tragedy has occurred, with these words: “Afterwards she went through into the little front room, the tape measure still dangling about her neck, and allowed herself a glass of port.” What has happened is not revealed, but it has sufficiently rattled the two women that they then go to bed without tea, which is remarkable in this house of order and routine. The next chapter circles back four months, and then the narrative moves forward to the evening of the tragedy.
When Rita’s mother died giving birth, her father surrendered her to the custody of his unmarried sisters, moving into an apartment above his butcher shop. He routinely visits her on weekends, as they all live in Liverpool. Rita calls him “Uncle Jack,” even though she is aware he’s her father. Ineffectual and passive, Jack always defers to the authority of his older, domineering sister, Nellie.
Nellie is the titular dressmaker, and through this trade, the conflicting aspects of her character find expression. Her command of her Singer sewing machine fulfills her need for control: “It was the security the dressmaking gave her – the feeling that she knew something, that she was skilled, handling her materials with knowledge.” When Rita became Nellie’s charge, Nellie shaped her as she would her unformed material. Reflecting on his seventeen-year-old daughter, Jack concludes Rita is “Nellie’s creation. It was as if the dressmaker had cut out a pattern and pinned it exactly, […] sewing it straight as a die, […] so that there was no chance of a gap in the seams.”
While she hems in any improper passions Rita might possess, Nellie lets her own suppressed longings surface when she gets out her dressmaker’s dummy. She handles the dummy lovingly, even “coquettishly, holding it in her arms like a dancing partner, […] stroking the material down over the stuffed breast.”
Nellie’s other, almost unspeakable passion is safeguarding her mother’s furniture. She freely confesses to the church minister her aggravation with wartime shortages and rationing, “but to admit her slavery to mahogany and rosewood was difficult.” Devoted to her mother, whom she cared for during her dying days, Nellie now occupies herself cleaning and polishing her furniture. She wakes every morning worrying the pieces might suffer damage from the sun, or the damp, or countless other lurking culprits. While Nellie dutifully preserves the relics of her Victorian mother, she worries that, when she dies, Marge will neglect them.
If Nellie considers herself the guardian of Victorian order, her sister regards herself as its “casualty.” Lively and sensual by nature, Marge smokes, dresses flamboyantly, and craves a man to call her own. She was married once. Her husband went to war and returned, but then died of influenza. After that brief union, Nellie resolved to mend Marge’s loose and permissive ways. She chased off each of Marge’s subsequent admirers, judging them unacceptable, and Marge grudgingly yielded to her older sister’s authority. Now a middle-aged factory worker, Marge swings between despair that Nellie has thwarted her chances for love and hope that it is still possible.
After years of living together in a cramped, cheerless row house, poisoning each other’s already hapless sources of happiness, Nellie and Marge have settled into a routine of constant bickering. At dinner, Nellie scolds Marge for her coarse language, and Marge taunts her with another bawdy remark. The quarreling continues during a car drive with Jack, who “had heard it all before, not the same subject but the bitterness lying beneath the words.”
Meanwhile, there’s plain, awkward Rita. Like Nellie, she is prim and proper, but like Marge, she has a sentimental side, which owes much to American romance movies. Knowing she is the wrong material for a romantic heroine, Rita envies the “glossiness” of her friend Valerie Manders, who is cut from an entirely different cloth. Beautiful, wealthy, and engaged to a charming American soldier, Valerie contrasts Rita in every way.
Valerie has a party and invites the American troops stationed nearby. There, Rita meets Ira, one of the soldiers. He is dull-witted, insensitive, and illiterate, but Rita thinks he is “like a movie star.” She projects all her romantic illusions onto him, and they begin to see each other secretly, although Ira is not enthusiastic about it.
When Nellies learns of Rita’s secret romance, she invites Ira to tea. His lackluster conversation skills impress no one, and the collective discomfort only intensifies when Ira shows frank interest in Marge. Undaunted by the disastrous meeting, Rita begs Ira to take her out again soon, but he responds noncommittally.
Marge stays home from work one day to audition for the Dramatics Society’s Christmas show. Alone at home, she is surprised when Ira appears at the door. He complains that Rita is too uptight, and “she don’t want no drinking nor dancing.” Knowing “what sort of man” Ira is, Rita decides to allow herself some pleasure with him because he’s “no good” for Rita.
Nellie returns from a fitting for Valerie’s wedding dress and is shocked to find Ira in the front room, zipping up his pants. When he snags the sacred furniture with a startled motion, her rage swells, and she stabs him with her scissors. Her passion spent, Nellie calmly takes charge of the situation. She sews a bag, and with Marge’s help, fits Ira’s dead body into it. Then she delegates to Jack the task of dumping the bag in the river. Rita, unaware of Ira’s demise, spends the following days in misery, believing she has been jilted.
Beryl Bainbridge grew up in a worn down, working-class world like that in her novel, and reviewers often praise her writing for its realistic “mixture of the meaningful and the mundane.” The Dressmaker
was short-listed for the Booker prize in 1973.