Packed into only 192 pages, The Bottle Factory Outing is a real gem of a novel. I actually stumbled across it online a few years ago when I was on the hunt for a short comic novel, and although I started it on a train journey from London to Manchester, I never got round to finishing it. This time, however, I really enjoyed it.
Bainbridge has a darkly comic style of storytelling that, at times, borders on the absurd. Her tone and sentence structure repeatedly lull the reader into a false sense of security: I often found myself reading through a paragraph without realising the potentially darker implications, only for a light bulb to go off in my head some sentences later. This stylistic choice is linked to Bainbridge’s interest in the normalisation of patriarchal culture — the way in which denigrating behaviour and prejudice towards women is ‘swept under the rug’. For, although The Bottle Factory Outing is an inherently funny text, it is also a sustained commentary on gender politics in 1970’s Britain.
Set in bleary North London, the novel is primarily concerned with two ‘chalk and cheese’ friends – a typically Bainbridgian trope, so I have read – who share a cramped bedsit and work in an Italian wine factory. Attractive and overweight, Freda is a failed actress with a domineering personality and emotional inclinations; Brenda, a divorcee hailing from a respectable Northern family, is mousy and restrained — the very antithesis of her roommate.
Once relations between the two women have been established, attention turns to the workplace. Freda will stop at nothing to attract Vittorio, the handsome trainee manager and nephew of Mr Paganotti, owner of the bottle factory. In contrast, Brenda must continually negotiate the unwelcome sexual advances of Rossi, a married manager, as well as rebutting Patrick, an Irish van driver who is the firm’s only non-Italian employee.
In order to woo Vittorio, Freda organises a work outing to a stately home in Hertfordshire, confident that the pair will come together, spurred on by the romantic setting. However, her quixotic vision soon falls through. We learn that the van booked to transport the workers is a no-show (later finding out that Vittorio has cancelled it), and so begins a dramatic chain of events brimming with tension, comedy and eventually, despair.
In some ways, this is very much a novel of its time, reflecting the skewed sexual politics of the 1970’s, and for modern readers, there is a temptation to trivialise the kind of aggressive sexual behaviour that unfolds in the factory, as if we have all but conquered improper conduct in the workplace. However, with the popularity of the #MeToo movement in recent years, it is self-evident that men imbued with institutional power – dare I say, managers, like Rossi – continue to indulge in misogynistic practices in the workplace. So, this is also a text that enriches current debates about office politics and the mistreatment of women.
Relationships in The Bottle Factory Outing are plagued by selfish intentions, dissonance and a glaring lack of empathy (especially in the final 20 or so pages of the book), with characters failing throughout to form meaningful connections with their counter-parts. In fact, although Freda and Brenda are ‘friends’, they lack the kind of deep emotional connection we might expect. Theirs is merely a friendship of convenience.
Such fractious and discordant relationships crop up everywhere. Brenda, neglected by her former husband, an alcoholic Yorkshire farmer, decides to leave for London; Rossi is willing to con his fellow countrymen/workers out of their hard-earned money in order to resume his sexual advances towards Brenda, with no regard for his wife; Brenda cannot understand Patrick’s romantic gestures, a man she feels nothing for.
Bainbridge’s suburban London is really a world full of lost individuals. Although the characters interact readily with each other in private and public spheres, they never truly understand one another.
The Bottle Factory Outing is a Booker Prize nominee, and it’s not hard to see why. Graham Greene’s observations sum it up well: “An outrageously funny and horrifying novel”. This will definitely not be my last Bainbridge.