The implacable carnage wreaked by a charming seducer
Beryl Bainbridge’s Sweet William, here reissued as a digital version by Open Road Media, is a short tale of a foolishly naïve woman (or women) and a man sophisticated in deception – including self-deception
Published in 1975 there is, as often with Bainbridge, a degree of events in her real life acting as springboard to the story.
The William of the title is William McClusky an up-and-coming playwright. He has a fascinating mix of the fiercely wilful, creative and seemingly unworldly persona, theoretically tender and emotionally expressive manner and boyish appealing loucheness which can effectively set womanhood’s heart a-flutter. The springboard for Bainbridge was that this character was modelled on the novelist and screenwriter Alan Sharp, with whom she had a daughter.
The central character of the book, into whose life William strolls like an out-of-control juggernaut, is Ann Walton, a naïve young woman working for the BBC. Ann comes from a determinedly ‘keeping up middle class values’ background, her mother implacably wanting Ann to fulfil some social dream of her own, and unable to embrace the daughter she really has. Ann is engaged to Gerald, an academic, off to America on a placement. Gerald is a selfish, bullish and rather cold man. Marrying an academic and one with prospects in America does however initially, theoretically, meet with the aspirational Mrs Walton’s approval.
Things don’t quite go to plan when Ann is determinedly picked up by William, who sweeps her off her feet with his touchy feely passion and freely expressed need and desire for her. Unfortunately, William is married and he still maintains all sorts of connections with his wife Edna – including sexual. And it turns out that there is more than one significant earlier relationship in William’s life. And later ones too. He is incapable of resisting the desire to conquer the heart, not to mention the haunches, of any woman he meets. His deadly charm is that he is not a cold seducer, but believes himself to be a loving man, who just happens to love a lot of women at once and have them all meet his needs for love, care, affection and meals, all at once
When the doorbell rang Ann was amazed to see a messenger boy on the landing, holding a large white cake with pink ribbon, crowned with flaring candles of red and gold.
‘Mrs McClusky’ he said ‘Special delivery’
It was Edna’s birthday……’He said I was to expect a surprise’ she cried, her face glowing….She insisted they cut into the cake
Ann didn’t know what to say. It was such an extraordinary thing to do, sending your wife a cake to the flat of another woman. She couldn’t for the life of her wish Edna many happy returns of the day.
They sat opposite each other, mouths blocked with the birthday surprise, a faint lingering smell of wax in the room
Even those around Ann who can see William for the philanderer he is, and will warn Ann that he is not a man to be remotely trusted, will not be immune to his charms, though some of the other women are only interested in a bit of good time sex with him, and have no fond illusions of forever.
The reader (well this one) felt both sorry for the foolish Ann, but also thoroughly exasperated by her. And by the rest of William’s entourage. And by William himself. Sometimes, ‘Williams’ are usefully spotted a mile off, but sometimes they possess an ability to hide in plain sight…..
The book was turned into a film in 1980, with Jenny Agutter as Ann and Sam Waterston as William. It was directed by Claude Whatham, with the screenplay written by Bainbridge herself
I read this as a review copy published by the excellent Open Road Media as a digital version