British author Beryl Bainbridge never received the Man Booker Prize, but five of her books appeared at separate times on the award’s shortlist. The Bottle Factory Outing
was shortlisted for the prize in 1974. A glowing review published that year in The Sunday Times
effuses, “After turning the final page of The Bottle Factory Outing
one can only gasp, and grope for the right phrase. What a talent, if that is not too mild a word.” By turns comic and tragic, the story centers on Freda and Brenda, roommates in a squalid London flat. They’re mismatched companions in every way, but beneath surface differences, they share a despair about life which ends in Freda’s absurd death.
Freda and Brenda meet in a butcher shop. Tall, plump, blonde Freda, in her mid-twenties, comes to Brenda’s rescue when the skinny, stringy-haired woman dissolves in tears as she tells the butcher her husband has left her. Freda, forceful by nature, escorts Brenda from the shop, decides they should be roommates, and in short order, they’re living together in a run-down room with only one bed.
While Freda was initially intrigued by Brenda’s seemingly dramatic life and impressed with her apparent middle-class background, she is soon frustrated by Brenda’s lackluster personality. Everything about Freda is large: her presence, her passion, her hopes, and perhaps most of all, her delusions. She has no family (her mother is dead) and dreams of being whisked away from her low-wage life by a wealthy suitor who will adore and protect her, like a child. Brenda, meanwhile, has no aspirations and wants nothing more than to be left alone. As it turns out, she lied to the butcher. In perhaps her only defiance of her mother’s instruction to always be compliant, Brenda left her drunken, abusive husband.
Freda and Brenda get jobs at an Italian wine distributing factory, sticking labels on bottles in miserable working conditions and receiving little pay, but a good deal of complimentary wine. Aside from an Irishman named Patrick, all the other workers are Italians who have not reliably mastered English. Freda, whose formidable presence intimidates the Italians, makes an unsuccessful attempt to organize the workers to demand their rights. For her efforts, they get crates to sit on, but nothing more.
Across from the women’s flat is an old folks’ home. When the novel opens, Freda is at their window, crying, as she watches a hearse awaiting the remains of a deceased resident. Brenda scoffs at such exaggerated sorrow for an old woman Freda didn’t even know. Freda protests that she likes funerals, adding with a dramatic flourish, “When I go I shall have my family about me – daughters – sons – my husband, grey and distinguished.”
The “husband” Freda has in mind is handsome Vittorio, the manager-in-training at the bottle factory and the proprietor’s nephew. She shamelessly flirts with him at work, fantasizing that one day they’ll live together in an Italian castle. Vittorio, however, considers Freda too imposing to be appealing.
As Freda pursues Vittorio, Brenda suffers the unwanted attentions of Rossi, the factory manager. Every day he calls her into the wine cellar where she compliantly endures his groping hands pulling at her clothes. “As a child she had been taught it was rude to say no,” so she politely tolerates Ross’s fondling and even unwittingly encourages him.
Due to a translation error, the story of the hearse and Freda’s tears creates the mistaken idea at the factory that Freda’s mother has died. She is given time off and plenty of wine. With reluctance, Vittorio schedules a visit to Freda’s rooms to pay his respects. This thrills Freda, who immediately begins a plan of seduction, which includes clearing Brenda out of the flat for a few hours.
Patrick, who is also smitten with Brenda, offers to fix the women’s broken toilet the evening of Vittorio’s visit. Unable to refuse his offer, Brenda hides in the bathroom with Patrick while Freda entertains Vittorio. Having fortified herself with wine, drunken Freda tries to “maneuver him into her arms,” but only succeeds at frightening Vittorio. There’s a knock at the door, and Brenda opens it to find her mother-in-law. Surprise turns to shock when the woman pulls a pistol from her handbag. After a harmless shot is fired, Vittorio and Patrick subdue the mother-in-law, and Brenda suggests they have a cup of tea.
Unflagging in her efforts to snag Vittorio, Freda decides “she would have a better chance seducing him if she could get him out into the open air.” She organizes a Sunday picnic outing for the factory workers. They hire a van and pack up wine bottles and lunches. Everyone is excited except Brenda, who grudgingly joins in because she can’t say no. When the van fails to appear, most of the workers wander home.
Rossi, who is eager to salvage the outing to be with Brenda, volunteers to drive. Brenda, Freda, and Vittorio crowd into Rossi’s car and leave London, followed by a few others, including Patrick, in another car. They arrive at a park near Windsor Castle, which kindles Freda’s romantic fantasies. She contrives to get Vittorio alone in the castle, but calamity ensues. Just as Vittorio admits he is engaged to another woman, Patrick barges in. He and Freda exchange blows while Vittorio flees.
After a tense picnic lunch, the group begins to squabble. In a foul mood, Freda provokes Brenda’s anger with insults and then stalks off into the nearby trees. Shortly thereafter, as Vittorio and Rossi argue, Brenda regrets her quarrel with Freda and goes after her. She finds Freda’s dead body. No one wants to become entangled in this new complication, so they set Freda’s body in the car seat and finish their outing with a trip to the zoo.
Back at the factory, they stuff Freda into a wine barrel. Marking it with an “X” to indicate it is spoiled, they send it back to Spain. Rossi then says he followed Freda into the trees. When she rebuffed his advances, she fell and broke her neck. As the novel ends, the truthfulness of Rossi’s confession is uncertain.
“The theme of this novel is the waste of human energy,” declares a New York Time
s book reviewer. Freda’s machinations are indeed futile and, as Brenda withstands Rossi’s hands, she just wishes for “an end to this aimless business of living through each day.” Yet, if the novel reduces Freda’s dreams and Brenda’s capitulation to comic absurdity, it does so with pathos for the plight of these powerless women.