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Watson's Apology by Beryl Bainbridge (McGraw-Hill: $14.95; 222 pp.)

January 12, 1986|Suzon Forscey | Forscey is a part-time Londoner and a playwright and film critic.

Beryl Bainbridge's 11th novel is a grim pleasure, but then so is life, and it is from life (and its documentation) that "Watson's Apology" is lifted.

On a Sunday afternoon in October, 1871, an elderly and respected clergyman scholar, the Rev. J. S. Watson, brutally murdered his wife Anne by cracking open her skull with a horse pistol. What British writer wouldn't find tempting material in the trial proceedings, newspaper accounts and an untidy packet of old love letters? Bainbridge, one imagines, pounced.

And succeeded brilliantly in bringing murderer and victims alive, in spite of some maddening tricks of organization.

John Selby Watson, after courting the impoverished, 30-ish Anne Armstrong at a remove and wedding her at almost first sight, immediately wants only to be undisturbed, to be left to the classical scholar's life. The activities of the wedding night, spent in a wallowing boat on the Irish Sea, dictate there will be no chance.

How fatal the bride's post-coital reverie: "My dear, my dear, she said to herself . . . They would never be parted. Soon her arm ached and he smelled like an invalid, but she would have died rather than shift him."

And Watson? "He was afraid he should see . . . some vestige of that expression of pure delight, of impure joy which had ravaged her face the night before."

So, through the decades of marriage, there was Anne's obsessive love in response to her husband's withdrawal and sexual revulsion, and there was Watson's corked-up fury. Such a wife (kin to both Alice James, the unemployed woman of intelligence, and Hedda Gabler, the untamed, powerful sadist) and such a husband (today he would be a doctor or politician) are agonizingly real.

But what frustration to have in hand an excellent novel that only the hardiest will tackle. There are lives that sensible people don't want to experience. To be so convincingly trapped inside the heads of two excruciatingly tormented people is not much fun.

Though Bainbridge has never been sentimental, her best-known novel, "The Bottle Factory Outing," is a rather lively place where bad things happen only because of an unfortunate juxtaposition of events. "Nothing personal!" is the typical attitude of the usual English murderer. "Watson's Revenge" is a much bleaker black.

This is not to say that the book is without humor. Perhaps, one even suspects, the sly Bainbridge has put over one huge joke. Maybe the line "I should have bought her a piano" is the wickedly glittering solitaire in a massive Victorian setting.

The final pages, describing the dreariness of Watson's enfeebled prison life and his undignified death, deprive the reader even of the grandeur of tragedy--though with the uneasy feeling that our own griefs can be so pragmatically resolved by divorce or therapy.

How sad it is, though, that at the finish of "Watson's Apology"--as at the termination of most miserable marriages--one cannot remember any earlier admiration or happiness.

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