The writer Elizabeth Berridge (1919-2009) is little-known in the U.S. If Persephone not published a collection of her short stories, Tell It to a Stranger, I would never have heard of her. I have thoroughly enjoyed her novels, too, and am especially fond of Upon Several Occasions, published in 1953 and reissued as a Faber Finds paperback in 2009. I loved this so much I wanted to go back and start over as soon as I finished it.
This mesmerizing novel begins with elements of coziness that may mislead the readers into thinking this is Barbara Pym territory. The village setting delights us: we Americans imagine knitting, cats, cocoa, and faithful church attendance. And there is much of this. In the first chapter, the tactful rector’s wife, Mrs. Peters, secretary of the Women’s League, coaxes its reticent members to decide on a destination for their annual outing. They finally choose Bristow, and since Mrs. Peters knew this would be the choice, she is relieved when the meeting ends and they bring out the card tables and tea.
But the reader’s preconceptions of cozy village life are broken by Mrs. Peters’s disillusionment. She knows the village too well: she foresees that the fierce rivalry between her husband and Mr. Merrion, the chapel minister, will end in Mr. Merrion’s organizing a rival Youth Club trip to Bristow. (He does.) But Mrs. Peters is not cynical: she is irritated because she is grieving for a son who died in Burma, and her years in the village seem empty without him.
The clarity of Berridge’s understated prose, her quiet but precise descriptions, vivid characters, and sharp dialogue make this novel a near-classic. In just a few paragraphs, she touchingly reveals the nature of Mrs. Peters’s tragedy. When she tells her husband about the trip to Bristow, he says,
“Bristow, eh? We haven’t been there for–let me see…”
“Just after Noddy was born,” his wife said, with a woman’s accuracy for nostalgic dates. “Twenty-five years ago.”
Involuntarily she looked up at the portrait of their son, smiling down from the mantelpiece, but she did not feel the familiar contraction behind the eyes, no tears came. How, as a clergyman’s wife, could she comfort the bereaved if she gained no help from the Christian comfort the Church gave? She was resigned, not joyfully–that was too much to ask from a mother–to the death of her son in Burma.
Mrs. Peters in a way holds the reins, but we also get to know two working-class families. On the trip to Bristow, Berridge reveals the characters in depth. The sweet but long-suffering Mrs. Barnard has arranged to see an old school friend in Bristow: she is thrilled to have time off from her difficult unmarried daughter, Mady, who is over thirty and lives with her. Mady is quite a storyteller, or a pathological liar, depending on your point-of-view: she uses her time in Bristow to pick up two men, giving different names to each and telling tall tales about her life. She is astonished when one of them sees through her, laughs at her, and arranges to meet her again. She is not used to such success.
Meanwhile, Doris Weldon, the snappish mother of three children and wife of a workaholic forester, rediscovers the joys of a day out. Her youngest child has a babysitter, and the two oldest are in Bristow with the Methodist Youth Club. Her only regret is that her husband wouldn’t take the day off and accompany her. But she is ready to embrace her family at the end of a mellow day. Which, alas, does not end as she’d hoped.
The end of the trip brings us back to real life. There are celebrations and tragedies. Upon Several Occasions is a quiet book, but I was riveted by Berridge’s sketches of women’s lives during a hot dry summer, a harvest festival, a wedding, and a flood.