What’s the Latest Plague Fad? Reading Old Books & a Novella by Elizabeth Berridge

The libraries are closed after a giddy month of opening “an express” for limited browsing (you got a ticket for 30 minutes, and then if you were too fond of books the security guard evicted you). Of course I did not actually go to the library, but I liked knowing it was open.

So here’s the thing: I haven’t seen a person in months (except in my bubble), and when I’m shopping I have so much difficulty talking through a mask that no one knows what I’m saying, and vice versa. “I’m here to pick up an item.” “What?” And then I repeat myself and hand over my piece of paper. “Is your last name Mirabelle?” “That’s my email.” I point to my name on the form. Then he/she gets my item (a throw, or a pair of warm pajamas) and we wish each other well. As I leave, I hear the next muffled transaction. “What?” “Who?”

And so the masked life continues.

AND SO I’M DISCOVERING OLD BOOKS AFTER ACQUIRING A PAIR OF WARM “READING” PAJAMAS, I.E., REGULAR PAJAMAS.

A new edition published by Zephyr Books.

One of the most stunning books I’ve read recently is Elizabeth Berridge’s novella, The Story of Stanley Brent, which was first published in 1945. This exquisitely- crafted novel, about a quiet man whose life is soured by an ambitious wife, is realistic and very moving, with a breath of hope.

Berridge’s prose is so spare that we do not at first notice her great skill as portraitist. No, her writing quietly takes us over. The characterization is so deft and unflinching that we are reminded of people we know.

Of course Stanley is our favorite character. We first meet him when he is in his twenties, happy and energetic, on the day he proposes to pretty Ada. He is laid-back, but Ada is ambitious and rigid. This telling sentence on page nine describes their relationship:

…marriage was first of all engagement, though the time went quickly enough. Ada saved quietly and fiercely for a good home, Stanley lived in the moment and hoped for some stroke of luck, content with the right to kiss his fiancee and hold her hand, to sit out dances with her. She was promised to him, that was enough.

Their life is ordinary, but their relationship is choppy. Stanley, a partner in a land and estates firm in London, is content with his job. And Ada likes their suburban neighborhood, but she wants to impress people and insists on private school for the children. Eventually, the economy falters, business is slow, and they have to cut back. Ada nags him to start his own business in the suburbs, but Stanley goes his way, trusting things will get better.

Parts of the novel are told from Ada’s point-of-view. It is not that she is unintelligent or mean: she simply isn’t suited to Stanley’s buoyancy. In another time, she might have put that nagging energy into her own business. But perhaps not. It is easier to talk than work.

Stanley survives and regains his contentment . I loved this book, and I also wept a bit over the sad parts..

I have long been a fan of Elizabeth Berridge, though her books are hard to find in the U.S. The Story of Stanley Brent is published by Zephyr Books, an imprint by Michael Walmer. Faber Finds has published a few of her novels, and Persephone has published one of her collections of short stories.

This is one of my favorite books of 2020.

A Brilliant Novel: Elizabeth Berridge’s “Upon Several Occasions”

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.

upon berridgeBut 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.

elizabethberridge
Elizabeth Berridge

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.

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