Tuesday, 14 August 2012

Mrs Bridge - Evan S Connell

'exquisite idleness'

You may remember my enthusiastic review for Chris Bachelder's Abbott Awaits back in March, but if you don't then one of the joys of that book was its structure. Short chapters, often of only a page or so,  revealed little nuggets of insight. One of that novel's own images was of a window segmented into many panes so that the view outside was separated into many distinct pictures - 'There is not one pane that is not beautiful'. Whether Bachelder had read this novel from 1959 before writing his own I have no idea but it shares that same structure: short chapters with their own titles, snapshots of a life lived (and here it is much more of a life, Abbott was only granted three months but we get to see the entire marriage of Mrs Bridge), which come together to create a 'pointillist portrait' of a woman and an era that is very much in the past and yet so easy for us to connect to thanks to Connell's sensitive handling of his creation.

All I can do in writing this post is to say quite simply that the book deserves its title of modern classic, tell you that it's an immensely enjoyable read and then give you extract after extract to demonstrate my point; so if you want to skip all that and just go and order yourself a copy then I won't be offended at all. It is a brilliant book, you won't regret it, but if you're still unconvinced then please read on. Mrs Bridge was Connell's first novel, originally published in 1959, and provides an acutely observed portrait of a suburban wife in the inter-war years. Her husband works long hours that provide a comfortable life for her and her three children, she is connected to her community (by which I mean those parts of it that are mirror-images of her own background and class) and it would be quite simple for her to sleep-walk through life with the small joys that it brings but Connell slowly allows her to question how happy an existence that might be and to let her keep asking questions about what her purpose might be. In fact it is her friend Grace Barron who articulates early on the questions that will come to dominate her life too.

'India, I've never been anywhere or done anything or seen anything. I don't know how other people live, or think, or even how they believe. Are we right? Do we believe the right things?'

These nagging doubts keep nipping away throughout a book in which life nevertheless ticks away. A novel made up of fleeting moments even includes a section in which Mrs Bridge reads a book containing a passage that observes that some people skim through life without ever seeing 'all it may contain.' She is interrupted in her reading, places the book on the mantel and whilst meaning to return to it, never does. As her life passes by she cannot 'get over the feeling that something was drawing steadily away from her.' She resolves to ask her husband whether he feels the same way at all when he returns from work one evening whilst also recalling the dreams they used to share, her not caring so much what his ambitions were but caring only for him. Then comes the realisation that his busy work life, which she had always thought of as a 'temporary condition', will in fact mean that she never sees very much of her husband.

They had started off together to explore something that promised to be wonderful, and, of course, there had been wonderful times. And yet, thought Mrs Bridge, why is it that we haven't - that nothing has - that whatever we - ?

The relationship between husband and wife is brilliantly observed despite the fact that their interactions are limited by his busy working life. On her 48th birthday her husband takes her to the club for dinner and announces that they will be going on a trip to Europe. Whilst he talks excitedly about all the places they will visit she remembers a similar conversation when he had promised that they would undertake this very trip, a conversation that seemed to have taken place 'eight or ten years ago, but it was more than twenty, and on this day she was forty-eight years old.' Growing sad at this thought she gazes out of the window at a gathering storm 'and the distant thunder seemed to be warning her that one day this world she knew and loved would be annihilated.' What then follows is the approach of a tornado which sends other diners down to the basement for safety but Mr Bridge refuses to be moved from his steak and continues eating. Despite her anxieties Mrs Bridge remains at his side. 'For nearly a quarter of a century she had done as he told her, and what he had said would happen had indeed come to pass, and what he had said would not occur had not occurred. Why, then, should she not believe him now?' They both remain and the tornado does indeed pass, 'whether impressed by his intransigence or touched by her devotion.'

Connell knows that the smallest things can set a mind racing and it is whilst on that trip to Paris that she spots her husband dwelling by a shop window and sees that what held his attention was a black lace bra 'with the tips cut off.' Why had he stood there looking so serious? She then remembers the time he revealed that as a child he had wanted to be a great composer, what other secrets might there be? 'Who was he really?' This territory is familiar from reading K Arnold Price's The New Perspective (recently enjoyed and reviewed by Trevor over here) and that questioning of the very basis of all that seems solid is what makes this novel grow in power and interest as it develops. Mrs Bridge becomes more and more fascinating as the short chapters progress, she is simply a more interesting person than we might have given her credit for at the outset. There is also something perversely gratifying about watching a privileged character struggling with the very aspects of their life that others might term comfortable, and I'll confess to a sort of morbid curiosity as to whether she could ever 'explain how the leisure of her life - that exquisite idleness he had created by giving her everything - was driving her insane?'

Sitting at her dressing table applying cold cream she suddenly asks who she is, how she got here, who the man undressing in the same room might be. She is gratified as she applies her white mask of 'sweetly scented anonymity' but when she looks in the mirror she realises that the smile she feels is nowhere to be seen. 'All the same, being committed, there was nothing to do but proceed.'

At the same time as her relationship with her husband has had distance added to it, the relationship with her children, one of the factors that altered her married life of course, slowly alters as they grow up and another form of distance comes into play. In one brilliant section her son builds a tower out of rubbish on a vacant lot. As it gets bigger and more solid, and the need to tackle him about taking it down more urgent she recognises that her reticence in doing so is because she realises the time has come for her to talk with him like an adult and she is not sure sure she is equal to it.

There are wonderful flashes of humour of course, quite often from puncturing outdated notions or unfashionable or prejudiced opinions. Looking at the varying Christmas decorations in the neighbourhood for example they stumble upon a bungalow with 'a life-size cut-out of Santa Claus on the roof, six reindeer in the front yard, candles in every window, and by the front door an enormous cardboard birthday cake with one candle. '

On the cake was this message:
'My word, how extreme,' said Mrs Bridge thoughtfully. 'Some Italians must live there.'

Little giggles like that combine with stunning observations of our closest relationships, the gestures that we make in order to show love (including the ones that fail like an out-of-practice Mrs Bridge's attempt to make a loaf of pineapple bread whose failure is met at first with a stoical 'Never mind' from her husband who then buys her a dozen roses the next day), to produce a novel that delights with its humanity, its sympathy, and its belief that even with all our flaws there is a part of us that wants to be better. It also has one of the best endings to a novel that I can remember. Unlike this review. Like I said: just go read the damn thing. You can thank me later.


Hospitable Scots Bachelor 16 August 2012 at 12:15  

This is a wonderful site. You should be very proud. I intend to put it on my "regular visit" list. Thank you.

William Rycroft 20 August 2012 at 08:30  

Very kind, sir. Thank you.

Jacqui (@jacquiwine),  10 September 2012 at 18:17  

A wonderful review. I've little to add save that I loved this book. Full of beautifully observed vignettes where small details convey so much. There is a real sense of life and time slipping by. I found the scenes with her children very poignant - again there is a palpable sense of bewilderment as Mrs Bridge is unable to fathom the actions of her children. The ending is quite brilliant. Loved it - I'm keen to read Mr Bridge too.

William Rycroft 10 September 2012 at 19:18  

Yes, Mr Bridge is definitely on the list now. I'll be fascinated to see how the two books fit together. A special edition of the book has taken a rather novel approach to that question as you can see here.

William Rycroft 12 September 2012 at 07:48  

That link doesn't seem to work. Here it is:


Jacqui (@jacquiwine),  12 September 2012 at 09:19  

Very interesting approach! It looks as though a new edition of Mr Bridge will be published in Penguin Modern Classics in February 2013. Definitely one to read next year.

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