Whilst I find that if I see reviews over and over of the same ‘current hype’ title I find myself, if I have a copy, distancing myself from it more and more I do find that the opposite happens with classics or modern classics. I have also noticed of late that I like, and this could be a whole new genre of books seeing as publishers are creating new ones left right and centre, ‘domestic housewife tales from pre 1960’s’. So when I started seeing glowing reviews from people whose opinions I trust (here, here and here) of a 1959 novel by the name of ‘Mrs Bridge’ and it fell into that category of fiction I like so much – maybe I was a housewife in a past life – I decided that I simply had to give it a read.
The lady of the title ‘Mrs Bridge’, who is our protagonist throughout, has the life that many women of her time did. She married early, had children and became a housewife while her husband works all hours, though in a rather affluent area and easily able to have a maid. After having had her children and having watched them slowly distance themselves as they leave school we join her as she goes along with the life she has found herself in Kansas City. In the main she spends her time shopping, going to the theatre or cinema, playing bridge and giving or going to dinners. As the children spend more time away from their mother in the day and her husband, Walter, continues working like a maniac we watch as India finds with more free time she slowly starts to look at the life around her and questions it, is she actually fulfilled? Dare she even ask herself if she is happy?
“Her first name was India – she was never able to get used to it. It seemed to her that her parents must have been thinking of someone else when they named her. Or were they hoping for another sort of daughter? As a child she was often on the point of inquiring, but time passed, and she never did.”
I found the character of Mrs Bridge a mixture of utterly fascinating on the one hand a rather annoying in her ineffectual nature by the other. Oddly, that isn’t a major criticism of the novel as I think Evan S. Connell writes her, and indeed the whole book, incredibly. As the book goes on Mrs Bridge starts to ask questions about her life, initially small then looking at her life in a wider view. She might think things aren’t as she would wish and she might be bored, yet we as readers can see that she is clearly very unhappy and out of touch with her world. All this was done utterly masterfully, yet it did make me feel rather disconnected with her in some ways slightly too. She wasn’t likeable, yet she wasn’t unlikeable either. You felt sorry for her, but from afar and sometimes she came across rather bigoted and snobbish. I couldn’t work out if she was a victim of circumstance and the social restraints of the time, or if she was a victim because she asked questions, was scared by their answers and so brushed them under the carpet, as it were.
“Dr Leacock, like the majority of husbands, was seldom seen in the daytime, but Mrs Leacock and Tarquin liked to visit the neighbourhood, and within a few weeks of their arrival it had become evident that for some reason they had chosen Mrs Bridge as a special friend. Mrs Bridge, somewhat disconcerted by Lucienne Leacock’s progressive ideas and a little frightened by Tarquin’s self-possession, nevertheless felt vaguely flattered at being the object of so much attention.”
I am possibly making it sound like ‘Mrs Bridge’ is a really miserable and melancholic read and, though there is a melancholic edge to a lot of it, it is actually also a very funny book. Connell chooses to tell the story in 100 fairly short vignettes and amongst them are some wonderful set pieces, often on set piece will re-emerge in a the next vignette or two or three along which I really liked. There is Mrs Bridges’ initial disapproval with an infamous touring play ‘Tobacco Road’ which starts to become a worrying obsession for her affecting her for days after. There is an issue with another neighbour trying to steal her maid, Harriet, and when seeing the neighbour in church almost leading to the faints. Or dinner parties she feels she has to give and invite people she doesn’t really like or approve of. I did laugh aloud a few times as I read.
“Mr and Mrs Bridge were giving a party, not because they wanted to, but because it was time. Like dinner with the Van Metres, once you accepted an invitation you were obligated to reciprocate, or, as Mr Bridge had once expressed it, retaliate.”
The same applied with the melancholic tone of the book. There was a really, for me, sad story about the friendship between Mrs Bridge’s daughter Carolyn and the daughter of their black gardener, Alice. There was the slightly sinister tale of her son Douglas decided to build a tower of rubbish that becomes a well known landmark, perfectly mixing the funny and the dark which I love in books and I thought Connell did marvellously.
There is so much to enjoy and admire in ‘Mrs Bridge’ and Connell’s writing that I would definitely recommend that you all give it a whirl. I feel it is patronising to say that Connell wrote a woman so well, but I did, and I did think his prose was sublime. However, I am not going to finish off by saying that it will be one of the best books you will have read in ages, because I did feel it was a little long and over egged the pudding, though the ending was poignant and surprisingly done, well if what I think happened actually happened (don’t ask, spoilers). Yet I think because I have read a few Persephone Classics recently I feel I have seen this done, and written around the same time, a little better. Had I not then I think this would have bowled me over far more than it did and indeed I think I was expecting it to seriously blow me away, instead I just thought it was very good. That probably sounds harsh and like I am damning it with faint praise, I promise I am not because I can see why many people have been so impressed by it too.