Thursday, July 16, 2015


ELIZABETH BERRIDGE, Across the Common (1964)

I occasionally waver a bit regarding the date limits of this blog and of my Overwhelming List.  I wrote a little bit early on in my blogging about the 1910 start date and my justification for that—using Virginia Woolf's convenient comment about a change in human nature around that year.  But I also ponder the 1960 end date sometimes.  It was rather random, really, and I've come across more than one interesting writer (think Mary Hocking) who only published their first works in 1961 or 1962.

But then I read a novel like Elizabeth Berridge's Across the Common, from 1964, and I think, okay, the 1960 cutoff makes sense after all...

It’s not that I actively disliked the novel.  Berridge is a masterful writer, and her earlier collection, Tell It to a Stranger, with its wartime stories, is a favorite. And it’s also not (he said defensively) that there aren’t numerous writers from after 1960 whose work I admire and enjoy, even if I don’t often write about them here.

It’s just that Across the Common seems to highlight the possibility that on or about 1960 human nature may have—unbeknownst to Virginia Woolf—shifted again.  The story of Louise, a troubled young woman who leaves her husband and returns to the home where she grew up and the three eccentric aunts who helped raise her, and while there uncovers a dark secret from the past, the novel possesses the signature Sixties confessional style—the first person narrator who meticulously analyzes the significance of her or his own personal experience and feelings.  As in Doris Lessing’s trailblazing The Golden Notebook two years earlier, or the dark poetry of Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath, both of whom had only recently appeared on the literary scene, self-analysis was, clearly, the thing. 

I would guess that this could be explained in part by the rise in popularity of psychotherapy about this time.  And, perhaps particularly for women writers and readers who were pushing for or simply trying to adjust to changes in the world around them and that world's expectations for women, it must have been a very liberating, very necessary form of self-exploration.  But it is certainly rather different from most of the writers and works that came before.  There have been first-person narrators since the birth of the novel, but the earnest belief in self-exploration as a serious and crucial undertaking seems to have been an innovation of the Sixties.  

One of my most inspiring undergraduate professors, who taught a brilliant course called British Women Writers and—apparently—had a rather considerable influence on my future interests, when I mentioned having read a Margaret Drabble novel, cringed slightly and said, "Oh, yes, women in dreary flats," and—while, to be fair, that hardly covers the breadth of Drabble's work—I have a feeling she may have meant something like what I'm trying to express here.  The “feminine middlebrow” seems, in the Sixties and beyond, to be evolving into something a bit different—more overtly political and concerned with rather different themes.  So I think perhaps I have my justification for the 1960 end date after all.

At any rate, apparently this style—in Berridge’s novel, at least—can rather grate on my nerves.  As much as I love some good soul-searching à la Margaret Atwood (or, indeed, Margaret Drabble), my initial notes on Across the Common rather snarkily refer to “subjective self-absorption and the over-inflated, portentous significance of personal experience,” so it had obviously made me a bit cranky.  That might be a bit overstated in retrospect, but it is true that Berridge seems to attach tremendous meaning to the secret violence in the past, which Louise is driven to uncover as if it’s the Holy Grail.  The trouble is, the actual violence, when it is revealed, is actually rather anticlimactic.  I mean, it’s a terrible event, but it’s hard to see why it would have had the tremendous repercussions of repression and neurosis that it did—and on multiple family members, no less.  

This may be quite intentional, I suppose, to indicate that the past, once revealed, is rarely as horrifying as it might have come to seem.  But even so, the effect on me was that I wound up thinking, "Seriously?  That's it?"  I was left with the feeling that a lot of drama and hushed revelation had had to be harnessed merely to help the annoying, self-absorbed narrator decide to go back to her ridiculously kind and understanding husband. (Though I can't resist saying that perhaps too little effort went into convincing the reader why he would want to have her back…)


Having been just a bit snarky about the novel, I will go on to say that there are still entertaining elements in it.  Berridge’s prose is sharp and polished, and the spinster aunts, in particular, provide worthwhile high points (I do love a good spinster aunt—how I wish I had one of my own!). 

Here, from the earliest pages of the novel, is Louise pondering her inimitable Aunt Cissie:

Aunt Cissie had the same effect on me as a lemon was supposed to have if sucked in front of an unfortunate trombonist. She dried up my juices. Her whole life had disbelief as its pivot and for this reason I had always been wary of her. Once, years ago, she had been recklessly, dogmatically sure of herself. She would argue with the wry humour of the convinced, a person on the right side of life. Since the war, which had robbed her of her second husband and her only son, something had shifted in her. A new, unbalanced cynicism revealed itself by a sarcastic twist of the mouth, a semi-quaver of a shrug. Nothing, now, could move her. She would have turned the pages of Nero's music, one felt (had he had any), whilst he fiddled, glad of the light of the flames. At seventy she believed in nothing but her own and other people's wickedness.

Ah, if only the rest of the novel had focused primarily on the aunts, rather than their irritating, wishy-washy niece, I would likely be singing a different tune!

VERILY ANDERSON, Scrambled Egg for Christmas (1970)

I've mentioned here before that Verily Anderson's Spam Tomorrow (1956), a memoir of her experiences during World War II, is one of my favorites.  I've been gradually tracking down and reading her other humorous memoirs, of which Scrambled Egg for Christmas seems to have been the last (there were other works about her family history, but no more memoirs of her own life, as far as I can tell). I wrote about one of her earlier memoirs here, and I find they're always enjoyable and are perfect for light bedside reading or days when you don't feel like thinking very much.

Anderson's memoirs, which started so cheerfully with Spam Tomorrow and Beware of Children (1958), took a darker turn, naturally enough, when her husband died suddenly not long after the latter book was published, leaving her with five children and little means of support.  Reportedly, when she became friends with actress Joyce Grenfell in the mid-1960s, Grenfell was shocked by her poverty and bought her a house in Norfolk.

Not surprisingly, then, some of this worry and darkness comes through in this volume, which, though presumably written after her economic condition had improved, deals with those years of hardship.  Here, she and her children move to London on the suggestion of a friend, attempting to rent out their old farm; she undertakes translation work without a contract, so is taken advantage of; she has a serious illness (which a friend puts down to hysteria); one friend commits suicide, another dies suddenly, and on top of everything else both Flo the horse (introduced in the earlier memoir The Flo Affair, which I reviewed in brief here a while back) and her cat Chastity die.  Hardly the stuff of farce.

Verily Anderson in later years

But the book is still highly readable, and Anderson's is a charming personality to be with, even when she's not at her best.  If the book is a little unfocused (sometimes about the move to London, sometimes about a trip to Malta and then the U.S. for an abortive lecture tour, and sometimes about her children's mild misadventures), it is still entertaining, and there are some hilarious high points.  There are two I can't resist sharing.  First, an experience with a hairstylist:

As it turned out, when I kept [the appointment], I might just as well have come straight in from the street without having made it, as did the more forceful customer who was shown into the salon in front of me. After ten more minutes wait I was about to walk out when a young faun leapt out from behind a row of coats and, flinging a nylon cape round me from behind, guided me with part of it still in my mouth to a wash basin, where he tilted my head back and wetted my hair just enough I to prevent my trying to leave again. Twenty minutes elapsed before a girl came and added the shampoo.

'Shall I give you a rinse?' she asked.

'Yes, please,' I said, supposing that otherwise I should have to wait another twenty minutes for someone else to wash the shampoo out. Too late I realised she was dying my hair what turned out an hour and a half later to be a vivid shade of particularly metallic yellow that looked like a teazle and felt like wire netting. The bill, when it was presented, bore no relation whatsoever to the price list outside.

Ah, how many cape-flinging fauns one encounters at hairdressers!

And next, here is a rather more topical (and long, but I can't resist) description of Anderson's experience as part of a BBC documentary on single women:

At the B.B.C., the producer was apologetic about forgetting the existence of widows. She had only recently married but now she would really be able to make her point over the raw deal eked out to the unwed.

'If you could just say how beastly people are to you now you're a widow,' she explained, 'and how they don't ask you to parties any more—'

'But they aren't and they do.'

'Yes, but for the purpose of tying the thing up neatly, I'm sure you could think of some occasion when you've been slighted.'

'It isn't like that. Sometimes you're sad, or awfully disappointed or lonely or you don't know how to saw a plank in half. But, if anything, people are extra considerate. The only ones who don't ask you to parties any more are the ones who only asked you before because they wanted to get something out of your husband. Really, I just can't say that widows automatically get second-class treatment.'

Nor could the career girls, the divorcee and the separated. Our producer seemed disappointed.

'It's not really how I want to play it at all,' she said. 'You see, since I've just got married, I notice an enormous difference.'

'You would,' said one of the career girls snidely and the other one tittered.

Having gathered us up, however, the producer had to make the best of her material. Some of the speakers complied a little with her wishes to sound hard-done-by but mostly we were almost exaggeratedly boastful of the brighter sides of our circumstances.

'Personally, I feel more respected, not less, now I'm on my own again,' said the divorced wife. 'I can spend money how I like, sleep with the window open, and eat green peppers which my ex-husband abhorred.'

'Yes, and it's bound to give one a bit of prestige being rid of that perpetual fear of pregnancy without even having to go on the Pill,' agreed the separated.

'I can't think what listeners will get out of what we've just recorded,' one of the career girls pointed out. 'It all sounds desperately insincere.'

'Don't worry.' The producer gave a satisfied smile. 'We can easily cut it to give it the angle I have in mind.'

Some of the women's comments might give one pause, but they are certainly amusing, and a producer's efforts to slant a documentary are unquestionably not a thing of the past!


  1. I agree that the ACROSS THE COMMON is not a satisfying read and the aunts should have taken centre stage.
    The cover is better than the book itself--well almost.

    1. Oh, good, I don't feel so bad about being snarky if others feel the same! I do love the cover of my paperback, though, which is quite creative and intriguing for what is clearly an inexpensive edition.

  2. Such a happy photo of Verily. I feel much the same about our contemporary authors, Scott, there are only a few whose books I look forward to. And I'm glad to hear you're a fan of Berridge's short stories - the Persephone edition sits on my shelves but with everything else coming in I've forgotten all about it.

    1. Yes, I hope that photo of Anderson is from a time when her financial and other woes had abated a bit. And absolutely, I think some of the stories in Tell It to a Stranger are extraordinary. A couple of powerful wartime tales, as I recall, and another harrowing little story that could have been penned by Shirley Jackson. Well worth moving up your TBR pile a little--though no doubt the other titles in the pile are equally tempting!


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