Across the Commons

Another Elizabeth Berridge book delivered up from ILL (thanks University of Oregon!), this one published in 1964 and thus streaked with modern horrors such as pharmaceuticals and televisions. Louise leaves her husband, Max, and storms off with a suitcase to her elderly aunts’ home where she grew up. There she finds them unsurprised to see her and she’s welcomed into the fold of Aunt Rosa and Aunt Seraphina along with their faithful housekeeper, Gibby.

It’s rather a stupid tale. Louise is summoned to the solicitor’s office in London where she finds an unexpected income of £750 from oil shares her father left, along with a letter that was scheduled to reach her at age 30. In the letter, she learns that her grandfather committed suicide, and she starts to pick apart at the ancient mystery. Turns out that he shot himself a few months after a young woman was found murdered nearby, mostly because he was ashamed of having seen it via telescope? Another more capable aunt arrives, albeit in a wheelchair, and takes control of the house, installs a TV. Max comes and scoops her up after the aunts call him for the rescue.

It Won’t Be Flowers

Elizabeth Berridge’s 1949 war novel has minor victories of capturing perfectly the grind and terror of entering the work force for the first time. She follows three girls, Laura, Fiona, and Helen, on their first day working for the Bank of England. Helen bursts into tears at the dreary prospect of what awaits her for years and years. She ends up escaping first, giving notice after only a year’s service, to move in with a man and start working as a journalist.

Fiona is the artist who also struggles to deal with the staid reality of life at the bank, especially when they’re evacuated to the countryside and must live in huts with other employees, the bank work being deemed “essential” to the war effort. She spends her money on canvases and oil, and escapes the dull work of the bank through sketching. She eventually vaults out the window and runs away, intending to head to America where her father and stepmother await, but she winds up back at the bank after a week of wandering, resolute to save her money and be able to depart for real some day.

Laura is wooed by John but finds him cold hearted when she expects sympathy after her parents die in a London bombing. Instead she finds comfort in his friend Max’s arms, and marries the schoolmaster, producing daughter Ursula. There’s no great wind-up to the tale, just that Fiona’s gone, Helen’s somewhat happy, and Laura is a bit bored as a housewife in the country.

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Got the book via ILL, thank you Minneapolis Public Library!

People At Play

What a weird novel by Elizabeth Berridge! I much preferred her collection of short stories from the 1940s, which only had a tinge of madness, not the full-on display we have in this tale of antique dolls that appear all over the place, and people treated like dolls by the main characters. A woman leaves her husband in Germany, pretends she’s lost her hearing, comes back home to England and stays in the upper floor of her old house, where the son of the housekeeper is now in charge. Her mother has taken control of an old folks’ home, managing it with Stani’s mom, the housekeeper. Death, drugs, teenagers whose legs are painted and then their neck (just like dolls?), a party by 15 year old Lucy that went out of control and a guy took LSD and jumped from the roof. Not enjoyable, but I’ll give Berridge another chance.

Tell It to a Stranger: Stories from the 1940s

Oh the delight of discovering Elizabeth Berridge’s writing! Fantastic collection of short stories that you assume will be upstanding British tales but that lead you through strange twists and jerks and gaps.

  • Snowstorm – A doctor witnesses one of her pregnant patients struggling with the idea of having a child, “preparing for a little stranger,” and the woman somehow is able to get rid of it.
  • The Bare Tree – Gorgeous first lines: “The grandmother sat in the sun. It was the only thing free of her daughter’s influence.” Struggles of three generations to understand each other.
  • Firstborn – A woman takes her baby to visit first her mother and then her mother-in-law; she’s overwhelmed by the idea she has just become a thing to tend to her hubby and baby; she returns home and her husband tells her not to mind about the baby for once, just have some tea.
  • Woman about the House – Henpecked man leaves his wife for a few weeks to get a job, comes back to find she’s left him which causes much happiness.
  • Tell It to a Stranger – Loved this story- Mrs. Hatfield has gone away to a safe spot during the war, discovers her home has been ransacked while she was away and she’s pleased because it will give her something to tell the folks back at the home. She trains back, and the train is under attack by the Germans, yet another thing to tell them. As she walks up the street to the home, she thinks she’s gone the wrong way, but no, the house has been bombed, all her friends are dead. She has no one to tell her tales to.
  • Lullaby – A gut-punch in 4 pages. Woman records herself singing a lullaby, leaves the record playing for her baby while she goes out (reluctantly) with her husband. The baby left alone, a storm hits, wind turns a night light candle into a fire that kills the kid.
  • Subject for a Sermon – Lady Hayley does her duty during the war effort to the detriment of her son while he’s on leave. Great sentence in here: “One spent so little time alone; looking back it was a lifetime of chatter.”
  • To Tea with the Colonel – A woman from London who acquired a limp during a bombing of her house moves to the country, is asked to make tea for her friend’s father, the Colonel, who’s deaf. She tells him (knowing he can’t hear her) that it’s terrible how his family has treated the poor; he’s nothing but gracious, telling her he can’t hear. She feels guilty, leaves in tears.
  • The Notebooks – A woman’s husband dies of pneumonia after a tetanus infection weakened him; he’s an author, he leaves behind a manuscript and some notebooks that the museum wants to buy. The widow admires his sketches of people in the notebooks and recognizes that “you can only see people if you relax and forget yourself.”
  • Chance Callers – A husband and wife visit a man about a house during the post-war crunch for housing. The man’s brother dies upstairs, the man makes out his will leaving the house to the couple.
  • The Prisoner -German prisoner of war come to dig drainage ditches for the fields strikes up an acquaintance with an old maid.