Thanks to the miracle of a gloriously sunny Bank Holiday there’s been more walking than reading over the past few days. With its episodic style, Evan S. Connell’s Mrs Bridge fitted this kind of weekend nicely. Written in understated elegant prose, it’s made up of 117 short pieces following Mrs Bridge from her newly wed days in the 1920s to her widowhood and just beyond. Mrs Bridge lives in Kansas City, is married to a lawyer and has three children. She is deeply conservative, shocked by the slightest deviation from the conventions of the day and naively innocent. Her life is uneventful, her husband spends almost every waking hour working and her children grow up and away from her leaving her bereft. It’s a novel which manages to be both moving and hilarious – Mrs Bridge throws caution to the winds and decides to go without stockings only to be caught out by her most strait-laced neighbours, she seems puzzled by the concept of homosexuality and is deeply unsettled by her son’s abuse of the guest towels. Bombshells are delivered quietly and in passing: an ill-disciplined young boy shoots his parents in their beds and the Bridges must cut short their six-week European jaunt because Hitler has invaded Poland which seems to be more of an inconvenience to them than a shattering world event. Mrs Bridge’s greatest enemy is time. Housework and cooking are taken care of by the maid and Mrs Bridge spends much of her time wishing it away or coming up with little projects for herself which often come to nothing. Set largely in the ’30s and ’40s, and published in 1959, it’s a gently satirical portrait of a particular time and a particular class.
I did wonder why Mrs Bridge didn’t find herself a good book during her periods of clock-watching and she does give Conrad a whirl but puts him back on the shelf. No doubt she was unable to find a character she would want for a friend as a journalist who interviewed Claire Messud about her novel The Woman Upstairs seemed to think readers want. Messud’s acerbic riposte that you wouldn’t want to be friends with Hamlet etc. etc. caught the attention of Radio 4’s Today programme this morning. For a news programme it’s a bit slow off the mark sometimes – the interview was way back in April. Fay Weldon and Sarah Dunant were debating how valid the interviewer’s question was and whether we should be expected to like woman characters just because they’re female. There was a nice little barb from Dunant who wondered why she’d been in the studio for an hour and had yet to hear a female voice. Mrs Bridge would have been astonished that Dunant expected women to have such jobs let alone voice her views so assertively.