Tag Archives: Mrs Bridge

Five Rediscovered Classics I’ve Read

Cover imageI could devote this post (and many more) to the classics I read decades ago but I’ve not reread them for some time so that would be cheating. Instead, I’ve decided to stick with five reissued, lesser known books that thoroughly deserved the burst of renewed attention they attracted. Here are five rediscovered classics, four with links to full reviews on this blog.

I’m starting with John Williams’ Stoner, originally published in 1965 and reissued here in the UK in 2012 when it became that thing publishers yearn for: a word of mouth bestseller. It’s about an ordinary man who leads an unremarkable life. Born on a small Missouri farm in 1891, Stoner discovers a love of literature and becomes an academic, his success hard won. He finds himself in a loveless marriage, his unhappiness briefly lifted by a relationship with a young woman before academic rivalry intervenes. Williams quietly draws this understated, poignant novel to a close with Stoner’s death.

First published in 1967, the reissue of Thomas Savage’s The Power of the Dog comes from the same publishers who brought us Stoner. Set in 1924, the novel tells the story of the Burbank brothers, owners of one of Montana’s biggest ranches and rich beyond reckoning yet still sharing the same bedroom. When George brings home a wife, Phil sets about quietly undermining her until she no longer trusts her own judgement. Savage unfolds his story in a straightforward unfussy narrative, contrasting Phil’s calculated cruelty with his brother’s open-hearted kindness and leaving the reader to infer what lies at the heart of his scornful contempt. His descriptions of the sweeping Montana landscape, gruelling winters and the daily business of ranching are all wonderfully cinematic. It’s a fine novel, entirely worthy of the inevitable Stoner comparisons made when it was reissued in 2016.Cover image

William Melvin Kelley’s A Different Drummer was originally  published in 1962 at the height of the Civil Rights movement although, sadly, it still resonates today. In 1957, the descendent of a slave destroys the farm he bought from the family of a renowned Civil War general in whose home he grew up, before departing with his pregnant wife. Within hours the black population begins heading north leaving behind bewilderment until the white residents come to understand the repercussions of this exodus and their mood turns. The story unfolds in clean, plain prose from the perspective of a variety of characters, all white. Its ending comes as no surprise. Kelley was just twenty-four when he published A Different Drummer, an astonishingly confident piece of work for a writer so young.

I’m stretching the ‘five’ of this post’s heading a little here but both Nell Larsen’s novellas, Quicksand and Passing, were reissued in the same volume in 2014. Hard to mention one without the other. Passing begins with the memory of a chance meeting in a smart Chicago hotel. Two light-skinned women recognise each other – both are ‘passing’ in this bastion of white society but for one of them it’s a matter of convenience and mild titillation at her deception – for the other it’s the habit of a lifetime. Widely considered to be autobiographical, Quicksand, opens with a young woman deciding to give up her job as a teacher in an all-black school, risking all for what she hopes will be a more exciting future. She’s a woman who finds it impossible to settle. Each decision results in excitement, happiness then disillusion. Both are powerful, thought-provoking novellas which explore race and identity but while Quicksand is a sobering, Passing is gut-wrenching – an astonishingly brave book to have written in the 1920s

Cover imageSet largely in the ’30s and ’40s, and published in 1959, Evan S. Connell’s Mrs Bridge was reissued in 2012. Written in understated elegant prose, it follows Mrs Bridge from her newly-wed days in Kansas to her widowhood and just beyond. She’s married to a lawyer, has three children and is both deeply conservative and naively innocent. Bombshells are delivered quietly and in passing: the Bridges 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 life wishing it away or devising little projects for herself which often come to nothing. Both moving and hilarious, Connell’s novella is a gently satirical portrait of a particular time and class. Mr Bridge, its companion, was reissued a year later and is also well worth reading but Mrs Bridge remains my favourite of the two.

Any rediscovered classics you’d like to recommend?

Mrs Bridge by Evan S. Connell: A1950s gem

Cover imageThanks 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.