April 28, 2010

Evan S. Connell: Mrs Bridge

Posted in Connell Evan S. at 3:18 pm by John Self

Evan S. Connell’s ‘most famous’ novel is, on the surface, less turbulent than The Diary of a Rapist, which I wrote about a couple of years ago.  It’s hard to see why this book is out of print in the UK, being a portrait of quiet desperation almost as accomplished as the sort of thing people fete Richard Yates for.  (Or William Trevor, come to that.)  Classics imprints, where are you?

Mrs Bridge (1959) was Connell’s first novel. It is a sort of pointillist portrait of a woman, told in over one hundred brief and discrete (but broadly chronological) sketches, most only a page or two long.  (There’s a later, longer, companion novel, Mr Bridge.)

Throughout the book she is ‘Mrs Bridge’. “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?” So, Mrs Bridge it is, and this is as good a shorthand as any to sum up her personality and life: timid, stunted, any explorations into thought and unconventional behaviour quickly snuffed out by fear, or a sense of propriety, at least to begin with. “Appearances were an abiding concern of Mrs Bridge.”

But tentative struggles away from her own limited life do occur.  Indeed, they are the key to the book, and are generally inspired by Mrs Bridge’s friend Grace Barron. “India, I’ve never been anywhere or done anything or seen anything. I don’t know how other people live, or think, even how they believe. Are we right? Do we believe the right things?” Mrs Bridge might be wary of pursuing such questions far herself, given the unhappiness such introspection brings Grace. “Have you ever felt like those people in the Grimm fairy tales – the ones who were all hollowed out in the back?”

Mrs Bridge has her husband – ‘Mr Bridge’ – and her three children, Ruth, Carolyn and Douglas. Her children threaten Mrs Bridge’s equilibrium, as in the extraordinary scenes where Douglas, like Jocelin in Golding’s The Spire, begins to build an enormous tower from scrap in the family garden: a metaphor for the everyday tragedy of children growing away from their parents’ reach. As Ruth grows away from her – as children must – Mrs Bridge wonders, “Are you mine? Is my daughter mine?”

She is scandalised but fascinated by a production of Tobacco Road, and a visit to Europe becomes a highlight of her life, to which she still refers many years later. It is during the trip that one vignette seems to sum up one aspect of her character neatly, so I reproduce it here in full:

Before leaving on the trip she had checked over the luggage in the attic and concluded they did not have enough, so she had gone downtown and bought three elegant, darkly burnished leather suitcases. They were so beautiful that she was easily persuaded by the salesman to buy a set of canvas covers to protect the leather. These covers, to be sure, were ugly – as coarse as Boy Scout pup tents – but she bought them and had them fitted onto the suitcases. The covers remained on the suitcases while they were aboard ship, and as they had been in each city only a few days she had not bothered to remove them, but now she decided to see if the leather was being protected. She unfastened one of the canvas jackets, peeled it halfway off, and there – as beautiful as though still on display – the leather gleamed. Well pleased, she buttoned the cover.

The difficulty with this sort of portrait is that it’s all too easy for the author to appear to be mocking his subject. Connell avoids this by giving Mrs Bridge increasing self-awareness, and urgings to spread her wings, as the book proceeds. Seeds are planted for some kind of breakdown – when returning from her trip and sharing the platitude that “there’s no place like home”, Mrs Bridge is “troubled and for a moment … almost engulfed by a nameless panic.”

Mrs Bridge is a depiction of a person whose subsumed desires, hopes and yearnings are rendered hopeless by her upbringing, her social position, and her personality. The miniature scenes are perfectly rendered, and so neat that the reader has to work to see the thrashing life beneath the surface. The ending is memorable though, and at times the book and the life seem so closely twined that it’s hard to tell them apart.

They had started off together to explore something that promised to be wonderful, and, of course, there had been wonderful times. And yet, thought Mrs Bridge, why is that we haven’t — that nothing has — that whatever we — ?

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25 Comments »

  1. I knew little enough about this book that I finished the review thinking Mr. and Mrs. Bridge were a UK couple and only after casting about a bit did I discover that they are based in Kansas City (I’m guessing that does qualify Connell as a writer who deserves more attention, at least in Canada. Certainly by this person who likes to think he knows a little bit about mid-Western North American fiction. Dead wrong on this one, duh). That added to my interest in the book, since I do think it would bring both Stoner (sorry I don’t know how to link to your great review — put it in yourself if you think the comparison is valid) and some of Wallace Stegner’s work into the comparison.

    And I should note that when I still thought it was set in the UK, I was making mental contrasts with Alan Sillitoe and his first two novels, set off, of course, by his death this week. For there to be Angry Young Men, there also need to be those who aren’t angry — from reading your review, it seems the Connell does a reasonable job of exploring ennui (and I mean that positively) as opposed to anger.

  2. Mary Gilbert said,

    It is nice to be reminded of a book I enjoyed reading in a Picador edition in the 80’s I think, which had both books under one title `Mr and Mrs Bridge’. There was a wonderful sense of the minutiae of daily living and of time passing along in tiny driblets but also a real sense of frustation that Mrs Bridge was never able to articulate the little disappointments of her life. One book I might want to compare this to as a portrait of humdrum provincial life is Sinclair Lewis’s Mainstreet written for a previous generation. His heroine Carol Kennicott has a far sparkier personality but the portrait of a life almost stifled by social conventions is similar.

  3. John Self said,

    Interesting comparison, Mary. I’ve read Lewis’s Babbitt (which I loved) but not Main Street – though as I see it was apparently reissued by Penguin Classics in the UK earlier this month, now might be a good time to remedy that.

    Kevin, ‘my bad’ as we are obliged to say online: I didn’t make the nationality of the characters or setting of the book clear. My review of Stoner, for those who want to follow Kevin’s connection, is here. As to Wallace Stegner, I have read Crossing to Safety, though I understand that Angle of Repose is the one to get. Is that so?

  4. Not a “bad” at all, John, rather an interesting detail that might be important to me and not many others. Crossing to Safety is the least typical of Stegner’s work (I would call it a very good digression) — I’d say both Angle of Repose and Big Rock Candy Mountain are more representative. What interests me in comparison to this book (and to Stoner as well) is the exploration of the powerlessness felt in middle America and the response to it. I agree with Mary that Lewis speaks to the same issues and also agree that Main Street is probably a better comparison on this theme than Babbitt, even if that is a better book. Lewis uses Main Street to look inward, as this book apparently does, while Babbitt has a more polemical tone to it.

    And the fact that I did not know where the book was set when I first read the review and made a different assumption originally makes it even more interesting because I think it opens the comparison of how the post-war generations (this is where Yates comes in) in both the UK and North America experienced the New World, before the Cold War World took over. The omission may have been an oversight but for this reader is was a very rewarding one.

  5. john h said,

    you keep surprising me with the books you review, John. Glad to see that someone else is reading some of the stuff I like. I hadn’t thought of this one in years. Enjoyed it a lot when I read it. You’re probably familiar with the movie made of it with Paul Newman and Joann Woodward. Very good, I thought, and faithful to the book.

    The comparison to “Stoner” is a good one although I can’t vouch for the Stegner similarity. Raymond Carver picked up this thread years later–the inarticulate average american–and did a lot with it.

    I’ve never read any other Connell although I know he’s got a lot out. You never see his books around where I live.

  6. Barbara said,

    What a surprise to see your thoughts on Mrs. Bridge. I was just sorting through my bookshelves on a day off yesterday and found my copies of Mrs Bridge and Mr. Bridge. They are lovely, and ring so true to me as a resident of the neighborhood just south of Mrs. Bridge in Kansas City. While several decades seperate us, Connell (a native of Kansas City) so captures the feeling of Kansas City and the places he describes in the book mostly are still here. It was through your blog that I discovered Stoner (also set in Missouri) and it is my current “you must read this”. I am forcing it into the hands of realtives, co-workers and library patrons. To continue your tour of Missouri-set nearly forgotten classics, my I suggest Moonflower Vine by Jetta Carleton?

  7. John Self said,

    Hi Barbara, thanks for your comment and I’m glad you liked Stoner. I will keep an eye out for Moonflower Vine. I suppose now I will have to get hold of Mr Bridge too…

    John, Connell in his other books seems to go in for fictional recreations of history: General Custer, the Crusades and so on. Sadly I have no idea where else one might go with him, since (as you say) there’s a lot of stuff out there with his name on it, and none of it leaps out very obviously.

  8. john h said,

    John,

    Barbara’s recommendation of “The Moonflower Vine” is a terrific one. Read it about a year or two ago. It’s the most popular book ever recommended on The neglected books site. In fact, they are the ones responsible for its coming back into print after many years of obscurity.

  9. Stewart said,

    On the subject of Connell being better known, it’s worth remembering he was a surprise inclusion amongst the nominees (which included James Kelman, Peter Carey, and eventuak winner, Alice Munro) for the Man Booker International Prize in 2009.

  10. John Self said,

    Oh, well remembered, Stewart. Maybe that suggests his other stuff is also worth a look.

    John, thanks for the backup for Barbara’s recommendation. I will look out for it.

  11. That vignette with the cases is marvellous. A well chosen quote, the rest wasn’t quite grabbing me, but that certainly did.

    August company it gets mentioned in too, I still have to read Stegner and Williams. I’ll keep a note of this, hopefully it’ll get that classics reprint sometime…

    On Sillitoe, perhaps unsurprisingly I was looking for Loneliness of a Long Distance Runner recently (I wrote up Saturday Night, Sunday Morning as one of the first entries on my blog) but it’s nowhere to be found. I can buy it online, with a cover taken from the film, but not in a shop. Curious, and a little disappointing.

  12. John Self said,

    Max, Sillitoe’s two best known works were reissued a few years ago as Modern Classics – you can get The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner in quite a few Waterstone’s branches. But I note on Amazon that both are showing long wait times for availability; presumably they had only a few copies in stock, sales spiked after his death and it’s now being reprinted (and won’t be available again until interest has diminished once more). I see in fact that my local Waterstone’s is one of those which stocks it, so I might pick up a copy myself and have a look.

  13. I tried a few places, Foyles, the LRB, and my local Waterstones but without success. I’ll check some of those other branches.

    Is there a Modern Classics version, or simply the Harper Perennial one with the film cover?

    Anyway, I’ll check out the branch copy locator, thanks.

  14. Ah, you mean a HP Modern Classic, my mistake, I was thinking Penguin.

    I think you’re right about the spike in demand. The lead times have become suddenly much longer.

  15. [...] Evan S. Connell: Mrs Bridge Mrs Bridge has the appearance of a gentle character study, but has ambition in its structure – one hundred brief scenes showing aspects of our heroine in a way that is as quietly devastating as anything Richard Yates wrote. Perhaps there is time, yet, for Connell to become belatedly famous without having to die in penury as Yates did, though someone had better put him back in print in the UK first. “They had started off together to explore something that promised to be wonderful, and, of course, there had been wonderful times. And yet, thought Mrs Bridge, why is that we haven’t — that nothing has — that whatever we — ?” [...]

  16. [...] that it’s approaching two years since I read and raved over Evan S. Connell’s novel Mrs Bridge? It feels like I just finished it. Back then, in the innocent days of April 2010, I asked [...]

  17. [...] hard to doubt that. They provide a life in episodes as convincing and moving as Connell’s Mrs Bridge, laying the character out from her childhood until after her death. However, I approached these [...]

  18. I just saw this today in Waterstones, and was impressed by the lightness and precision of the prose. Quite beautiful, which I guess with the Yates comparison you open with is no surprise. Time for me to pick this up.

    I still haven’t read The Loneliness of a Long Distance Runner, though at least I do now have a copy.

  19. [...] Natalie – born Keisha – told in short, numbered sections, like Evan S. Connell’s Mrs Bridge and Mr Bridge. Natalie, even while she is still a child, still Keisha, fears that she has no [...]

  20. Ulysses said,

    I really love your website.. Excellent colors & theme.

    Did you build this website yourself? Please reply back as I’m attempting to create my very own website and would like to find out where you got this from or exactly what the theme is named. Thank you!

  21. [...] Evan S. Connell’s Mr Bridge. I excluded it only because it depends on its companion volume, Mrs Bridge, for full effect, and the latter has had plenty of attention this year since its reissue by Penguin [...]

  22. [...] 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 [...]

  23. […] and virtually every blogger who reads it ends up adding it to their annual top 10 list (I have John Self’s review at the Asylum to thank for sparking my interest). India Bridge is one of those passive female […]

  24. […] for Evan S. Connell’s Mr Bridge. I excluded it only because it depends on its companion volume, Mrs Bridge, for full effect, and the latter has had plenty of attention this year since its reissue by Penguin […]

  25. […] a review written at the Asylum blog in 2010 the always astute John Self considers the novel as accomplished as anything by Richard Yates or William Trevor. Revolutionary […]


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