A policeman encountering Mrs Bridge on the home furnishings floor of a Kansas City department store recognises her at once for what she is: ‘a bona-fide country-club matron’. Had she been asked to identify herself, Mrs Bridge would have said the same, after asserting unequivocally that she was first and foremost the wife of Mr Walter Bridge, successful Kansas City lawyer, as entirely constrained by her status as professional spouse as Chaucer’s Wife of Bath or Jan Struther’s Mrs Miniver.
Like Mrs Miniver, Mrs Bridge inhabits an interwar world shaped by a promise of certainties — domestic, social, cultural and sexual — which are never wholly realised and remain frustratingly elusive. As a result, every aspect of her life is dominated by the same unresolved anxiety. This fruitless fretting forms the principal spring of Connell’s comedy; it also provides grounds for our sympathy with his dazed and confused and consistently unheroic heroine. ‘She never forgot this moment when she almost apprehended the very meaning of life, and of the stars and planets, yes, and the flight of the earth.’ The critical word is ‘almost’.
Connell’s two novels were written a decade apart, Mrs Bridge in 1959, Mr Bridge in 1969. By then the world they describe was already a lost one. Mrs Bridge fills her days shopping for cocktail napkins; her husband works and works and works. Occasionally, over lunch parties and in the evening, conversation touches on Nazism or Mussolini’s invasion of Ethiopia. For the most part, the Bridges’ worldview inclines to myopia or determined blinkeredness. ‘Mrs Bridge could not imagine anyone wanting to live outside the United States. To visit, yes. To take up residence, no.’
It is an outlook her husband shares, an instance of mutuality in a superficially successful marriage which betrays to outsiders none of its barrenness or isolation. Despite their three children, Ruth, Carolyn and Douglas, husband and wife are virtual strangers to one another, Mr Bridge incapable of articulating his feelings though subject to stabs of physical desire, Mrs Bridge repeatedly ‘not certain what she wanted from life, or what to expect from it’. Mr Bridge is accustomed to his wife’s ‘extraordinary naïveté’; he does not always respond to it with kindness or sensitivity. Introspection and imagination are as surely his foes as they are Mrs Bridge’s, albeit for different reasons:
Early tomorrow I must get up again to do what I have done today. I will get up early to do this, and tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow, and there is nothing to discuss.
Individually and together Connell’s novels offer the reader a portrait of a marriage. Both cover the same ground. Their richness lies in that fertile grey area between appearance and reality, Mrs Bridge’s faltering and failed attempts to make sense of this gap, Mr Bridge’s conviction that no such effort on his part is necessary or even desirable.
Connell as author removes himself entirely from the text: he offers neither commentary nor judgment. Mrs Bridge ‘judged people by their shoes and by their manners at the table’. Apparently invisibly, Connell guides the reader towards more insightful interpretations. We experience the Bridges’ shortcomings like pinpricks, the placidness of their smooth middle-class existence continually threatened by incursions of doubt and foreboding.
Their fortunes are untouched by the Depression; Mrs Bridge only just holds at bay depression of another variety. It is our sense of something untoward close below the surface, and our knowledge that both husband and wife recognise its nearness, which transform these comfortable, charming novels into something larger and richer. Although we are never as intimate with Mrs Bridge as we are with Jan Struther’s Mrs Miniver, we extend to her American counterpart a degree of sympathy that Mrs Miniver neither expects nor requires.
Although both novels are written in the same studiedly simple, undecorated prose, with few rhetorical flourishes, in short chapters described by one critic as ‘Confucian’ in their exactness and with a seemingly unrelenting realism, Mrs Bridge is the pacier of the two and Mrs Bridge herself consistently the more attractive of Connell’s protagonists.
British readers will embrace or reject the novels’ assertively American quality. With an interval of time, aspects of the Bridges’ world appear impossibly remote: despite Mr Bridge’s anti-Semitism and his views on race relations, this portrait of middle-class middle America feels closer than a similar snapshot of English life of the same period. Sharper than any period detail is the tang of unhappiness which insists on clouding the Bridges’ sunshine: it almost obscures these novels’ wonderful comedy.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated 8 June 2013Tags: American fiction, American’s Mrs Miniver, Book review, modern classics