Sing Me Who You Are by Elizabeth Berridge

There’s been a little flurry of interest in Elizabeth Berridge recently, partly prompted by a series of tweets from Simon (@stuck_inabook) and Frances (@nonsuchbook) on the Abacus editions of three of this author’s novels. Like Frances, I was intrigued by the sound of Berridge’s distinctly English style and promptly sent off for secondhand copies of two of the books, Across the Common (1964) and Sing Me Who You Are (1967). Now that I’ve read Sing, I can say that the cover matches the book to a T, perfectly capturing the rather idiosyncratic nature of the novel’s protagonist, Harriet Cooper.

Harriet – an unmarried librarian in her late thirties – has just inherited a rather ramshackle bus from her late Aunt Esther, which she plans to make her home. As the novel opens, Harriet is arriving at Uplands – a 250-acre Cambridgeshire estate where the bus happens to be located – complete with all her belongings and a pair of Siamese cats. While Harriet has been given the bus, she does not have any claim to Uplands, which is owned by her older cousin, Magda. These two women are very different from one another, both in looks and in stature. While Harriet is dowdy and mannish-looking, Magda is wealthy and attractive, very much the moneyed countrywoman with links to the local council.    

Harriet’s arrival at Uplands is a thorn in Magda’s side, the presence of the bus proving to be something of an irritation – a blot on the pastoral landscape, so to speak.

Earlier on she [Magda] had stood at the highest point of her estate, above the spinney that protected Harriet’s old converted bus, looking down over the woods and field that drifted gently to the little town below. At this time of year she could see a long way, beyond the town and over at least six counties. But all she had noticed this morning was the smoke from that absurd chimney of Harriet’s bus. The smoke rose unhurriedly from beyond the trees, for the wind which had chased the rain away had itself gone, leaving a still, damp autumn day. Harriet’s smoke irritated her, as if her cousin was deliberately writing sky signals asserting her presence on this land. And Harriet was someone whom you couldn’t very well order off, like gipsies or tramps. However much you wanted to, you couldn’t do that to poor old Harry. (p. 21)

There is a sense that Harriet had been feeling somewhat suffocated in her former role as a librarian; perhaps as a consequence of this, she views the bus as something of a fresh start, ushering in a degree of freedom from past constraints. Magda, on the other hand, is convinced that Harriet will hotfoot it back to London once the weather turns colder, underestimating the latter’s determination to stick it out.

At heart, the novel is a character study, an exploration of the tensions that arise between family members whose relationships reach back into the past. There is a spikiness to Harriet’s personality, a prickliness that can annoy others. Childhood rivalries resurface; former crushes re-emerge, particularly those involving Scrubbs, a womaniser with previous links to both Harriet and Magda. While Scrubbs is no longer alive, his shadow still hangs over the family in various and surprising ways. As the narrative unravels, longstanding secrets are revealed, and Harriet must come to terms with an altered view of her Aunt Esther.

The situation is further complicated by the presence of Magda’s husband, Gregg, a man who finds Harriet’s directness rather attractive. With his marriage to Magda on the wane, Gregg is pleased that Harriet has come to Uplands, and a tender entanglement between the two swiftly follows.  

While I didn’t love this novel quite as much as I had expected to – Berridge isn’t quite up there with the likes of Beryl Bainbridge, Barbara Pym or some of my other favourite women writers from this period – I still liked it a lot, particularly the author’s use of dry humour.

Harriet’s mother had died in the middle of Hymn No. 270 (Ancient and Modern). Her high, tuneless soprano had stopped abruptly and she had dropped forward over the back of the pew in front, hymnbook still open in her hand. Her peppermints, gloves and collection money (two sixpenny pieces, to make a modest jingle) had dropped off the shelf and rolled out into the aisle. Her chin had hit the wood, and her shiny straw hat, a new one, was jerked forward violently over her reading-glasses. All around the singing had grown ragged, heads turned.

It had been horrible. All the more so as this sort of behaviour would have horrified Mrs Cooper herself. (If the woman didn’t feel well, why hadn’t she stayed at home? Such a commotion, so unfeeling.) She must have died at once, Harriet saw, as she picked her up, for there was no realization of any outrage on her face. There was no expression at all. (pp. 27–28)

So, an interesting and intriguing read – there’s certainly enough going on here to make me want to read more. If you’ve read anything by Berridge, I’d be curious to hear your thoughts…

31 thoughts on “Sing Me Who You Are by Elizabeth Berridge

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      It’s a great passage, isn’t it? Absolutely the highlight of the book for me. And yes, I agree – the little detail about the coins makes all the difference. Just enough to make a noticeable jingle…wonderful.

      Reply
  1. gertloveday

    I loved Across the Common and thought she was up there with the best. While not being as dark as Barbara Comyns, she is not so stuck in middle-classness as say Barbara Pym. I am waiting for Sing Me Who You Are to make its way to me from the U K. Even more intrigued to read it now.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Wonderful! I suspect Across the Common might be the better of the two, but there’s definitely enough going on here to keep you amused. I agree with you about the broader sweep across the social classes. Berridge doesn’t shy away from talking about sex either; her observations on relationships are suitable ‘earthy’, if that makes sense? Less prim and proper than my beloved Pym.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Great cover, isn’t it? A big part of the attraction for me, I must admit. That and the dilapidated bus. As you say, there’s a degree of originality to the plot, a quirkinesses all of its own.

      Reply
  2. heavenali

    I have been meaning to look for these Abbacus editions myself. I really like the sound of this novel. I read Tell it to a Stranger by Elizabeth Berridge a collection of stories published by Persephone. I thought it was an excellent collection. I thought she was especially good at character, and that seems to be the case here too.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, the characters are intriguing and unusual. The plot (what there is of it) meanders quite a bit, but the idiosyncrasies and foibles of the characters more than make up for that. You’re never quite sure what they’re going to do next, if that makes sense? I think you’d enjoy this quite a bit, Ali…

      Oh, and thanks for the tip about her stories – another reader also recommended them via Twitter, so that’s all to the good!

      Reply
  3. kaggsysbookishramblings

    I haven’t read any Berridge yet, but I’m defintely intrigued (and I was when all the buzz was going on round Twitter.) Fortuitously, I’ve just been offered a review copy of a reprint of a short work by her, so I may be able to tell you soon(ish) what I think – watch this space!! :D That’s a great quote, though, and I quite fancy living on a bus myself!!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, fantastic. I shall look forward to hearing more about that. The quotes are great, aren’t they? I think I’m left will a slight feeling of the novel as a whole not quite adding up to the sum of its individual parts; but even so, there are little nuggets of insight to be found along the way.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I knew I’d seen a post of her short stories somewhere but couldn’t quite remember where. It must have been over at yours. Thanks for that. I shall definitely take a closer look…

      Reply
  4. 1streading

    It seems there’s no end to these English women writers of the middle of last century waiting to be rediscovered – there’s definitely a book in it for someone. Perhaps something you should think about, Jacqui?

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Ha! I’m not sure I quite have the requisite knowledge or qualifications for that one. It’s a great thought, though. I for one would be interested to read it!

      Reply
  5. Madhavan

    A generalized question after reading Tove Ditlevsen, Anne Enright, Ferrante do you think female writers are better in capturing female characterisation than male writers who only have an outside view how a female thinks, sees.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, that’s in interesting question. In general, yes, I do think female writers are better than their male counterparts when it comes to portraying women, particularly their inner lives and emotions. That said, there are some male writers who are very adept at creating complex and believable female characters. Colm Toibin definitely springs to mind with Nora Webster and Brooklyn. William Trevor, too. Oh, and Brian Moore – The Passion of Judith Hearne is remarkably good.

      What’s your view on this? I’d be interested to hear…

      Reply
      1. Madhavan

        In literary canon great female characters are done by male writers madame bovary, anna karenina,nana, Isabel etc.while female writers paints a different picture of themselves in jane austen, woolf while emily bronte is lauded for creating a character like heathcliff also, so in contemporary times through translations we are knewing more about female writers more through their inner life paved by literary foremothers. so i was intrigued why female charcters by female authors not lauded enough or given ample space enough when they knew too much of themselves.

        Reply
  6. Simon T

    It’s been fun to see a little renaissance, thanks largely to those wonderful covers! Sorry this one wasn’t everything you’d hoped, but glad you enjoyed. It’s waiting on my shelf…

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Aren’t they great? So idiosyncratic and appealing. It’s a pity they don’t make them like this any more. Anyway, I’m glad you posted the picture, it certainly prompted me to go on a bit of hunt for them, quirky covers and all!

      Reply
  7. Grier

    I read Tell It to a Stranger this year and would gladly read more Berridge. I love a character-driven novel and this seems to fill the bill.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      There are some very amusing moments, for sure! I got these two from Abe Books at less than £6 for the pair. There’s another one in the same series, Rose Under Glass; but for some reason it was much more expensive than the other two…

      Reply
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  9. buriedinprint

    Awww, I was initially very excited to see that there are nine items listed with her name in the library, but not one is available for circulation. It sounds like a voice I’d like to explore, so I look forward to doing so vicariously through your digging now.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, that’s a pity! Even though I wasn’t 100% sold on this novel as a whole, I really enjoyed certain elements of it. As you say, there’s something about this writer’s voice — a prickliness or spikiness that gets under the skin.

      Reply
  10. moirar2

    Yes, I took keep hearing about this author. I remember seeing those covers in bookshops back in the 1970s I would say, but don’t think I read any. Sounds intriguing, I will surely have to try one.

    Reply
  11. Pingback: The Story of Stanley Brent by Elizabeth Berridge (1945) | JacquiWine's Journal

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