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…