The Story of Stanley Brent by Elizabeth Berridge (1945)

This is wonderful – a story that compresses the key moments of a man’s life into just 75 pages. It’s the debut novel (or novella) by the English writer Elizabeth Berridge, whose Sing Me Who You Are (1967) I read earlier this year.

The novella opens with a notable event as Stanley – an assistant at a traditional Estate Agents in Belgravia – proposes marriage to his girlfriend, Ada, following an outing in the rain. It’s a touching, self-effacing scene, one that captures something of the tone in this thoughtful little book.

After a long engagement, Stanley and Ada marry. However, their hopes of a bright, optimistic future are somewhat tainted by a difficult honeymoon, particularly as their attempts at lovemaking leave Ada traumatised by the experience. Stanley, for his part, feels angry and ashamed, trapped in his own sense of isolation as he surveys the world outside.

The sight of the flat sands, the quietness of the night, emphasised by the slight sea-noise of dark waters, bought him uncomfortably face to face with himself. Time seemed absent. This was an hour that would not tally with his accustomed thoughts – not only was Ada a stranger to him, he was a stranger to himself. He was conscious of life and death flowing in and around him, desolating and building his spirit, testing and judging. He had never felt so helpless. (p. 22)

On their return home, the Brents slip into a life of routine and domesticity. Two daughters come along; various illnesses and disabilities are hinted at; and suddenly WW1 breaks out (although Stanley is not admitted to the army, presumably for health reasons).

What Berridge does so well throughout the book is to convey the feeling of a life slipping by. Stanley is rather passive and unambitious, qualities that are reflected both in his marriage and in his approach to work. Despite being made a junior partner at the firm, Stanley fails to see that the world around him is changing. He is too snobbish and wedded to tradition to take advantage of the demand for modest properties, a trend that accelerates in the years following the war. There is a degree of passivity too in Stanley’s response to his wife’s brief dalliance, something that gives Ada a sense of freedom and enjoyment. In another affecting scene, the two briefly reconcile when Ada realises the foolishness of her actions and Stanley reveals his deep-seated fear of loss.

As the years go by, the Brents continue to drift apart, fuelled by Ada’s ambitions for her daughters and Stanley’s inherent inertia and possibly depression – signs of an increasing dependence on alcohol begin to appear, especially when Stanley enters middle age.

…but he, Stanley Brent, why should he be lonely? Was it his own fault that Ada treated him so impatiently? Was he so impossible? Take that remark she had flung at him this morning, so final it had sounded. She seemed to know just what to say to agitate and make him appear muddle-headed. What he thought of as calmness was to her merely torpor. But what had she said? Like a splinter it had penetrated the surface of his mind; he could feel it working on his nerves, hurtfully. (p. 56)

There is such poignancy in Berridge’s portrayal of Stanley, which succeeds in capturing the loneliness a man can feel, even when he is surrounded by his family. As a novella, it highlights the small yet significant moments in day-to-day life, the unspoken tragedies of missed opportunities and other lives that might have been lived. Berridge accentuates this theme with a recurring motif, an unfinished tune on a violin that signals a connection between Stanley and Ada’s step-father, Monsieur Boucher, another man whose life seems shrouded in melancholy.

I really loved this novella, which manages to pack an impressive depth of feeling into a very compact story. The book itself comes in a beautiful hardback edition from Michael Walmer’s publishing house. My thanks for kindly providing a review copy.

28 thoughts on “The Story of Stanley Brent by Elizabeth Berridge (1945)

  1. mikewalmer

    Really glad you got so much out of this, Jacqui. I too love Stanley’s complex and vulnerable character. Thanks.

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Mike. You know, I actually much prefer this novella to Sing Me Who You Are, the other Berridge I read back in the summer. Although ‘Stanley’ is an earlier work, it feels tighter and more compelling than ‘Sing’. Thanks again for publishing it.

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, she manages to fit so much in. A VERY different style of book, but it reminded me a little of Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams, which also compresses a whole adult life into a short work of fiction.

  2. Julé Cunningham

    Elizabeth Berridge sounds like one of those enviable writers who can take the ordinariness of life and in a few pages turn it into such richness with layers of emotion and possibilities to explore.

  3. buriedinprint

    The previous work of hers sent me scurrying to the library but I’ve had no luck with this one either. (They have several of her books reference-only, but not this one, even if this was a time in which one was able to access that collection.) This book in particular sounds like a little of Anita Brookner and a little of William Trevor?

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, I think you’re right. Possibly closer to William Trevor than Brookner, particularly given the degree of poignancy in the story. Sorry to hear that you’re struggling to find these Berridges at the library. Do they have a copy of Across the Common, by any chance? (It’s another one of the novels previously published by Abacus.) I have a copy in my TBR and it sounds rather promising!

  4. gertloveday

    What a treat; another Elizabeth Berridge. I really feel she deserves to be better known. I am reading Rose Under Glass at the moment, Has her usual wicked humour. And such fun to be reading a book from an era where laundrettes are a big novelty!

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, that sounds great! I shall be very interested to hear what you think once you’re done. I seem to recall it being harder to track down than the other two Abacus editions – Across the Common and Sing Me Who You Are — but I’ll have another look around.

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, a really interesting ‘rediscovery’ – all sparked by those eye-catching portraits on the covers of the Abacus editions. I loved the economy of this one. It’s a slim book, but the emotions run fast and deep.

  5. Grier

    I read Tell It to a Stranger this year and liked it very much. I favor authors who can say a lot in a few pages and will look for this one.

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Cool. I actually prefer it to the other Berridge I read earlier this year – Sing Me Who You Are. Ali has also recommended Berridge’s stories, so I shall have to check them out!

  6. Pingback: A-Z Index of Book Reviews (listed by author) | JacquiWine's Journal

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