Across the Common by Elizabeth Berridge

First published in 1964, Across the Common is the third book I’ve read by the British writer Elizabeth Berridge, and it’s probably the richest and most complex of the three. There is quite a lot going on under the surface in this novel of family relationships and suburban life – a subversive element that reveals itself as the narrative progresses.

As the novel opens, Louise is in the process of leaving her husband, Max, to return to The Hollies, the house where she was brought up, largely by her aunts. Waiting at the door for Louise on her arrival are Aunt Rosa and Aunt Seraphina, almost as if they were expecting her despite the lack of notice.

Right from the start there is a strange aura surrounding life at The Hollies, situated as it is across from the common in suburban Pagham Green. The house itself was built by Louise’s grandfather, a man whose presence still casts a shadow over the property in spite of (or perhaps because of) his early death. Now the house has become a refuge ‘for that vanishing species, the Great British Aunt’, as Rosa and Seraphina are soon to be joined by their sister, the wheelchair-bound Cissie.

Berridge excels at creating miniature pen-portraits of the three aunts, capturing their personalities and idiosyncrasies in the most visual of ways.

Aunt Cissie sat in her wheelchair, tiny and malevolent. She could not have weighed more than seven stone, and yet she seemed to vibrate with energy and fill the hall. I had forgotten, or perhaps had never noticed, how handsome she was. She had the Braithwaite nose, high and arched, and a look of a Basque woman about her: indomitable, aristocratic, and yet with a peasant’s energy. Beside her, my two aunts looked faded. (p. 103)

With her fur hat and forthright manner, Cissie has the eccentric air of ‘minor royalty’, commanding attention as she makes her big entrance. By contrast, Aunt Rosa – the eldest and most orderly of the three sisters – seems rather reserved in comparison, a standing typified by her grey flannel dress. Ultimately, it is left to Aunt Seraphina – the green-fingered middle sister – to provide some of the novel’s most humorous moments. As Louise is somewhat surprised to observe, Seraphina is a dab hand at pilfering flower cuttings from the local park, expertly trimming geranium shoots with great speed and efficiency, irrespective of the official regulations.

‘Aunt Seraphina, you can’t! You’ll be had up! Suppose everybody just took –’

‘Hush, child. Everybody is not me. I understand flowers. They were simply begging to be propagated. There is no crime in simply taking a few shoots to propagate in one’s own garden. Think of the next frost: it would be too late. I cannot bear waste, and I told an officious keeper, so, once.’

‘You were caught?’

‘Caught? Come, come. I was observed, yes, and given a sharp warning. But I made him understand my views. I explained that it was my money being spent on this park, so I was entitled to a little interest on it. Men are so illogical.’ (p. 43)

Louise may have more than one reason for returning to her childhood home, for stepping into the past and its memories of those early years. Naturally, there is the question of what she ought to do in the future, having left Max to his work as an art teacher (and potentially the company of one of his students, too). At first, the split seems permanent, but as the novel progresses, the finality of this decision appears somewhat less certain.

Intertwined with these considerations are Louise’s reflections on her family history, particularly the apparent differences between the Braithwaite men and the women.

It was strange how this family had shed its men. They lost them by illness and disaster. And, if I faced it, by desertion. For their brothers, except for Bertie, still, one presumed, in Canada or America, were dead. They outlived their husbands, would-be lovers and sons. Men, one felt, were merely milestones. (p. 97)

In short, these unsettling feelings are heightened by a letter from Louise’s father (now deceased) that has recently come to light. The letter – which was written several years earlier and placed in the hands of a solicitor – reveals previously undisclosed information about the death of Louise’s grandfather and its ramifications for the wider family. It’s a revelation that ultimately forces Louise to confront the possibility of darkness and violence in her family’s history, where secrets were concealed to protect the reputations of the innocent.

There is a sense that Louise has also returned ‘home’ to understand her past more clearly, to gain a kind of freedom or independence from the aunts who raised her. It is only by doing this, by uncovering the guilt and shame inherent in The Hollies, that she can hope to move forward.

While there is a narrative of sorts here, Across the Common is a character-driven novel – an insightful and humane look at the complexities of family relationships. Berridge has a wonderful eye for detail, capturing the aunts’ minor jealousies with humour and authenticity. The way they cling to the past, guarding their individual habits and rituals, is really quite endearing, highlighting our need as human beings for some dignity and stability – particularly in old age. Louise too is very well drawn, with an engaging combination of visible sympathy and private humour.

Overall, then, an enjoyable read with some great characterisation. Well worth seeking out if you’re a fan of this type of fiction. The Gerts have also written about this book, and you can find their thoughts here

My copy of Across the Common was published by Abacus; personal copy.

36 thoughts on “Across the Common by Elizabeth Berridge

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Gert. Your review definitely piqued my interest in this. I preferred it to Sing Me Who You Are, which I read last year. I can’t recall if you’ve tried that one yet?

      Reply
            1. JacquiWine Post author

              Excellent! If you can find a copy, I would highly recommend Berridge’s first novel, The Story of Stanley Brent. It’s very short, but there’s enough depth in the narrative to leave a strong emotional impression.

              Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes! I have to admit that the cover art was part of the attraction with these books. Simon (at Stuck in a Book) tweeted about them (maybe a year ago), and I just couldn’t resist…

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I just looked up the publication date for Memento Mori, Muriel Spark’s excellent novel about the vagaries of ageing and the inevitability of death. That came out in 1959, so maybe it was more common back then. I’m sure there are various other examples too – Margaret Laurence’s The Stone Angel, for instance – also published in 1964, the same year as this Berridge.

      Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          Yes, it could well be. It might also be a function of the types of women writers being published back then – writers like Barbara Pym, Elizabeth Taylor and Elizabeth Jane Howard who showed an interest in the lives of older women alongside their younger protagonists?

          Reply
            1. JacquiWine Post author

              Yes, I’m sure you’re right about the publishing market. There seems to be a greater willingness to invest in films featuring older protagonists – more so than with novels, I think!

              Reply
  1. Janakay | YouMightAsWellRead

    Excellent & enjoyable review, as always! You really captured the strengths of Berridge’s writing. The portrait of the aunts, particularly the plant-nabbing one, was my favorite part of the book, which I read this one about a year age (but never reviewed it). I love the cover! My own copy, which I located with some difficulty, was a mass market paperback from a publisher who marketed the novel as a Gothic romance! Amusing but . . . .

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, the aunts are wonderful! Each one with their own particular habits and idiosyncrasies which Berridge very cleverly portrays. Like you, I loved those scenes with Seraphina in the park, squirreling away the plant cuttings like it was the most natural thing to do!

      Reply
  2. 1streading

    I love the idea of something unsettling lying beneath the surface of the present – though this was perhaps more obvious to American readers where the novel was called The Violent Past! I’ve just had a look at Berridge’s obituary (I really don’t know anything about her) and enjoyed the story of her decline into obscurity allowing her, when her work was selected for an anthology, to be thought of as a new, young writer when she was in her eighties!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, I wasn’t aware of that being the US title, but now that you’ve mentioned it I can see that it makes a lot of sense! There are dark secrets from the past — hidden behind the picket fence, so to speak — so the title feels highly appropriate. A lovely anecdote from her obituary too. I wonder how frequently she was mistaken for the American actress who shares her name – another much younger woman than the British Elizabeth Berridge herself!

      Reply
  3. Julé Cunningham

    Elizabeth Berridge’s books always sound so appealing with interesting and complex characters, but they aren’t widely available here. Perhaps an independent will reissue them one day. Love your description of the aunts and how they are such distinctive personalities.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, I hope so because she definitely seems ripe for some kind of revival. Her characters are believable and distinctive, with just the right amount of eccentricity to avoid them feeling cliched.

      Reply
  4. heavenali

    Oh this sounds fantastic. Those aunts seem like brilliantly drawn characters. I have wanted to read more Elizabeth Berridge, having only read the collection of stories Persephone publish, but this one sounds like a must.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I genuinely think you would enjoy this one, Ali. The aunts are gloriously idiosyncratic, just the type of characters that would appeal to you in a novel!

      Reply
  5. kaggsysbookishramblings

    Great review, Jacqui! I don’t need any convincing about how good Berridge’s writing is, so I really will have to track down some of her novels. And it sounds like this one would be a good place to start! :D

    Reply
  6. Cosy Books

    Who could resist Aunt Seraphina?! I crossed my fingers while searching for this on the library’s website without luck but it has been added to my wish list. Lovely review!

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

  8. buriedinprint

    I’ve likely mentioned this before, because I’ve wanted to read the other two books of hers you previously discussed as well, but the public library here has EIGHT of her books, all reference-only, which seems completely unfair. I mean, there they are, all stuck away on their shelves, lonely during the pandemic, and here I am, all stuck away willing to read them. It seems that we should be able to work SOMEthing out for those eight little lovelies. (Yes, this is one of them.)

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Gah! Well, hopefully there will come a point when you’ll be able to gain access to them as the three I’ve read so far are definitely worth your time. Sing Me Who We Are is the weakest imo, but even so, there’s something spikey about it – the kind of quality that gets under your skin, even if you’re not entirely on board with it…

      Reply

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