‘Across the Common’…a nice English title, you think perhaps a cosy Barbara Pymish book about a young woman finding her way in life in a small village. But then if I tell you it was published in America under the title The Violent Past, you might wonder how the two titles could refer to the same book. But then you might consider Barbara Pym, Elizabeth Taylor and Barbara Comyns and recall how their very Englishness had quite a dark side to it. And Elizabeth Berridge belongs very much in the company of these great female writers. I find it remarkable she is so little known. I would never have discovered her if I had not read a review of a recent reprint of her short stories Tell it to a Stranger (Thank you Guy at swiftlytiltingplanetwordpress.com) where this quote really appealed to me, the reflection of an aging woman on a visit from her great nephew ‘Another bit of cargo dropped overboard to lighten the boat on its lonely journey over a darkening sea.’
I had to hunt quite hard to find a copy of any of her works in Australia and I have sent for two more from second-hand bookshops in Britain. But Across the Common is a wonderful start. It was published in 1964 and won the Yorkshire Post prize for Novel of the Year. This book and another, On Several Occasions, were serialised by the BBC. Her publications include eight novels, a couple of children’s books, and edition of Elizabeth Barret Browning’s Diary and two books of short stories. A N Wilson and Diana Athill have praised her work. Whether she just didn’t have the right publisher (many of her books had covers that suggested they were Aga sagas) or whether she was just a little further on into the 1960’s and English life was taking off in many directions from the seemingly eternally settled past, she remains neglected.
Her protagonist, Louise, is a young woman who married young. (And more is revealed about the circumstances of this) She has been married for twelve years to the loving tolerant Max and she has had enough. She decides to go home to the Braithwaites, to the house on the edge of the common. After all her aunts had said to her
‘If you ever want to leave that man, come home.’ They would put me in the room where I had slept as a child; it had been waiting for me for years. It was big and sunny and overlooked the common.
And it seems that Louise has never quite grown up. In her thirties she goes home to be a child again. Her aunts greet her with no surprise. They have never left home apart from Aunt Seraphina going away for a short time to be an opera singer, but she was soon home again. Aunt Rosa ran a business of her own, but now their lives are lived at The Hollies. They tell Louise her Aunt Cissie is returning home, too She has been married (twice) but now she is confined to a wheel-chair and has to come home. They are all cared for by Gibby, who came to them when she was fourteen years old. She knows all the family secrets, and after Louise has been given a letter written to her by her long dead father, Gibby is the first person from whom she seeks information. It is a long letter and written in stages
‘You are too young to know the atmosphere of this house. It is like living in a minefield; confined energy in tins buried and waiting for the unwary foot.’
And Louise begins to be aware for the first time of the pressure of the past. Why is the gate to the common always locked? What happened on the night Grandfather’s tropical flower bloomed? Why was his closest friend Sir Roger Casement?
Gradually the family story, the covered-up shame, becomes clearer to Louise. And along the way she gains a little more clarity about herself.
Then she has Aunt Cissie to deal with.
There is nothing cliché about Across the Common. Elizabeth Berridge takes some words from T S Eliot as her epigraph
Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future…
But to what purpose
Disturbing the dust on a bowl of roseleaves
I do not know
And these words resonate for Louise and for this little gem of a novel.
Elizabeth Berridge is a wonderful discovery.