In his preface to this delightful Persephone Books edition of short stories by Elizabeth Berridge, A N Wilson writes
A short story with the title ‘To Tea with the Colonel’ would suggest to many readers that they were about to enter a comfortable and conservative past, an England which was extremely English. Elizabeth Berridge, though, is a true subversive in that you can never guess, when you start to read one of her tales, where it will lead you.
These stories are all set in the 1940’s and there is nothing comfortable or conservative about any of them.
In Snowstorm a young female doctor questions her path in life after unflinching young woman’s baby dies, in spite of the doctor’s efforts.
Some stories are about family struggles and the dislike that can exist between family members, or husbands and wives. In Woman About the House James lies in bed listening to the sounds outside
All night long the heavy lorries raced up the road towards the North…His thoughts followed the drumming of rough tyres on to the next town…
And the story contrasts the rhythm of movement to the flat stasis of the countryside around him and his married life. But he is not trapped. He takes action and frees himself.
Much later he was asleep, smiling at the ceiling which passing headlights patterned strangely. From the night outside came the sound of wet tyres churning along the sticky road.
In the strange title story, Mrs Hatfield, hastening back to Belvedere to relate the story of her ransacked home in London, goes through an aerial bombardment, but is still intent on telling her new friends the ‘real news’.
Shaking a little, she went over the humped bridge and along the road. Overhead the wires sang between her and the faint moon, cold as the rime on the hedges.
Although these stories are in the voice of the 1940’s to some extent; woman are called Miss and Mrs, Colonels own large estates, Elizabeth Berridge takes nothing at face value. From the returned POW and his wife who dare to ask the Colonel for a house, to the young man who castigates his mother for getting her sense of purpose from her ‘war effort’ she is alive to every nuance of human behaviour. From the lonely woman who is open to friendship with a young German prisoner on a work detail to the woman grieving for the death of her husband, these stories cover the compass of human experience. Quite wonderful stories to be read and re-read. I’ll let A N Wilson have the last word
So much which concerns the publishing and promoting of English fiction seems to be a matter of chance. Why are some unimpressive writers so famous, and some good ones so unjustly neglected? Elizabeth Berridge is quite easily as impressive as many of the famous names of the twentieth century…a novelist of distinction who is also…equally at home in the quite different medium of the short story, with its need for an iron discipline and control.