Elizabeth Berridge’s work “concealed a deep subversiveness”

Elizabeth Berridge

Harriet Harvey Wood writes of Elizabeth Berridge:

Although she was, on the surface, a conventional master of conservative suburban fiction, her work concealed a deep subversiveness. The reader continually finds his expectations railroaded on to a completely different track. She was, par excellence, the celebrator of family life. There is, as she said herself, no substitute for the family: “It is society’s first teething ring, man’s proving ground. When repudiated, it still leaves its strengthening mark. When it does the rejecting, the outcast is damaged. Within its confines, devils and angels rage together, emotions creep underfoot like wet rot, or flourish like Russian ivy. It is the world in microcosm, the nursery of tyrants, the no man’s land of suffering, a place and a time, a rehearsal for silent parlour murder.”

Berridge was an expert at charting the small cruelties that husband and wife, parent and child, can inflict on each other in the domestic arena, and at describing the intrinsic dignity and extrinsic humiliations of old age. On the other hand, she freely admitted to a preoccupation with aunts, and this is manifest in most of her finely crafted fiction, where aunts of all varieties – mainly elderly – proliferate on the page, realistically, if lovingly, described. Readers of Across the Common will not soon forget Aunt Seraphina, expertly stuffing her bag with cuttings from the flowerbeds of Regent’s Park under the nose of the keeper for the benefit of her garden at home.

She was perhaps unfortunate in having spent the largest part of her writing career in the days before the proliferation of literary prizes raised the publicity value of writers to a pitch undreamed of in the 1940s and 50s. Her name was largely unknown in her latter years except to her contemporaries, partly because of the resolution with which she protected her private life. The reissue on Faber Finds of six of her novels in 2008 and 2009 gave her pleasure, and her writing retained its freshness and elegance to the end.

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