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Ann Bridge: The Hatchet Job

Article by our new permanent reviewer, Kate Macdonald

Let me read you part of the author’s biography on the back over of a 1949 Penguin edition of an Ann Bridge novel:

‘Ann Bridge is perhaps the best-known pseudonym in her own generation of writers. She is the wife of a distinguished member of the Diplomatic Service; but although she is old enough to have a grown-up family, her novels speak more for the present than for the older generations. A keen climber, she became the youngest member of the Alpine Club at the age of 19, with sixteen first-class ascents to her credit. She is a great gardener; she has an interest in and knowledge of archaeology rare in her sex; and she has deep learning in her own craft of writing.’

How does that make you feel about the featured writer? Someone you’d rush to chat to at a cocktail party? Someone you want to read? Frankly, it brings out my inner Marxist, because this is what that blurb says to me:

‘Ann Bridge has to be best at something but it’s clearly not writing. She’s privileged and titled. She thinks she’s admired by readers of her children’s generation and she’s snooty about readers of her own age. Her early climbing exploits are clung to pathetically, as if she’d done nothing as admirable since. She’s a terrific bore about ruins. She thinks she’s a great writer.’

Here is a description of the heroine, Lady Kilmichael, from that novel, Illyrian Spring (1935):

‘As a wife of a brilliant and successful economist, and as mother of three children now rising twenty and capable of arranging their own lives she felt she had failed, or rather finished her task in the home. As the artist – Grace Stanway – to the world she was well-known and successful in her own right, a point which her family had always slightly resented.‘

I see a certain similarity already between author and character, but let’s allow that for now. Lady Kilmichael’s resentment is dwelt on, at length, for some pages, and no member of her family is allowed to evade the hurt accusation that they simply did not appreciate this delicious, talented, selfless, beautiful artist in their midst. Lady K is also unpleasantly bitchy, in a diffident, ladylike way, about Mrs Barum, the woman she fancies her husband is seeing more than he should.

‘She wasn’t a Jewess; only married to a Jew. That was the worst of being an economist, Lady Kilmichael thought – Jews sort of cropped up all round you. No – that was a Nazi way of thinking; she ought not to think that. She must be fair. Only Mrs Barum was really plain; and she was worse than plain, she was rather fat, and hadn’t the wits to realise that fat women ought to wear their clothes very loose, to look at all possible.’

Lady Kilmichael naturally always looks possible. Ann Bridge’s descriptions of her heroine are uncannily like those of Max Beerbohm’s beauty Zuleika Dobson, whose eyes were just too large, and whose waist was just too tiny: only Beerbohm was joking, and Ann Bridge really means it.

‘Her dark clothes were of that distinguished simplicity, so unobtrusive as almost to render the wearer invisible, which well-bred women affect for the street; only her height and slenderness marked her out in any way from any hundred of other well-dressed, quietly good-looking, grey-eyed Englishwomen, with nice complexions and faultless hair.’

She is misunderstood and underappreciated (perhaps her family objected to her fascist tendencies?), so she’s leaving in a humble huff.

‘In a way it is rather a mistake, in such circumstances, to travel by the Simplon Orient Express; but Lady Kilmichael was going to Venice, and she lived in a world which knew no other way of getting to Venice […] When the train pulled out and began to lurch through the south-eastern suburbs of London, she put her paper down with a slightly increased sense of safety, and sat staring out over the chimney-pots of the poor.’

Thank fully the poor do not need to notice, because Lady Kilmichael would never have anything to do with the London poor, though in this novel she delights in mingling graciously with Yugoslav peasants while she paints magnificent floral masterpieces. Ann Bridge herself knows all about the Yugoslav peasantry, and also the language they speak in. She follows ‘the best Yugo-Slav authorities’ on spelling their place-names, we are told in a self-important little Author’s Note at the beginning of the novel. Who in 1935 would know any better, or care?

In Ann Bridge’s world everyone naturally cares about her heroines and the delightful young men they pick up, because no-one else matters. Her novels (I’ve read four, and her autobiography) rely on the reader being content to sink into an uncritical featherbed of upper-class standards of taste and behaviour. Money is available whenever needed, as are delightful pensiones or charming attic apartments festooned with white lilies, when the heroine needs a rustic foreign hideaway where she can practice her Yugo-Slav or her Mandarin on the natives, and generally sort everyone’s lives out. She always fails to see until too late that the delightful young man in each adventure is falling in love with her, and she experiences ecstasies of gentle renunciation as she returns to her chastened and contrite husband and family, because, really, she only ever wanted her family. Lady Kilmichael appears, under different names, in every Ann Bridge novel that I’ve read, but she is most alarmingly present in Facts and Fictions, the Ann Bridge autobiography. It is perfectly obvious from that work that Ann Bridge was a crashing snob, an egotistical bossyboots and the heroine of all her own novels. Others noticed this too: Angela Thirkell satirised Ann Bridge as ‘Mrs Rivers’ in her own Barsetshire novels, as a married Lady Novelist whose novels are always the same, about a middle-aged heroine who has a chaste affair with a younger man before returning to her husband. I expect Ann Bridge talked about this where she thought it would be noticed, in a self-deprecating, ‘well my dear what can one do if one is so well-known? One must put up with the sneers of the lesser artists’ sort of way.

None of this would matter in the slightest if the novels had some life to them, or were written to do more than flatter the ego of their author, if they lived outside the existence of Mary-Ann Sanders, Lady O’Malley (for it is she). They are very readable, she was a fair storyteller in terms of plot, and she could do description and scenery and the purple prose of platonic passion very well. But the egotism, and self-importance, and unquenchable assurance that the standards and tastes and views of the narrative voice were unquestionable, and perfectly correct, stick in the throat. She wrote thirteen novels (1932-71), nine linked detective novels (1956-73), and four volumes of memoirs. They’re probably all the same as each other, so if you’re in the mood for that sort of thing, enjoy!

Kate Macdonald podcasts weekly about books she really, really likes (or gets enraged by) at www.reallylikethisbook.com.

About Kate

Blogger, lecturer, podcaster, writer, critic, reviewer, researcher (in no particular order) in and on British literary history. Preferred occupation while listening to podcasts: cooking or knitting. Preferred soundtrack while reading: the sound of silence.

24 comments on “Ann Bridge: The Hatchet Job

  1. Moira
    May 18, 2012

    I have never heard of this lady (and I use the term advisedly) but thanks to you I’m seized of an overwhelming desire to rush out and read one of her books. Only one, mind you. But then, apparently, if you’ve read one, you’ve read them all, so that’s okay.

  2. kateinbrussels
    May 18, 2012

    They are pretty amazing, definitely worth reading at leats one. And remember to pick your jaw off the floor afterwards. Though I have heard that others find her interminable and tedious.

  3. Simon T
    May 18, 2012

    I love a hatchet job as much as the next man, so I enjoyed reading this, even if I don’t wholly agree with it. Or perhaps I do, but I shifted emphasis – I agree that Illyrian Spring is horribly snobby – intellectually snobbish, especially. I hated the implications that only a genius should bother painting at all, etc. But her ability to describe scenery (which you admired and skated past!) was wonderful – I almost invariably loath descriptions of scenery, or anything visual, so that fact that I loved Bridge’s speaks volumes.

  4. kateinbrussels
    May 18, 2012

    I agree: I think that her descriptive powers, and her ability to keep a plot rocketing along, are her strengths. But her EGO! Arggh. I find it impossible to ignore. So while reading Illyrian Spring I was simultaneously enjoying it hugely, very self-indulgently without any shame, but also seething inside at the narrative arrogance, and at the continual poor-suffering-perfect-heroineitis, with which the book is suffused. Peking Picnic is nothing like as bad, the ego problem is less obvious. Frontier Passage is less personalised, but still just as bossy, and utterly and tastelessly preposterous. Singing Waters is just a ghastly travelogue wirth added mysticism. I do love reading her, but she’s such an easy target.

  5. Jackie
    May 18, 2012

    Like Moira, I’d never heard of this author before today’s review. It doesn’t seem like I’ve missed much, though. If someone with such a large ego has some humor about it(such as VL’s own Ticky), it can be a hoot, but this person takes herself too seriously. The fascist attitudes would really put me off, as well.

  6. Hilary
    May 18, 2012

    Huzzah! What a great hatchet job. It’s very many years since I read Ann Bridge (with some pleasure) but I do remember being pulled up short by Illyrian Spring, and it’s – er – helpful to be reminded why.

    Mind you, Angela Thirkell? Pots and kettles! Her Barsetshire novels were great favourites in our house with my mother and grandmother, and I read them uncritically (and Dornford Yates, to my shame) when I was an older child. But trying them again years later the super-strength snobbery was all too much for me. Maybe there’s a general law, that heroines who are Loved and Cherished are not a Good Thing – this is where Barbara Pym has the edge in my opinion. An ostensibly cherished heroine like Wilmet Forsyth (A Glass of Blessings) has a lot to learn, and learns a lot.

    Thanks you for a fascinating review, Kate!

  7. sharonrob
    May 18, 2012

    I hadn’t heard of Ann Bridge before either, but what a delightfully punchy review. I might seek her out just to see if she’s as compulsively awful as she sounds. Here’s a thing; I read A Glass of Blessings just recently and Wilmet Forsyth occurred, before I saw Hilary’s comment. Great minds and all that:-)

  8. Hilary
    May 18, 2012

    With but a single thought, Sharon!

    And I’m reminded of a novel where the Cherished Heroine is really taken apart – Elizabeth Taylor’s ‘The Soul of Kindness’.

  9. kateinbrussels
    May 19, 2012

    @Jackie: her anti-semitism doesn’t often occur, but when it does it pulls one up short because it’s so obvious that this is how people of AB’s class and attitude always thought and spoke without thinking about it at the time. Though its possible that after 1940 she might have toned it down, as others did.
    @Hilary: I really enjoy superstrength snobbery novels (thank you: excellent phrase, i’ve been looking for one like that for ages) because they’re so alien, it’s literary anthropology for me. And yes, it is VERY funny reading Thirkell, an arch snob of ludicrous proportions, being snobbish about AB. I bet cocktail parties where they were both guests would have been a riot.
    Interesting to think about Wilmet the nice-but-dim in comparison to Lady Kilmichael the dim-but-perfect, will have to mull on that one.
    Thanks all!

  10. Hilary
    May 19, 2012

    I started typing ‘industrial strength’ before realising how inappropriate that would be ;)

  11. kelly joyce neff
    May 30, 2012

    wow. Having read most of her work and knowing way too much about her private life – true every word. Thanks for the laugh.

  12. KS Sherry
    September 29, 2012

    What drivel! Does this reviewer need to review the definition of f-i-c-t-i-o-n? I have read all of Ann Bridge’s works in our local library and am in the process of requesting her other books through the interlibrary loan system. Each novel has been a satisfying experience; I have learned much of geography, customs, and the politics of the times in which they were set and have enjoyed the meaty story lines. I would be interested in reading a review by Ms. Macdonald of Stephen King or Dean Koontz’ work; would she equate the characters in these horror stories with their authors’ lives? Ridiculous.

  13. Kate
    September 29, 2012

    I am delighted that KS Sherry has read so much of Ann Bridge and commend her desire to read all of it. Never rely on a reviewer, always rely on your own judgement. Because that’s what really matters. I don’t think I’d review King or Koontz, I don’t enjoy those genres, whereas I do enjoy Bridge’s genre a lot.

  14. salma mahmud
    December 11, 2012

    Has your Marxist critic read Ann Bridge’s biographical novel, unpublished but on the net, about George Mallory? The erudite reading required of her by her governess is an eye-opener. She writes beautifully and knowledgeably about many different countries and her novels are a delight.

  15. Kate
    December 12, 2012

    Do we have a Marxist critic? Not me. It’s the INNER Marxist i was mentioning, and we all have one of those. No, i didn’t know about her Mallory novel, or perhaps its mentioned in Fact and Fictions? I’ll see if I can find it. Thanks for the reference.

  16. kirstyjane
    December 12, 2012

    *raises hand*

    We do have a Marxist critic, but I didn’t write this piece, the excellent Kate did…

  17. katy alexander
    December 25, 2012

    I read this rather revealing review with the usual boredom I find I experience when reading a review done by someone who reviews an authors life, or rather their perception of it, rather than the Actual work. I doubt Ann Bridge would give on toss what you think of her and her life. I doubt she has a care in the world. This review has inspired in me a deep desire to ensure I never read one of your books. Thanks for that, saves me some time. Seems you have very clearly learned from the cult of personality that obtains in British culture by playing the man, and not the ball. How incredibly cheap you all are.

  18. Kate
    December 25, 2012

    Katy Alexander, I don’t think you’ve read the review at all! Or perhaps you just feel grumpy. Try again later.

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  21. Ela
    November 25, 2013

    Very amusing review – thanks! One does tend to suspect that if all one’s fictional characters are alike, then they do reflect the author in some way, so I do think you’re justified in equating them. I’ve never read any Ann Bridge, and can cope with snobbish tone quite well – I will probably try Angela Thirkell first, though.

  22. Castle Books
    December 31, 2013

    Hurray for KS Sherry. Ann Bridge is one of my all-time favourite authors. In whichever order, read the novel and the contemporary context, preferably in diaries and memoirs of people who were there, not historians. Fundamental reading for any Foreign Office staff and very informative as to the roots of later 20th century politics and wars. All her books are extremely well-observed, contain recognisable real-life people and I’m not sure how she got away with some of it. I hope none of you have been put off by Kate’s piece from reading AB for yourselves.

  23. Lynda Wilder
    January 27, 2014

    This is funny. Where would I find a copy of her autobiography?

  24. Kate
    January 27, 2014

    Lynda: I think you can find it on http://www.abebooks.com or co.uk, there are probably a few copies available. Or libraries?

    I read another Bridge recently, The Portuguese Escape, which is a Julia Probyn ‘thriller’. it also functions as propaganda for the new Portuguese dictator, Salazar, and as a travel guide. The plot is too fiddly to hold the attention, and has many episodes of unnecessary complexity. I do not recommend it, even for laughs, because to hear the awful heroic protagonists praising the rightness of the new right-wing government and their secret police is so depressing.

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This entry was posted on May 18, 2012 by in Fiction: 20th Century, Fiction: romance, Uncategorized.

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