A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
Article by our new permanent reviewer, Kate Macdonald
‘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.