Elizabeth Berridge has undoubtedly been my author discovery of the year, and it is wonderful to see that she is having something of a resurgence across the book blogging world. I was most excited when I was offered the chance to read her first ever published work, a novella entitled The Story of Stanley Brent, which has been reissued by Zephyr Books, an imprint of Michael Walmer. I read it directly after another of her novels, Sing Me Who You Are, which I very much enjoyed.
First published in 1945, The Story of Stanley Brent sounds, on the face of it, rather enchanting. Its blurb begins: ‘Ada Boucher and Stanley Brent are young things at the time of boaters, parasols, champagne and trippers on the Thames.’ The novella captures a surprising amount, as it charts both their relationship and subsequent marriage, as well as their careers, and runs to the end of Stanley’s life. In compressing the story of an entire life into a very small space, without rushing or omitting huge chunks, Berridge achieves something wonderful; as Walmer himself comments on the book’s blurb, she ‘navigates a path which speaks volumes.’
At the outset of the story, Ada is working as an apprentice, and Stanley as a land-broker’s assistant. Although their relationship at first seems relatively happy, Berridge gives hints that something is not quite right. Ada and Stanley’s courtship, and then their marriage, is ‘flushed through with naïve romance – he is bowled over by her raven-haired beauty, she by his humour and goodness.’ On their honeymoon, Ada discovers that ‘their greatest challenges may be compromise and really getting to know each other.’
I was fully invested in The Story of Stanley Brent from the start. I found its opening sentence – ‘Stanley Brent formally proposed to Ada in nineteen-hundred and seven, on the landing of her aunt’s house at Paddington’ – both informative and quite charming, and the same can certainly be said for the rest of Berridge’s wonderfully astute prose.
One of the elements which Berridge excels at is in capturing the relationships between people in all of their glory, as well as in the face of mounting despair. There is such attention to detail which can be found throughout the novella. During a storm, for instance, in which Ada and her friends form a party of six, Berridge comments, in rather lovely sing-song alliteration: ‘The men joined them on the bank, bearing the wet wicker picnic hampers on slippery straps.’
Berridge reveals her protagonists bit by bit. Just before Stanley proposes, for instance, we are given a glimpse into the couple’s physical bearing: ‘Stanley seized her shoulders. She was the same height but pliable, well-boned.’ Berridge taps wonderfully into the emotions and devotions of Stanley and Ada, and is shrewd and unflinching as she does so.
The Story of Stanley Brent is not entirely serious. There are moments of humour peppered throughout. In the same aforementioned storm scene, Ada considers whether she and her friends could run through the rain to her aunt’s nearby house; she thinks: ‘And surely Stan wouldn’t think Aunt Mildred’s skin disease ran in the family?… Worry, she had said. Worry and thin blood had been the cause.’ Later, Ada concludes: ‘She didn’t want her family to sound queer. Even though Aunt Mildred was a distant sort of relation.’
As well as humorous, Berridge can also be rather a sharp narrator at times. She does not shy away from anything, and the subjects which she focuses upon seem rather modern, given that this novella was published in the mid-1940s. In her frank prose, she writes: ‘But when they returned from the honeymoon Ada was still a virgin. There had been a frightening, confused scene in the gilt and crimson hotel bedroom overlooking the sea, which had finished with Ada weeping fitfully, alone in the big double bed – aware for the first time that terrible, upsetting things lay perilously near the surface of life.’ She also focuses upon Stanley’s interpretation of this experience, commenting: ‘This was an hour that would not tally with his accustomed thoughts – not only was Ada a stranger to him, he was a stranger to himself. He was conscious of life and death flowing in and around him, desolating and building his spirit, testing and judging. He had never felt so helpless.’
As with Berridge’s other work, atmosphere is so important within The Story of Stanley Brent. Ada’s home life, for instance, held an ‘uneasy atmosphere that lay, persistent and indefinable, within the tall narrow house. [Stanley] would often think about it as he walked up the long road that seemed to bear such extremes of weather in its length.’
The Story of Stanley Brent is certainly a slim story, running to just 75 pages in this edition. However, it has a great deal to say, both about the individual and the family unit. Berridge makes comments upon society throughout, and the whole is well grounded within its historical context. For such a short piece, Berridge provides a wonderful commentary on how a relationship can develop over time. There is a lot of depth here, and the character development is both believable and insightful. The nuanced prose has been split into short sections, a structure which works well given the length of the piece. Even in this, her first story, Berridge is a confident writer, and her writing style really suits this shorter form.