I received a delightful Abacus paperback copy of Elizabeth Berridge’s Across the Common as a birthday gift. As I have been keen for quite some years now to try Berridge’s work, I began it within the week, and thoroughly enjoyed the reading experience. Noel Coward described it perfectly when he wrote that the novel is ‘… entirely good and most beautifully written. I love her subtlety and observation and impeccable characterisation…’. Me too, Noel. Me too.
Although she seems to have fallen into something akin to disregard in the twenty-first century, Berridge’s ‘crisp and distinctly English style of writing established her as one of the most significant novelists of the post-war years.’
Originally published in 1964, Across the Common takes as its focus Louise, who has decided to leave her husband. She opens by saying: ‘I know it was finished, as I finished it myself… I cooked ahead for three days, took a purple pill and under its influence was able to write some sort of crazy note. He didn’t know I had those pills: he thought I was too stable to need them.’
Louise returns to her childhood home, The Hollies, a large rambling building which stands at the edge of a common in the fictional town of Pagham Green. The Hollies is ‘tall and big and excelled in useless crenellations’. The house has, over the years, become ‘a refuge for that vanishing species, the Great British Aunt’ – specifically, acidic and judgemental Seraphina, who steals cuttings of plants from royal parks to grow them in her own garden; Rosa, the eldest, and therefore the one who makes all of the decisions; and ‘tiny and malevolent’ Cissie. When Louise arrives, without having notified anyone, she finds her ‘aunts stood at either side of the front door, without surprise, and embraced me in the intense, dry way of the elderly.’ The house has become a space exclusively devoted to women; the family has, over the years, ‘shed its men’.
Along with Louise’s present day story, and the turmoil which she feels to be back in her old home, run many memories of her early life. These memories, all of which have been woven into the narrative, have a delightful flavour to them. She is acutely aware of all of the differences, of all of the things which have changed since she began her independent life. On her first morning, when she walks into the local high street, she observes: ‘I moved along the row of shops like a dreamer in a largely alien landscape. Certain things were familiar, familiar enough to lull the dreamer into a sense of false security, so that she does not wake up screaming.’
I found Berridge’s acerbic humour both welcome and amusing, and felt that it suited the tone and the plot perfectly. I very much enjoyed Louise’s witty asides and muttered comments. She pronounces, for instance, that ‘Aunt Cissie had the same effect on me as a lemon was supposed to have if sucked in front of an unfortunate trombonist. She dried up my juices.’
Louise comes to life on the page; she is complex, and feels thoroughly realistic. Her narrative voice is lively and endearing. I enjoyed the rather eccentric cast of characters, and found myself invested in their stories. We as readers are given a lens into the life of a family, meeting both those who exist in Louise’s present, and those whom she never met, or knew only slightly.
Across the Common is essentially a domestic novel; in reality, it is so much more than that. There are a lot of quite ordinary scenes at play within it – for example, when Louise is tended to by the ageing housekeeper, or the aunts looking through vast collections of family photographs which have been found in the attic – but Berridge makes each one into something compelling. She manages, somehow, to give different perspectives on the most mundane of occurrences. Berridge’s writing is exquisite, as is her attention to detail.
On the strength of Across the Common, I broke my longstanding book-buying ban to buy three more of Berridge’s novels, and I am wholly looking forward to reading them. Already, I can see that she could easily become one of my favourite authors.