Review of Two Elizabeths: Elizabeth Hardwick’s Sleepless Nights & Elizabeth Berridge’s Tell It to a Stranger

elizabeth hardwick sleeplessnights

It is my favorite time of the summer:  if only it could always be August!  I love the light, the rushing of the creek, and the yellow leaves crackling. And for some reason  I always read many short books in August.  I have recently read:

Hardwick sleepless nights nyrb 51nPJb1iUtL._SX310_BO1,204,203,200_1. Elizabeth Hardwick’s Sleepless Nights.  Although I read the NYRB edition, this graceful autobiographical American novel is also published by Virago.  It counts as participation in the All Virago/All August event, yes?

Hardwick, a critic, essayist, fiction writer and co-founder of The New York Review of Books, was best known for her stunning essays, which often interweave  criticism with intimate observations.

Her 1979 novel, Sleepless Nights, seems experimental by today’s standards.  It  is divided into short, beautiful vignettes:   she sketches her growing up in  Lexington, Kentucky (this is the best part of the book, I think), her mother who had nine children, her studies at Columbia and early years in New York; sharing an apartment with a gay man, an experience not unlike a marriage,  and living alone in other apartments and houses in New York, Boston, Connecticut, and Maine.   She also writes about her friend Billie Holiday,  bag ladies, an amorous Dutch doctor, and the anxiety of  working women in boarding houses.  Hardwick’s language is both minimalist and poetic, in a ’70s style that I used to adore. But this time through?  Gorgeous writing, and I loved parts of the book, but occasionally found Hardwick’s point of view affected.  It just goes to show:  books seem entirely different at different times of life.

A  passage from the first page:

If only one knew what to remember or try to remember. Make a decision and what you want from the lost things will present itself.  You can take it down like a can from the shelf.  Perhaps.  One can would be marked Rand Avenue in Kentucky and some would recall the address at least as true.  Inside the can are the blackening porches of winter, the gas grates, the swarm.

berridge tell it to a stranger 995602._UY400_SS400_2. Elizabeth Berridge’s Tell It to a Stranger.  I am very fond of Berridge’s novels, some of which I’ve acquired in Faber Finds paperbacks.  I loved Rose under Glass (and wrote about it here).

Berridge’s collection of short stories, Tell It to a Stranger:  Stories from the 1940s  (Persephone), is brilliant and engrossing.  The first story, “Snowstorm,” is set in winter in a maternity clinic outside of bombed London, where  women are bused to have their babies.  The woman doctor is emotionally cold and wintry, but her detachment and conventional ideas about motherhood are  threatened by a scornful, unmaternal young woman.

Yes, people seem to hate you for having anything on your mind,’ came the voice from the bed. ‘Calm motherhood, that’s the idea, isn’t it?  The most beautiful time of a woman’s life, preparing for a stranger–‘–her whole face twisted suddenly, but whether with pain or disgust the doctor could not make out.

Berridge does not define women by domesticity, and the twist in this story is completely unexpected.

In “Firstborn,” the heroine, Ruby, a new mother, walks across the common to her mother’s house and  is rebuked for not taking a taxi.  All attention is focused on the baby rather than Ruby, who is already tired of being an appendage to the newborn baby.  Her mother and aunt imply that she is making mistakes and does not know how to care for him.   Then she walks to her mother-in-law’s and is again confronted with being only a mother.  She is furious when her mother-in-law calls him “a real Cradock” and says she should be proud. Ruby has no intention of giving birth to a lot of  Cradocks.  Only when she goes home to her husband is she suddenly happy, reminded of who she is.

My favorite is the title story, set during World War II.  The heroine, Mrs. Hatfield, who has left London to live in a hotel in Belvedere, makes one of her periodic trips to her house in London, only to discover that it has been ransacked.  On the train trip back to Belvedere, she plans what she will say to the other residents of the hotel.  She has never been happier than she is in Belvedere.  But a strange twist prevents her telling the story.

These eleven stories are rich and varied–a great read!

Elizabeth Berridge’s Rose Under Glass

rose under glass elizabeth berridge 41sGi6fFVxL._SX311_BO1,204,203,200_On a gloomy, rainy day like today (where are we, England?), I turn on all the lights and curl up with a cup of Earl Grey.  If I am not writing this blog, I am almost certainly reading one of my favorite authors.  It could be Charlotte Bronte, Barbara Pym, or Elizabeth Bowen.  It is unlikely to be Hemingway or Norman Mailer.  Yes, I am a fan of women’s fiction.

One of my new favorites is Elizabeth Berridge (1919-2009).  The characters in her superb novel, Rose Under Glass, are domestic but also adventurous as they try to find, or avoid love. Berridge is little-known in the U.S., and not very well-known in the UK.  Her obituary at The Guardian called her “a writer of rare distinction who deserved more recognition than she ever received.”

I discovered her work by chance on the lists of reprinted books at Faber Finds  and Persephone Books.  I recently read Rose Under Glass.  This beautifully-written, fascinating novel tells the story of several characters in 1950s London: at the center is 45-year-old Penelope Hinton, a widow whose husband Jamie, a famous artist, recently died.  He stepped off the curb in front of  a lorry while preoccupied with cricket (or perhaps football?) scores.  A fortuneteller had predicted his death to Penelope, and she very much resents that the woman “with a dusty bang and pale eyes” dared know the future.

The marriage of Penelope and Jamie was unusually close:  they were so close that one day at tea their oldest daughter bitterly tells Penelope they ignored and neglected her.  Penelope dismisses her daughter’s complaint, but cannot stop grieving for Jamie.  She fills her day with visits to museums and parks, but they no longer mean anything to her.

They related to nothing, so, terrifyingly, she felt nothing.  Nothing revived her.  Staring at the stone emperors, she thought, “We are two stone people, face to face.”  In the past, she had loved the ceramics at the Victoria and Albert Museum, the tiny miracles of the jewelled watches and snuffboxes.  Now they shone up at her dully, dead in their glass coffins.  Neither did the compassion and depth of Rembrandt’s paintings at the Wallace Collection, revive her, although the spaciousness and cold elegance of the house itself eased her by enclosing her in its own mood of petrifaction.

The terror of feeling nothing:  in middle age this strikes as a warning.

But Penelope is not alone for long.  Shortly thereafter, she meets Pye Rumpelow at a launderette.  He owns a chain of launderettes and coffeehouses.   He came up from nothing, is brilliant, self-educated, and cultured.  Everything he touches is golden:  it is a joke that he cannot stop making money. And he finds Penelope the most golden treasure of all.

She likes him, but is terrified of his love.  Every feeling makes her feel unfaithful to Jamie.  But he shows her something new:  he takes her on a walk to see one of his favorite views.   In the middle of a bridge, they look at the Houses of Parliament, the dusky, melting river, and Big Ben.  When Big Ben chimes at 7, she has a new memory, he tells her.  He likes to remember the date and time.

As their friendship develops, he suggests she move to a new flat, away from the memories that so constrict her life.  And so she writes and offers her flat to a friend’s son,  Spencer Manley, a bookstore clerk who lives in Wales with his lovely wife, Nika, and their two children. They move to London  so he can start a publishing company with his friend Stefan, who has worked in publishing for years.

As you can imagine, things are not easy for Nika and the children.  Life in the country was idyllic: they had a garden and a pony. The boy Lewis is struggling at a tough school.  He hates London.  But Spencer no longer notices or cares much about his family; he works round the clock with  aggressive, ambitious Stefan, who is only just humanized by his lover, Bonny, a best-selling romance writer who has begun writing historical novels. Then  Pye becomes a partner, and  reins them in when they want to compromise their ethics.

As Penelope and Nika approach an emotional crisis in their love lives,  Penelope  feels she must get away.  She brings Nika with her on a Mediterranean cruise.

One of the things I love best about the book is the travel narrative, which is partly in the form of correspondence.

Nika, who doesn’t quite understand Spencer’s indifference to her, writes:

Spencer, darling,

I’m keeping a journal to show you when I get home.  It’s all so terribly exciting.  Venice was marvellous, but how I wish you had been with me!  We could have  taken a vaporetto and gone swishing down the Grand Canal to the Lido, where it was hot enough to bathe and not crowded….

Penelope, who is not sure what she really thinks or feels, writes to Pye:

Is it possible to come to Greece and remain unchanged?  In a queer way what you started, Greece is carrying on.  Here there is something painful and unavoidable in the very clarity of the air.  The sun strikes sparks from the sea as we cruise between these delicious islands, strikes sparks from the piled white houses, magnifies the details of the statues (so that even I can see them without my glasses); the honey-coloured columns of ruined temples…

I very much enjoyed this book, which is not entirely cozy:  there are a few dark turns along the way, and certainly things do not turn out perfectly.    I look forward to reading her collection of short stories, Tell It to a Stranger (Persephone).