It really does seem as if Persephone Books publishes exactly the kind of short stories I like. With two more of their collections waiting to be read I am confident this will remain the case. This lovely collection of 1940’s stories by an author I have never read before was an instant five star read, and made me want to go out and get more books by Elizabeth Berridge immediately. I have resisted the call so far – if you could see my shelves you would understand, but I certainly intend to explore her work more fully in the future. The stories which make up Tell it to a Stranger were first published as Selected Stories in 1947, re-issued by Persephone Books with a new title in 2000.
There are eleven perfectly crafted stories in this collection, stories concerned primarily with the outsider, family, motherhood and class. The stories are surprisingly sharp, Berridge draws the reader into the world of her characters, her narrative is wonderfully controlled, her writing seems suited perfectly to the obvious constraints of the short story genre – and yet she was also apparently a very accomplished novelist. In the preface to this edition A.N Wilson describes Elizabeth Berridge’s writing as subversive, comparing her very favourably with Chekov. Wilson tells us (quite correctly I think) that Elizabeth Berridge challenges her readers preconceptions of life in the 1940’s, her characters are buffeted cruelly by life, they can be angry and selfish. This is a world of shortages, of homelessness, loss and loneliness, a world Elizabeth Berridge understood perfectly.
In the opening story Snowstorm a group of expectant mothers arrive at a nursing home to await the birth of their babies. As she watches the group arrive the woman doctor in charge, is immediately unnerved by one of her patients, a woman who stands apart from the other women, who says strange cold things about her child.
“Turning from the window she caught a glimpse of a scarlet coat. Startled by the colour, she looked closer. She saw a girl standing apart, as if in denial, and something about the arrogant head with its swathes of rich hair disturbed her. The others would be no trouble, but – with a definite feeling of unrest the doctor drew back into the room as Sister Matthews stepped out from the porch to welcome them”
More stories concerned with motherhood are Firstborn, Lullaby, and Subject for a Sermon. Firstborn where a young mother struggles with the responsibilities placed upon her, and the interference of others, their view of her as a mother press down on her. Lullaby is a very short story – and quite horrific – I shall say no more – to do so could spoil it for others, but it is rather shocking. Subject for a Sermon is a story I read in another collection, and it is very memorable, but definitely worth re-reading. The mother here is a kind of awful Lady Bountiful working tirelessly for others – she revels in her own goodness, relishes the esteem she is held in by others. While her son home briefly on embarkation leave – is left feeling neglected and unloved. One of the themes that is explored in Subject for Sermon is the different view of the war by the older generation, a woman of the upper classes – very sure of her place in the world, her son, about to go and fight takes a wholly different view, certain that the days are numbered for women like his mother, that their world is coming to an end. In The Bare Tree, Berridge explores further the different viewpoints of the war, with a story of family disharmony. The older generation who lived through WW1 taking a rather different view than their children.
The title story; Tell it to a Stranger, along with To Tea with the Colonel and Chance Callers – really show the different and often difficult experiences of people living with the reality of bombing, facing homelessness, and loneliness. To Tea with the Colonel was one of my favourites, I won’t say too much, but in it, Elizabeth Berridge certainly shows her slightly subversive side, and her ability to surprise her readers. Tell it to a Stranger, another pretty short story, is beautifully poignant, a perfect exploration of loneliness. Mrs Hatfield has been living in a guest house by the sea since the bombing started, but now and then returns home to check on her house. When she finds her house has been ransacked, she relishes the idea of telling the story to her fellow guests, and races back to the Belvedere by train.
“She had something to tell this time. Here was real news, directly touching her, every person at Belvedere. The war had at last affected them personally; they were no longer grouped outside it, they shared in the general lawlessness. Lack of respect for property. What are we coming to? Police finishing off the whiskey, wouldn’t be surprised if – and so it would grow and, filling more than an evening, filling the days, recreating their lives, and more important, affirming their belief in the past.”
(From: Tell it to a Stranger)
Chance Callers recounts the bitterness of those left homeless by the war, but for these characters there is a surprising remedy to their plight, following a spontaneous house call.
Woman about the House is an odd little story about a man who is left by his wife. His life having been affected by unemployment, he eventually finds a job, and moves into a pub closer than home to his new job, when he eventually misses the comforts of home, he returns only to find his wife has already left. The Notebooks explores bereavement with a woman who having suddenly lost her writer husband struggling to move on with her life. When the director from the museum calls offering to buy her husband’s notebooks she is at first outraged and stricken at the very thought.
Another of my favourite stories – and one that will definitely stay with me was The Prisoner. A woman, still mourning the loss of her brother, with whom she had lived, and to whose care she had dedicated her life, is at first disturbed by the group of German POWs who come to dig drainage ditches near her cottage. As the days move closer to Christmas however, she is drawn into the world of one young man in particular, who comes to her cottage to exchange tea for coffee. Erich is sent on subsequent errands and so starts a tentative friendship between two lonely people.
Judging by this lovely collection of stories, I would say that Elizabeth Berridge deserves to be better known than I suspect that she is. It is purely thanks to Persephone Books that I came across her at all, and I am very glad that I did. In her afterword, written in 2000, Elizabeth Berridge describes how she became a writer, met her husband and explains how she came later to write some of these stories. It provides a perfect ending to her collection of stories.