In “The Promotion,” a 1966 short story by Evan S. Connell, a woman chides her man for being lily-livered and dithering over leaving his wife. “You disgust me,” Sylvie tells Lester, during one harsh outburst. When poor Lester finally finds his tongue he uses it to criticize his wife: “The way she pecks at me!” he wails. “Peckety-peck-peck!” This masterstroke of irony caps the tale: Lester is blind to the fact that both women in his life are chronic naggers, and that leaving one for the other will be akin to jumping from the frying pan into the fire. In another story, “The Corset” from 1961, the two leads are man and wife but the hotheaded censuring remains the same. He, just back from military service overseas, would like to recreate some of the sexual exploits he got up to with Parisian prostitutes. His wife labels his request “revolting” and him “unutterably disgusting,” although soon undresses and lets him have his way.
Much of Connell’s writing, short and long, is concerned with if not a battle of the sexes, then those crucial gaping margins that separate them. However, his most famous novel, Mrs. Bridge (1959)—finally admitted by Penguin to the Modern Classics canon in the UK—is significant for the way in which those discrepancies are present though repressed. Husband and wife never bicker. Necessary communication goes unvoiced. Cravings are reined in, desire stifled. Connell’s eponymous heroine would never dream of upbraiding her husband, just as his staid and starchy paterfamilias is neither lacking in gumption nor about to ask for more explicit antics in the bedroom. Mrs. Bridge and its 1969 follow-up Mr. Bridge were combined by Merchant Ivory for Mr. & Mrs. Bridge (1990), and the filmmakers expertly captured Connell’s shrewd depiction of unsaid longing (doing so again three years later for their version of Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day).
Connell’s books could be successfully conjoined, but in film and book both main characters remain apart—cohabiters who are unable to properly know one another. After the famous opening line (“Her first name was India”—the first of many sparkling ironies at play with our earthy, unadventurous and resolutely un-exotic protagonist) Connell describes how they met, married and moved to Kansas City with detail that is sparse yet just right. The chapter ends with Mrs. Bridge lying in bed, unfulfilled, starting as Connell means her to go on: “This was the night Mrs. Bridge concluded that while marriage might be an equitable affair, love itself was not.”
“Chapter” may be too generous. The book is composed of 117 vignettes, some mere paragraphs. Almost all take the format of Connell’s opening section: events, from the momentous to the seemingly inconsequential, compressed into tight, pithy, economical language which ranges from comical to heartbreaking, with never a word squandered. (Connell would try a similar construct with a later novel, The Alchymist’s Journal, but the vignettes there fail to add up to an as-satisfying whole.) We follow Mrs. Bridge’s humdrum, deeply conservative life in suburban Middle America between the wars. She shops, gossips with friends, wrestles with learning Spanish and admits defeat with religion. This “bona-fide country-club matron” brings up her three children, Ruth, Carolyn and tear-away Douglas, instilling in them good manners, consideration towards others, and the importance of personal hygiene—values she sees as virtues. “Appearances”—that is maintaining them—are an “abiding concern.” She teaches Ruth deportment and tells Carolyn she should say cleaning woman not lady (“A lady is someone like Mrs. Arlen or Mrs. Montgomery”), and in so doing exposes her inherent snobberies. She embarks on a tour of Europe with her husband and displays hilarious dyed-in-the-wool provincialism. Careful to temper his light with shade, Connell also draws our attention to a streak of bigotry.
Mrs. Bridge is a novel about adapting to, and making sense of, the passing of time. There are wonderful sections that catalogue childlike innocence. Alice, Carolyn’s playmate, believes firemen create fires and little people live inside the radio-phonograph. When Mrs. Bridge’s children mature and fly the nest Connell increases her ingenuousness, particularly her sexual naivety. Ruth, now a fashion writer, tells her mother about a gay colleague but Mrs. Bridge has no idea what homosexual means. Where before we saw her as merely inexperienced and prim (she feels she has failed as a parent when she discovers an erotic magazine in Douglas’ bedroom), we now realize she is irremediably cosseted from real life. Mr. Bridge even tells her how she should vote. “Don’t you have a mind of your own?” an incredulous friend cries. In one scene she does think for herself, mentally trying to visualize a friend’s rape. It is a daring sidestep for Connell, and at first seems out of place, like a scion snipped from his darker novel, Diary of a Rapist. But it is handled well, not least because of the payoff: ultimately Mrs. Bridge is unable to sympathize with her friend because her weak imagination cannot conceive her as a victim of a crime, rather someone “smiling and chatting and eating crabmeat sandwiches like everyone else.”
The brittle humor that suffuses Mrs. Bridge’s bafflement gives way to pathos when she ruminates on how lonely she is with her children gone, and in her marriage. Her life of leisure curdles into a life of boredom. Birthdays “come to visit her like admonitory relatives”; the rest of the time she feels she is waiting for something. “Surely someone would call, someone must be needing her.”
In less talented hands a needy character would eventually grate but Connell ensures any scorn we might have for her is neutralized with pity. Mrs. Bridge is a triumph, and a worthy Penguin Classic, because the best of those vignettes skillfully blend gravitas and frippery. By extension, the comic moments are a fusion of the two, sometimes taking the form of killer one-liners, sometimes appearing in more subtle, miniaturized form, sparkling like mica. Instead of being shocked by the fact some friends have been robbed, Mrs. Bridge is surprised that “Mrs. Noel Johnson’s ring had been zircon.” Another woman is attacked in her car by a man who jumps out from behind some shrubbery—“a clump of spirea, according to Madge.” Up close we are mesmerized by the comic detail but as Connell pans out we see a fuller, more unsettling picture shot through with futility and tragedy. The very hallmarks of a classic, then.