Evan Connell fits the description perfectly and, at least in my case, illustrates a recent development of how “writers’ writers” have become more accessible to readers. As little as a decade ago, finding their works in brick-and-mortar bookstores was often a chore since they just didn’t sell enough to rate stocking — the online retailing world now means acquiring a copy is just a few key strokes away. More importantly, book bloggers have become a valuable source in bringing their names back to front of mind, as was the case with Connell when John Self’s review of Mrs. Bridge reminded me that it was long past time that I got to the book. It has been on my shelf for some months but moved to the top of the reading agenda a few weeks back when Connell passed away at age 88. (I’ll note that I am not alone in that motivation: of the 19 lists of current reading on the Palimpsest forum, three others reveal readers who are currently exploring Connell.)
First published in 1959, Mrs. Bridge has been in print ever since — the 50th anniversary edition that I read features an afterword from James Salter himself, which illustrates my point about “writers’ writers”. And in many ways, the character of Mrs. Bridge herself is a surrogate for author Connell: the novel is set in Kansas, where the author was born and raised, in the 1930s and 1940s, the same period when he was coming to maturity. And, just as Connell did not have the “flash” of some of his contemporaries, the title character is a cautious, caring, conservative housewife doing her best to fit into mid-Western society as a comfortable lawyer’s wife and attract as little direct attention as possible.
Connell sketches that reticent character in his opening:
Her first name was India — she was never able to get used to it It seemed to her that her parents must have been thinking of someone else when they named her. As a child she was often on the point of inquiring, but time passed, and she never did.
The author underlines her passive nature (and begins to hint at its consequences) in the very next paragraph. To the distress of her parents, India has grown into maturity thinking “she could get along very nicely without a husband” but that notion changes one night when she is sitting on the porch of her parents’ home with Warren Bridge, a young lawyer:
She had known him for several years without finding him remarkable in any way, but on this summer evening, on the front porch of her parents’ home, she toyed with a sprig of mint and looked at him attentively while pretending to listen to what he said. He was telling her that he intended to become rich and successful, and that one day he would take his wife — “whenever I finally decide to marry” he said, for he was not yet ready to commit himself — one day he would take his wife on a tour of Europe. He spoke of Ruskin and of Robert Ingersoll, and he read to her that evening on the porch, later, some verses from The Rubáiyát while her parents were preparing for bed, and the locusts sang in the elm trees all around.
A few months later, after her father has died, India has become Mrs. Bridge and moved to Kansas City where her husband has established a law practice. Mrs. Bridge does not chose what happens to her (rather, she struggles to cope with the inevitable choices that are effectively made for her) and even at this early stage that produces unease:
She was not certain what she wanted from life, or what to expect from it, for she had seen so little of it, but she was sure that in some way — because she willed it to be so — her wants and expectations were the same.
Within five years, the Bridges have three children, Ruth, Carolyn and Douglas, neatly spaced at two year intervals. Mrs. Bridge is 33 when Douglas is born and her future is now set — as a wife and mother, life will happen in the backwater of Kansas City and she will respond as best she can. Given she is inherently a conflict and risk avoider, that often proves to be a challenge.
Connell has chosen an unsual — but ideal — structure to capture this story. Mrs. Bridge is not a long book (240 pages in my edition) but it features 117 chapters. India Bridge’s life does not have a lot of unpredictable “major” moments (that promised trip to Europe, when it finally comes to pass, will prove to be one of the few) but it is filled with a host of mundane ones that threaten to grow into crises if she does not “manage” them in her own, often clumsy, way.
Let me offer just one example, from midway through the book. By way of background, Mrs. Bridge has previously enrolled in some community art classes — while she showed some talent, other things took precedence and she eventually stopped going (starting “worthwhile” initiatives and then getting distracted by normal life is one of her traits). The “threat” comes when there is a knock on the door and Harriet, the Bridges’ servant (in her own way, also an ongoing “threat” for Mrs. Bridge), returns with the observation that the visitor is “suspicious”:
Everyone looked suspicious to Harriet. Mrs. Bridge, after a moment of thought, got up and walked through the kitchen to the back door. It was snowing outside, and on the back step was a stoop-shouldered little man with a woeful expression who was shivering uncontrollably and stamping his feet. On seeing her he attempted a smile and his mouth formed the word “Hello”. Mrs. Bridge could not think where she had seen him; then she remembered the art instructor in whose evening class she had done some painting. Opening the door, but leaving the glass storm door locked, she said, “Why it’s Mr. Gadbury!” For some reason he did look suspicious, and more lost and defeated than in his studio. He was attempting to speak; his words were inaudible through the storm door. Mrs. Bridge, conscious of Harriet’s premonition, despite the familiarity of it, was therefore reluctant to let him in.
She does let him in eventually and discovers that Mr. Gadbury has been reduced to selling subscriptions to a monthly magazine, The Doberman. Well, trying to sell would be more accurate — in two months he hasn’t sold a single one. The Bridges not only don’t have a Doberman, they don’t have a dog of any kind. Still, Mrs. Bridge buys a subscription. Crisis averted.
Most of the incidents that arise to confront Mrs. Bridge are more day-to-day ones than that, however. To maintain a comfortable life (the Bridges are part of the Kansas City country club set), Warren spends most evenings working late — that produces a whole set of child-rearing challenges as her three offspring grow into very different, highly indepedent, characters. And keeping the waters smooth in her section of country club society brings a whole different set of worries for the risk-averse Mrs. Bridge. As the novel unfolds, she just keeps moving from one to the next.
According to Salter’s afterword, Mrs. Bridge, before finally finding a home (and an impressive initial press run of 7,000) at Viking Press, was turned down by at least nine publishers “citing its unconventional form, characters that seemed unsympathetic, and a lack of drama, all weaknesses that paradoxically are in part responsible for its continuing popularity and stature”. I wholeheartedly second that capsule appraisal so let me borrow Salter’s explanation of why the novel succeeds (warning: there are some potential spoiler phrases here, but you would probably guess them anyway):
India Bridge, her husband, children, friends and others around them are depicted without any trace of sentimentality in prose that is exact and scrupulously honest. At the same time, for reasons that confound, it is prose that is irrestible. Though she may wonder helplessing in the end — her husband dead, two of her children virtually estranged and the third in a disastrous marriage — What have I done or failed to do? what is also implicit and just as moving because it is unstated is India Bridge meekly thinking about her life, What have I missed?
But Connell does not sit in judgment, that is left to the reader who may not even sense that a judgment is to be rendered, so sympathetically even the least of the characters are shown. It is from this, a profound and forgiving generosity, that the unexpected warmth of the book comes.