The Story of Stanley Brent by Elizabeth Berridge

Bookish Twitter is a regular source of distraction and inspiration for me; I reckon a good chunk of the books on Mount TBR are thanks to the lovely folks there recommending new authors and works to check out! Recently, there was a bit of a flurry around novelist Elizabeth Berridge and her name kept turning up and popping into my line of sight. So a little bit of serendipity came into play when Mike Walmer kindly offered me a copy of his reprint of Berridge’s first published work: a novella called “The Story of Stanley Brent”, from 1945.

Berridge (1919-2009) was known as a novelist and critic, publishing fourteen works between 1945 and 1995; yet her profile is not that high nowadays. Persephone have published a collection of her short stories under the title “Tell it to a Stranger”; but much of the Twitter flurry was around striking covers of Abacus paperback editions of her novels. Fellow bloggers have been rediscovering her work with interest, so I was keen to find out what her writing was actually like.

There was a name for everything, it made things less frightening, made you believe that you could be cured.

“Stanley…” is a novella of 75 pages (with very small type, it has to be said…) and it does indeed relate the life story of the titular Brent, opening in the year 1907 when the young man proposes marriage to Ada after a soaking in a rainstorm. They marry; encounter issues when Ada comes up against the realities of being a wife; have children; Stanley is promoted. And as they age, the world changes round them, with the First World War taking away family and friends; the country-like suburbs are absorbed into the cities and towns; and rumblings of events in Germany are darkening the horizon.

Throughout the youngest daughter’s childhood the country round the Brents was slowly swallowed up. Wooden blocks for roads now lay where once the wheat had burnt. Lorries passed continually, laden with bricks and returning with timber cut from the marked off building sites. Bonfires of blackberry bushes, gorse and hawthorn made the autumns mournful and spring a time of no regrowth. Asphalt hid the muddy paths to the station, and roads were made up, pavements laid at the expense of the older residents.

My summary makes the book sound a little simplistic, but it actually isn’t and Berridge is a remarkable skilful writer to fit as much as she does into such a short narrative. Stanley seems a fairly ordinary man, but there are undercurrents; he suffers from asthma which strikes him at times of stress; he often finds himself questioning the point of what he does; and he senses there is more to life than he experiences. As he ages and his health suffers, his marriage becomes very much a shell and it seems that there is little deep communion between the couple (something which was in fact signalled early in the book).

Stanley remembered this now, the shrug, the indifference. The crack entered his heart. The Frenchman seemed so alone – yet he had wife, children, a house, a trade he enjoyed. Wasn’t this enough, and if not why? Fear darkened Stanley’s clear blue, somewhat stupidly innocent blue eyes; shortened, for a moment, his breath. Something else, what was it?

Perhaps Stanley stands for each ordinary man living an everyday life but yearning for more; certainly, at one point he feels a strong bond with his stepfather-in-law, a French musician in exile whose unfinished violin playing perhaps symbolises the lost opportunities in both men’s lives; and who says rather crytpically at one crucial point in the narrative:

“Each man must dance to his own measure.

For a small book, “The Story of Stanley Berridge” is surprisingly affecting. The underlying element of melancholy comes to the fore regularly throughout the book; and Berridge is adept at capturing emotions and events in just a few words. For example, Stanley doesn’t fight in WW1 (he is “turned down”, presumably because of his health) and in passing the narrative comments “A few women gave Stanley white feathers”, imparting so much about that conflict and the emotions which went with it, as well as conveying how Stanley was judged and how he might have felt about not fighting.

I wasn’t sure what to expect when I started reading this book, but I don’t know that I’d anticipated quite such a memorable read. Berridge writes so well, capturing the little nuances in daily life, the subtle interactions between characters, and also how the world changed during the period of Stanley’s life. “The Story of Stanley Brent” is a novella you can easily read in one sitting, but I think its title character and his life will stay with you afterwards. And if this is any kind of indication of Berridge’s writing, I’m definitely keen to read more!

Review copy kindly provided by the publisher, for which many thanks!