Occasionally you pick up a book that is excruciating to read. Not because it is tedious, but because you share the pain of the protagonist so acutely. Evan Connell’s Mrs. Bridge is excruciating.
Mrs. Bridge was what I had in mind when I started Second Chances. This neglected novel was published in 1959. It managed to climb onto the New York Times Bestseller List and stayed there for thirteen weeks but never approached the top.
Mrs. Bridge is about a Kansas City country-club matron. It takes place between about 1920 to about 1942. Mrs. Bridge is suffocating in society’s constraints. She is isolated and bored. She is too wealthy to do housework much less hold a job. She shops to pass the time even when there is no longer anything or anyone to shop for. She is too tentative to find new passions and too uninquisitive to learn; as a result her reactions are often simple and naive. She will not confront her tyrant of a husband, groomed “to remain with her husband wherever he was, and under all circumstances, unless he directed her otherwise.” She can be passive-aggressive, narrow, ethnocentric and blindly focused on her children’s manners, dispositions, and cleanliness “for these were qualities she valued above all others.” Mrs. Bridge thinks, “If someone wore shoes with runover heels, or shoes that had not been shined for a long time, or shoes with broken laces, you could be pretty sure this person would be slovenly in other things as well.” A well-mannered lady left guest towels untouched, left food on her plate, and never left home without a purse. Mrs. Bridge’s fustiness prevents her from connecting with two of her three children. Fusty as she is, Mrs. Bridge is seldom unkind. Her husband, Mr. Bridge, is unable to connect with anyone, his remoteness compounding Mrs. Bridge’s unhappiness.
Connell describes Mrs. Bridge’s restlessness and unhappiness, her “despair and futility” with humor, precision, and, above all, compassion. Mrs. Bridge is about a woman imprisoned. This book haunts.
One reason that Mrs. Bridge resonated so much with me is that my mother was also a victim of the cult of domesticity. Make no mistake, my mother was no shrinking violet, and her husband, my father, was the opposite of a tyrant. My mother could be boisterous and earthy. She was not “hollowed out” like Mrs. Bridge and never lost connection with her children. But she was part of a lost generation of women whose lives revolved around care of their homes and their children. Her home was my mother’s passion. Unlike Mrs. Bridge, she did not have a full-time maid and cook. And because it was what she felt she was supposed to do—she believed that women should not work outside the home after marriage even as she encouraged us to obtain first rate educations and careers– she cleaned her home obsessively, cooked bountiful meals, and in some ways lived vicariously through her children. Also unlike Mrs. Bridge, who no longer had anything to shop for because she had everything, my mother found outlets in shopping of all sorts, whether collecting “antiques” to adorn her home or bargain-hunting at Loehmann’s. However, I remember guest towels never sullied by human hands. When Mrs. Bridge purchased luggage covers to protect her new leather suitcases, I recalled the plastic sheets my mother used to protect her carpets even though she required us to remove our shoes upon entering the house. We also had several items of furniture whose cushions were rarely indented by a human derriere. My mother was sometimes flustered by my minor rebellions, my forsaking weekly hairdresser and manicure appointments and my sometimes dressing in ways she considered slovenly, but she was solid and sturdy enough to understand that bonds between humans depend upon more than manners and appearances.
Ten years after writing Mrs. Bridge, Connell returned to the Bridge family with Mr. Bridge. Whereas Mrs. Bridge is a masterpiece of entrapment and imprisonment, Mr. Bridge is an interesting character study but is nowhere near as good as its earlier companion. While Mrs. Bridge is stifled by societal constraints, Mr. Bridge is imprisoned by self-imposed restrictions. He is stuffy and humorless. He loves his family but cannot express affection. Birthday gifts to his children are stock certificates. He works long hours in his law practice thinking that providing his wife and children with possessions is a manifestation of his love, when what they need is a husband and father. He regards debtors and beggars with disdain. Mr. Bridge is a philistine and does not appreciate art, music, or literature. His favorite pastime is a trip to the bank vault to examine his stock certificates and to review his will. His go-to form of discipline is withholding an allowance, but at least two of his children and his son-in-law learn not to be cowed; Mr. Bridge is a bully but crumbles when confronted with equal force. Underneath Mr. Bridge’s stuffiness (like Kansas City itself) is some pretty dark stuff. Mr. Bridge is a racist, homophobe, and anti-Semite who hopes that Hitler is not defeated too soon. He harbors and represses incestuous thoughts about his teen-age daughters. Connell’s success is that humanizes Mr. Bridge by portraying cracks in Mr. Bridge’s rigidity and bigotry. Mr. Bridge performs occasional kindnesses. He assists Harriet, the black cleaning lady, when she is arrested, and he overlooks her drinking. He performs free legal services for a Jewish jeweler. He lectures his daughters about treating Harriet and other working folk with condescension. When Douglas, the Bridges’ son, becomes paralyzed by embarrassment and is the only Eagle Scout who fails to kiss his mother at an induction ceremony, Mr. Bridge makes up for it. As a neighbor states, Mr. Bridge does “some awfully cold things warmly and some warm things coldly.” At the end of the day though, he’s never likeable.