I've read and enjoyed Elizabeth Berridge's work before. As a matter of fact I liked her 1964 novel Across the Commons so much that I mentally added her to my list authors 'whose work I want to read all of' when I read it a couple of years ago. Another hearty nod in the direction of The Persephone Book of Short Stories for finally giving me the opportunity to read her once again, if only just a short story. I'm going to borrow the quote I used before to describe Berridge:
"Although she was, on the surface, a conventional master of conservative suburban fiction, her work concealed a deep subversiveness. The reader continually finds his expectations railroaded on to a completely different track. She was, par excellence, the celebrator of family life. There is, as she said herself, no substitute for the family: 'It is society's first teething ring, man's proving ground. When repudiated, it still leaves its strengthening mark. When it does the rejecting, the outcast is damaged. Within its confines, devils and angels rage together, emotions creep underfoot like wet rot, or flourish like Russian ivy. It is the world in microcosm, the nursery of tyrants, the no man's land of suffering, a place and a time, a rehearsal for silent parlour murder'."
She sounds like such an interesting woman and was obviously much respected during the active years she was writing.
"Subject for a Sermon" was written in 1944, and not surprisingly Berridge writes about the domestic sphere and how the War impinges upon it. Actually for Lady Hayley, the war gives her her raison d'être. I sometimes have to remind myself that the stories in this collection were written (so far anyway--they are presented chronologically) early in the Twentieth Century. There is a freshness and immediacy to them, which someone writing now about the era cannot quite match. And, too, most interestingly Berridge could sense which way the winds were shifting, and it's the changes in attitude about class and responsibility that are at the heart of this story.
This is the story of a mother and son, two generations facing the same reality but each with their own experiences and beliefs and solutions to the problems they see in a world gone a little crazy and one that is not likely to recover in quite the same way once the war comes to an end. And Berridge was writing this as the war was occurring, which gave me pause as I was reading it. Of course I know how everything turns out, but even in 1944 there must have been so many uncertainties. The world had changed and was changing daily and it was obviously so much on people's minds and Berridge captures it all wonderfully.
If you were a mother and your son was a soldier, would you spend each moment of his leave as close to home and close to him as you could? Or would you continue with your war work? Lady Hayley tells a village group doing their part for the war effort, "I've always said the Red Cross comes first, now's my chance to prove it." And prove it she does. She's there with the village rather than at the train station meeting her son for his leave from the war. A confident look from the village rector and one of the ladies can read on his face that now he's got the subject for his next sermon--Lady Hayley's selflessness no doubt.
The thing is Lady Hayley is an aristocrat, and as such she has a responsibility to those around her to set the proper example. It's a responsibility she doesn't take lightly and one she is long settled into. It's a telling remark when she thinks to herself how she hates "any purposeless movement." Even a planned outing with her son isn't performed as a simple act of pleasure but as part of a grander scheme. She is the ultimate example of a 'multi-tasker'. She might spend the afternoon with her son, but there is an agenda behind it all--a meeting she must chair or a function she must supervise.
Fresh back from the battlefield, however, John brings with him a new perspective. He accuses his mother of not allowing the people in the village the chance to organize their own schemes, of not really seeing or understanding those who are not part of her own class. Rather than come together during this time of war, mother and son seem to be driven apart. One is all for tradition--following it no matter how outdated, and the other is ready for change. He's been out in the world and seen a different side of it, of people around him that he might not have known before the war. And how they live, what they feel and think make an impression on him and widen his own vistas.
Another perfect slice of life, rather an imperfect one in this case, captured by an author with a keen eye and sensibility to the impending changes writ small and large during the War. Although I mentally shake my head at Lady Hayley, in a way it's hard not being sympathetic towards someone who tries to do the best she can according to her circumstances, but it would seem also to be at the cost of her son.
Next up: Dorothy Whipple. It's the last story written during the war, but I'll still be in the 40s for another five stories after. I'm on the home stretch with just a dozen stories left, however.