One of the most notable descendants of Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, Evan S. Connell’s Mrs. Bridge, originally published in 1959, enjoyed a popular revival when North Point Press reissued the book in 1981 and Merchant Ivory created a film version, starring Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward, in 1990. Connell, in writing about the Kansas City haute bourgeoisie of the 1930s and 1940s, transformed Woolf’s quicksilver touch and her satire of London’s elite into a plainspoken style more suited to the American Midwest, yet Connell’s lines are among the nimblest to be found in modern fiction. “Her name was India . . .” the story begins. “She always thought her parents must be thinking of someone else when they named her.” The tension is thus set, and Mrs. Bridge’s wavering sense of self constantly strains amid the social conventions that delineate her life. Young but seemingly bypassed by love and marriage, she accepts an unexpected proposal, and for a while happiness seems certain. But soon her husband desires her less, and at the end of a brief opening chapter of romance Mrs. Bridge concludes “that while marriage might be an equitable affair, love itself was not.” With a flick of irony, the next chapter is subtitled “Children.”
If growing up just before World War II in Kansas City was an oppressive fate for Connell, he turned it into an archetypal identity story that is witty, entertaining, thoughtful, and finally as sympathetic as it is subversive. We mourn for Mrs. Bridge and her friends wasting their hearts even as we know the ridiculousness of their self-justifications. Connell’s innately sophisticated, imaginative view of ordinary desire and suffering gives Mrs. Bridge its particular lightness and transcendence.
34 Tobacco Road
Madge and Grace were so different; Mrs. Bridge felt drawn to them both, and was distressed that the two of them did not care for each other. Now and then she felt they were competing for her friendship, though she could not be sure of this, but if it was true it was both exciting and alarming. She often thought about them. She felt more comfortable with Madge, who liked everything about Kansas City, more secure, more positive; with Grace Barron she felt obliged to consider everything she said, and to look all around, and she could never guess what Grace would say or do.
Tobacco Road, practically uncensored, had come to Kansas City, and Madge Arlen—possibly jealous of Grace Barron’s attentions—called to ask if Mrs. Bridge wanted to go to the Wednesday matinee. She had not thought about it, but there was no reason not to, particularly since almost everyone was going to see it in spite of its shady reputation, so she agreed.
The play had scarcely got under way when she received a brief but severe shock: one of the girls in the cast looked extremely like Ruth; it wasn’t, of course, and as the play went on she could see that the actress was a few years older.
She did not enjoy the play, neither did Madge Arlen; they left after the second act. On the way out of the theater Mrs. Bridge remarked, “Frankly, I don’t see why a play like Tobacco Road is necessary.”
“We expected it to be earthy,” Madge Arlen observed with some lenience, “however, I do agree with you. It went much too far.”
35 One Summer Morning
It was very hot that summer.
For as long as she could remember, Mrs. Bridge had known that unless she was wearing slacks—slacks were worn only for gardening—she must wear stockings. In summer this could be uncomfortable, but it was the way things were, it was the way things had always been, and so she complied. No matter where she was going, though it might be no farther than the shopping center at Sixty-third Street, or even if she was not going out of the house all day, she would put on her stockings.
But one morning—and an extraordinarily hot day it promised to be, because by ten o’clock the tar in the street was glistening—she decided not to wear stockings. It was Harriet’s day off, Ruth and Carolyn had gone swimming at Lake Lotawana, and Douglas had gone to a model-airplane meet in Swope Park, so nobody would ever know the difference. Having selected the lightest dress she could find in her closet, she put on a pair of blue anklets and the clogs she wore at the country-club swimming pool. Thus dressed, she considered herself in the mirror and shook her head at the sight, but went downstairs all the same. The Beckerle sisters, two elderly widows who were seldom seen about the neighborhood, chose that morning to come visiting.
“Oh, goodness,” cried Mrs. Bridge as the greeted them at the door, “I look like something out of Tobacco Road!”