There aren't too many like her anymore, though women of her kind were everywhere once. Maybe you know someone's mother or grandmother who might still put you in mind of the genus: prim and proper ladies who lunched in gloves and furs, stalwartly ran the ladies' auxiliary, and presided genteelly over vast homes in shaded neighborhoods. Ladies who never really had to do anything. But always, and above all, "ladies" -- and quite jealous of the title. Listen to the heroine of Evan Connell's 1959 novel gently chiding her young daughter on the proper applications of the term: "You should say the cleaning 'woman.' A lady is someone like Mrs. Arlen or Mrs. Montgomery."
Or Mrs. Bridge, of course. India Bridge is nothing if not a lady. And there's hardly a sweeter, more generous, more bewildered, more amusing or ultimately more touching one in all of literature. She's simply irresistible, though it isn't easy to say why. After all, she leads a life of utter, unquestioning conformity. Nothing particularly dramatic or extraordinary happens to her. She's unfailingly polite, never makes a fuss, can't bear to hurt anyone's feelings -- a real goody-goody. She subjugates herself completely to her husband's will. She doesn't even imagine herself in any role other than wife and mother. She's the kind of woman to make a feminist beat her chest and tear her hair.
And yet I promise you'll be riveted by the funny, bittersweet portrait Connell paints in Mrs. Bridge, and by the startlingly simple way he achieves his effects. There isn't much in the way of plot in this study of America's repressed upper middle class of the '30s and '40s. India and Walter Bridge marry and move to Kansas City. Three children -- two girls and a boy -- follow quickly upon one another. Life settles into predictable patterns -- Mr. Bridge works long hours at his law office; Mrs. Bridge deals with the housekeeper and the children's follies. They dine at the country club; they visit with the neighbors. The children grow up and leave, the Bridges grow older. World War II breaks out.
The story's told in a series of incisive sketches, none more than three or four pages long. But detail builds upon detail, and soon you're looking at a fully fleshed, vivid portrait of both a life and a way of life now largely gone. Connell's style is highly realistic, but he's a master of nuance and the owner of the driest of wits. Tell me if you don't laugh at some of young Douglas Bridge's antics or Mrs. Bridge's sporadic attempts at self-improvement. At the same time, he's a keen social critic: The figure of the depressed, desperate Grace Barron presages the coming feminist revolt. And the empty idleness of India's days fills her with an existential dread: "She spent a great deal of time staring into space, oppressed by the sense that she was waiting. But waiting for what? She did not know."
Poor India. In the end, Mrs. Bridge is both a loving sendup of wealthy, WASPish Middle America and a poignant tribute to the essential decency of a generation that firmly believed in standards, morals, virtues -- even if they sometimes got them wrong. Mrs. Bridge was Connell's first novel, and it's probably still his most popular; number two would be Mr. Bridge, the companion novel he wrote 10 years later (and which you might want to look at, too). I'll confess that I came to these books backwards, after I saw the 1990 Merchant-Ivory film starring Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward that combined the two into "Mr. and Mrs. Bridge." It was great, but the books are better. I'm looking forward to discussing Mrs. Bridge with you online at noon on Thursday, April 24, at www.washingtonpost.com. *