Review by Sylvia D:
I’d never heard of Ann Bridge until I read Frontier Passage which turned out to be one of 14 novels written by Bridge between 1932 and 1953. Ann Bridge is the pseudonym of Lady Mary Ann Dolling (Sanders) O’Malley, also known as Cottie Sanders, yet another woman novelist who wrote partly to supplement the family income and whose books also include short stories, several autobiographical non-fiction books and a mystery series featuing an amateur sleuth named Julia Probyn. Her works are very much based on her experiences living in foreign countries and Frontier Passage is no exception being set in Civil War Spain and in the South-West corner of France.
Although there are plenty of adventures in the book, it is essentially a three-way love story. The scene shifts between Spain and France with the relevant chapters given geographical titles preceded by “The Far Side” (Spain) and “This Side” (France). The story involves a hard-bitten and morose Irish journalist, James Milcom (“El Melancolico”), who is covering the Civil War in Republican Spain and his relationship with the Condesa de Verdura, a beautiful (of course!) young White (fascist) aristocrat who is trapped in Madrid and whom he befriends. Her husband, who was a philanderer and always treated her badly, is a prisoner of the Republicans and her adored brother, Juanito, is a member of Franco’s underground. Milcom helps the Condesa to get away to St Jean-de-Luz in France, they fall in love and he becomes embroiled in her family affairs. She is also befriended by a naive, young English girl, Rosemary, whose family are staying in the same town. Rosemary also falls in love with Milcom and unwittingly gets caught up in local espionage.
The strength of the book lies in its descriptive passages, particularly the closely-observed detail of the towns and villages of south-west France and in the way Bridge brings the landscape to life. The fine detail must undoubtedly owe much to her own experiences:
“Biriatou is one of the most amusing of the French Basque villages. It is perched high up on a shelf of hill overhanging the Bidassoa, and is so cramped for space that the tiny square is also the fronton, or pelota-ground; deep-eaved Basque houses with chocolate-brown shutters enclose it on two sides, on the third, beyond a low wall on which the spectators lean during matches, is a flagged space a few feet higher than the fronton, set with chairs and small tables – the fore-court of the inn; beyond that again a flight of steps between large bay-trees leads up to the white facade of the village church, which crowns the whole” (p 45).
Milcom spends much of the book shuttling between France and Spain as he undertakes to visit the Condesa’s husband in prison and to discover the whereabouts of her brother. At the same time he is covering the war for his newspaper and thereby enhances our understanding of the Spanish Civil War which has so often tended to focus on the heroism of the idealistic young men who went off to fight for the Republicans. Here there is a much broader picture; the grim privations of living in war-torn Madrid, Spaniard’s inhumanity to Spaniard, the relationships between the Spanish and the French. Particularly compelling is the portrayal of the horror faced by the defeated Republicans in the aftermath of the fall of Barcelona who tried to flee over the border into France where the authorities were more interested in acquring what miliary equipment they could than in providing a refuge for the defeated Spaniards:
“The scene at the [frontier] barrier . . . was horrible beyond description. A stout wire rope was drawn across the road . . . On the Spanish side stood a solid block of human beings, four hundred yards square, packed vertically like sardines in a tin, forced by steady pressure from behind towards the barrier, France and safety; from them rose a ceaseless roar of appeal, fury and despair, like the howling of a million wolves” (p 193).
This is a novel about love and war, about how war changes people and how love can create moral dilemmas. Milcom’s sympathies lie with the Republicans but his initial pity and then his fierce and doomed love for La Condesa impel him to take on her cause:
“. . . he had never imagined at the time that [his love] could lead to anything like this, that that gentle helpless creature . . . would end by involving him in a situation where he must betray the cause he believed in and held just, out of a complex of loyalties, and for her sake. For his silence, his complicity in Juanito’s activies amounted in his own eyes to active betrayal” (p 141).
The writing is a bit patchy and Milcom and Rosemary the only satisfactorily developed characters but overall Frontier Passage is an enjoyable read.