20. Sociable Bridge: Bridge in Britain of the 30s

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Sociable bridge–bridge history itself–in America and England is inextricably linked. For one thing, it was Ely Culbertson’s hugely publicized tournaments with British teams that established him as the most famous bridge player in the world. It was also hugely responsible for the international fad that contract bridge became. For another, the ancestors of bridge–auction, bridge whist, whist–are all rooted in England or its empire.

In 1956 my husband was sent to England to set up the British branch of the small manufacturing company he worked for. We were able to join him. I grew up with an Anglophile mom because of WWII. You can imagine then, it was a treat for me to spend six months living in Southport on the northwest coast, later in Formby. My youngest daughter, Maria, was born there.

And that’s how I came to read the Lucia novels by E. F. Benson,  in which everybody plays bridge and in Lucia’s world (upper class in the 1930s) nobody works, everybody has maids and cooks, and their homes have names, not numbered street addresses.

Riseholme (pronounced Rizzum) is the fictional name for the Cotswold village of Broadway.  Most of the series, however, takes place in the village of Tilling, fictional name for  the Sussex village of Rye. If you go to Rye, you can ask the tourist office for a map and walking tour for the village that tracks the various characters and happenings in Make Way for Lucia.

When contract bridge replaced auction bridge, Tilling too, as in America, experiences the coarsening of manners that contract bridge brought to the more ladylike and gentlemanly auction bridge. Writes Benson of bridge Tilling in the 30s:

“For the last year contract had waged a deadly war with auction, but the latter, like the
Tishbites in King David’s campaigns, had been exterminated, since contract gave so
much more scope for violent differences of opinion–which all added spleen and savagery
to the game.”

This is escapist fiction. You will either love the novels for the delicious writing and humor, or toss the first one you try aside as anachronistic and even silly. I, an Anglophile, love them for the language, humor, a world long gone.

I feel a kinship with that world of bridge players–a game I like to say, has lineage and class.


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