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Posts Tagged ‘Penelope Mortimer’

For me a really good collection of short stories is one where there is a theme running across the collection, and the stories themselves are so good you just want to read them one after another after another. Saturday Lunch with the Brownings is one such collection, it was the only collection Mortimer published alongside nine novels, biography, memoirs and journalism.

The collection was first published in 1960, the twelve stories all written in the late 1950’s when Penelope Mortimer was known best for being the celebrated wife of John Mortimer – something which I think is key when we consider the theme of domestic disharmony and suffocation that runs through the collection. There is nothing warm and cosy about Mortimer’s domestic portraits here, instead we have stories of strained relationships, unhappy children, and infidelity. The women in these stories are often struggling with the realities of parenthood, the insensitivity of husbands or the other suffocations of an unequal marriage. Penelope Mortimer perfectly understands the unhappy child too, she is able to put herself into the mind of the child – the child who is let down by or unsure of the adults around them. Her observances are so sharp, the view of motherhood and marriage she leaves us with is ultimately devastating.

The collection opens with the brilliant The Skylight in which a young mother travels to France with her young son. They arrive at the remote house where the woman has arranged for them to stay. The child is tired and fractious and they are both in need of rest. However, the house is locked up with no sign of the owners and no way of gaining access to the house – and no one around to help. It is hot and the mother is anxious to settle her son inside. Having carefully looked to see if there is another way of getting into the house the mother spots a small skylight in the roof which is open, only it is far too small for her to get in. A ladder lies close by – an obvious though risky strategy occurs to her and after some agonised thought she puts her plan into action. She helps her five year old son down through the skylight from the top of the ladder, after giving him some very detailed instructions as what to do once inside. The child then disappears from her anxious view. It’s a story reminiscent in style of some of Daphne du Maurier’s more memorable pieces. Mortimer perfectly captures the tension and rising sense of panic in the situation.

“In the silence she heard, quite distinctly, a tap dripping. A regular, metallic drip, like torture. She shouted directions to him, waiting between each one, straining to hear the slightest sound, the faintest answer. The tap dripped. The house seemed to be holding its breath.”

(The Skylight)

The Skylight wasn’t the only story that reminded me a little of du Maurier – another story further into the collection Little Mrs Perkins is a delicious little bit of sleight of hand. Mortimer lulls us into a false sense of security, the reader makes certain assumptions about the woman we are introduced to when all along there is something else entirely going on. The narrator of this story is a woman in bed in a nursing home recovering from the birth of her third child. The Mrs Perkins of the title is the woman brought into the bed next to her – it seems that she is threatening to miscarry the child she is carrying.

The title story Saturday Lunch with the Brownings is one of the stories that perfectly shows Mortimer’s ability to capture the minutia of domestic situations. In this story we meet what would now be called a blended family – Madge and William Browning, their daughter Bessie and Madge’s two daughters from her first marriage. The adults find themselves at each other’s throats arguing over the children – William’s resentment over his step-daughters gradually showing itself over the course of one volatile family Saturday.

A comfortably married couple feature in the darkly humorous Such a Super Evening. A lawyer and his wife are delighted to have had their dinner invitation accepted by the Mathiesons, a socially glamourous literary couple whose presence at parties is to be gloated over by the fortunate host. Needless the say, the evening doesn’t go quite as the couple had expected.

Mortimer is never afraid to make us shudder a little, she excels in the unexpected every bit as much as she does the domestic. In The White Rabbit an eleven year old girl is made to visit her estranged father who has some kind of rabbit farm. The child endures the visit to her father’s home – where she encounters rabbits in various states of health – and is given a white rabbit to take home.

“All the way back to London my father sang, in a tuneless sort of voice. I knew he was glad the day was over. I kept rehearsing what my stepfather would say. I knew he wouldn’t think of letting me keep the rabbit, but I was not sure of the voice or the words he would use. This worried me. I felt I should know. The rabbit crouched in my lap. It was so frightened I hoped it would have a heart attack and die.”

(The White Rabbit)

She doesn’t want the rabbit, for the girl the rabbit represents something she can barely articulate. She wants more than anything to belong wholeheartedly to her mother and step-father – a man vastly unlike her own father – the rabbit she sees as something that can only spoil that relationship.

Another story which focuses brilliantly I think on the viewpoint of a child – is The Renegade. A young girl at a boarding school she hates is certain her father will react with sympathy when she turns up on the doorstep late at night. This story is especially successful as we start with the self-deluding viewpoint of the girl’s parents – an unsatisfied middle aged vicar and his wife.

All in all, an absolutely brilliant collection of stories which has definitely whetted by appetite for more by Mortimer – I have previously read Daddy’s Gone a-hunting and The Pumpkin Eater.

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I had been aware of this novel for years, but really can’t think why I haven’t read it till now. Penelope Mortimer is a writer I have read just once before, Daddy’s Gone-A-Hunting, published by Persephone is a beautifully written novel about a woman’s nervous breakdown. With this novel, we are definitely in familiar territory but The Pumpkin Eater, in my opinion is an even better novel. This is a novel about the pitfalls of marriage and motherhood, Mortimer’s simple prose is wonderfully immersive, dreamy and intimate.

“I want to fly from a window and pour through the air like a wind of love to raise his hair and slide into the palms of his hands.”

Reading Daphne Merkin’s introduction to this edition, it is clear that there is a lot about this novel that is autobiographical. Merkin suggests that the novel reads like a work of catharsis. In this novel Mortimer has reproduced something of her own tumultuous marriage, and there are other painful episodes in the novel which come from life too.

We only ever know our narrator as Mrs Armitage, the doctor – to whom she is talking about the wool drawer that her mother had had years before – calls her this, and we never do learn her first name. Whatever her name; it is not Penelope; Mortimer may have taken much directly from her own life – but she did not put herself into her central character. Whatever else was happening in her private life, Penelope Mortimer had her own professional and creative life – Mrs Armitage has never been more than a wife and mother. Her husband, Jake is a screenwriter – he has a rich, creative, rewarding life, filled with travel and acclaim. Jake’s wife is part of his home life – an attractive feature of his home, an accessory. The couple live in London but are building a glass tower in the country – with the intention that it will one day, become the family home. Mrs Armitage proudly tells the doctor about the tower. We sense immediately this happy ever after is an unrealistic expectation, that fairy tale ending perhaps, that we so often strive for.

Speaking to us from her therapist’s couch as the novel opens, Mrs Armitage is at once a warm and confiding voice. so wryly, intelligent, I liked her enormously straight away.

“I don’t know who I am, I don’t know what I’m like, how can I know what I want? I only know that whether I’m good or bad, whether I’m a bitch or not, whether I’m strong or weak or contemptible or a bloody martyr – I mean whether I’m fat or thin, tall or short, because I don’t know – I want to be happy.”

Jake is our narrator’s fourth husband, she a mother to an enormous brood of children – from this, and her previous marriages – who are equally nameless – sixteen-year-old Dinah is the only one who we meet and whose name we learn. All the rest are a homogenous whole – the youngest is just three – and there is a nurse employed to help care for them. What will she do then if she doesn’t go on having children? She rather likes the idea of having yet another child, Jake is dead set against it. Throughout the novel we sense the children running in and out of rooms, calling for attention, as their mother Mrs Armitage is either falling apart – or trying to hold things together.

Slowly Mrs Armitage begins to piece together what is going on in her head, she has broken down in Harrods’ linen department weeping great tears over the linen.

“I began drinking because the thought that I was drinking gave me a kind of identity: each time I poured myself a brandy in the deserted afternoon I could say to myself ‘I am a woman who drinks.”

Mrs A is very comfortably off, Jake has been successful for a number of years, and she wants for nothing, and yet this comfortable existence only serves to highlight her isolation, depression and fragility. Mrs A has had her whole life directed by men, from her parents’ home she entered into a series of marriages and had children it is the one thing she knows how to do. At the heart of the problem of course is her marriage, her husband’s betrayals are bruising – yet all he can do is shrug them off – as little nothings. (Can I just mentioned I wanted to punch Jake).

She remembers a time when a friend from school came to stay, the fifteen-year-old Mrs A, had a quiet little passion for the vicar’s son, her friend Ireen is younger and quite the femme fatal. Ireen is desperate to have ‘a story’ to take back to school – and her friend is soon disenchanted with the girl who at school seemed so wonderful. There’s an uncomfortable encounter with a much older man, who Mrs A is reminded of suddenly, in the person of an unpleasant social acquaintance, when Jake brings all the film people to the house for a party.

The Pumpkin Eater is a powerful novel, I loved it. A book I had suggested to my book group – but they didn’t pick it, so I read it anyway. I would have been interested to talk to them about it – there are definitely feminist issues at the heart of it.

Edited to add – a big big thank you to Thomas from Hogglestock for this book, which I won on his blog.

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