Posts Tagged ‘Penelope Mortimer’


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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