Book Review

The Pumpkin Eater by Penelope Mortimer

powerful novel that should be better known

I often forget the names of protagonists in novels.

It happens a lot.

I think this is due to a dual tendency in novels, whereby novelists seek a verisimilitude so precise that the name they chooses slips into the deep gap between the “so simple it’s memorable” and the “so unfamiliar it’s memorable”.

In a novel where there are lots of characters, it is often not the protagonist’s name that recurs, particularly in novels with a first person narrator, such as here: Penelope Mortimer’s very impressive 1962 novel, The Pumpkin Eater.

Off the top of my head, I’m not certain if the protagonist-narrator even used a name for herself in the text. I remember the names of two of her husbands, of the only one of her children whose name she mentioned, I remember the name of her childhood best friend, of the first woman she realised her husband was cheating on her with and, of course, the last, too. I do not know – because she does not use it – the name of her only dead husband, the only one who things might have worked with, because he is the one she doesn’t think about much.

The Pumpkin Eater (the name taken from an old nursery rhyme where the next line is “had a wife and couldn’t keep her”) is one of those sexistly-overlooked novels from the middle of the century that were once dismissed as “middlebrow” and now, if they’re lucky, turn up in a nice reissue from Persephone or Penguin Classics or, the less flattering and commercially viable option, get noticed by hipster poets in secondhand Torontonian bookstores on their birthdays and get picked up for $2 CAD.

That’s what happened here, and though obvs obvs obvs I’m too depressed to persuade anyone to buy anything atm, if there’s a more recent edition of this book available – or anything else by Mortimer – then I definitely recommend it. The Pumpkin Eater is powerful, emotional, emotive, prose and it deals with mid century domestic mental illness in a fucking impressive way.

The novel starts at some point in the 1950s/60s with a depressed, upwardly-mobile housewife beginning her first therapy session with a psychiatrist. There are a few of these scenes interspersed throughout the novel, which dips (also) in and out of memories from various parts of the protagonist’s life, while slowly moving forwards the narrative that surrounds the slow collapse of her fourth marriage.

The story it tells is one that would have been hauntingly familiar at the time of its release, though in many countries and societies this would have been the last time. It is about the coming of age of the inter-war generation (the narrator is 14ish when the Spanish Civil War kicks off).

The narrator – and this is why I don’t know her name – is finally realising, in her early forties (in the mid fifties, that maths works, right?) that she is a person in her own right. Before this point, the dissolution of her marriages had happened because she had desired it (except for the one who died in the war): she had tired of the man, of the arrangement, of the marriage, and she moved onto the next one. The husband we hear the most about is Jake Armitage – her only age-appropriate (in a 21st century way, obvs back then a woman marrying someone her own age was almost radical) husband, and the only one to change during the course of their relationship.

She met Jake when he was a charming, but poorish, aspiring writer, and her father sorts them out a place to stay and sends some – but not all – of the previous marriages’ children to boarding school. These, the oldest children, are never seen again by the reader, and the only one of the narrator’s children whose name is given is Dinah, the third of maybe eight or nine or ten – this is deliberately vague – and the only child of the dead husband, a soldier. 

Time passes, though, and Jake gets a script picked up by Hollywood and he becomes a bigshot. Money money money, staff to help the many many kids and the narrator drifts away from her home life and it’s only once one of her husband’s [many] affairs happens to be with a glam starlet that he starts losing all interest in his wife and her [possibly ten or eleven or more] children. 

What Mortimer does, here, is present a characterful and desire-driven woman who, due to societal sexism, sees herself as an empty vessel.

Neglected and ignored by her family until she and her female friends hit puberty – there is a chilling scene that implies her father fucks one of her friends when they’re 14 – she suddenly finds attention and interest from adults who’d always treated her like dirt. She moves from bad idea marriage with an older man to bad idea marriage with an older man, amassing children on the way.

Jake, when he’s young and hungry and keen (also neglected, an only child, yearning for family but eventually overwhelmed by a glut of it), is a good idea, and Jake when he’s amassing cash and building a reputation is good, but the success goes to his head and he gets himself a reputation as a massive sleaze, albeit a massive sleaze with a below-average sized cock.

The Pumpkin Eater is about familial and romantic negligence, it’s about structural sexism that left many women unable to see themselves with an identity outside of their marriage (a mother, a wife), and how flimsy that identity holds up when you have enough employees to look after your children and your husband is away working and banging younger, more exciting, actresses.

This is an intelligent novel about naïveté and the false promises of happiness in traditional, conservative, relationship models. It’s about the validity of mental health treatment and the important of listening to the self. It’s about how men are bastards and how greedy, hungry, bastards will always be greedy, hungry, bastards, no matter how well-fed and how well-fucked they are.

Mortimer’s narrator is astute and perceptive but with hobbled self-esteem, in many ways as a deliberate result of social conditioning. It takes drastic change – and psychological collapse – for her to see her own value, but I don’t think there’s a happy ending here, as there wouldn’t have been for a woman of this class, with this many children, at this time. 

It’s a gorgeous, powerful, novel about depression and responsibility, about the fallacy of progress and about the need for recognition: both of the self and from other people.

The Pumpkin Eater is more human, more engaging and more intelligent than any book I’ve read by any of the big male authors of the period.

Up yours, Updike: Mortimer does marital strife like a novelist rather than like a perv.

Top notch stuff. Would recommend.


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