Book Review: The Pumpkin Eater by Penelope Mortimer

The Pumpkin Eater by Penelope Mortimer published by Penguin Classics

The Pumpkin Eater by Penelope Mortimer published by Penguin Classics

‘Peter, Peter, Pumpkin eater

Had a wife and couldn’t keep her…’

Penelope Mortimer was as celebrated as her husband John, he of Rumpole of the Bailey fame in the 1960s, but has drifted out of fashion and with it print. But now her most successful and critically acclaimed novel, The Pumpkin Eater, has been published as a Penguin Classic.

The Pumpkin Eater is a short, sharp, quirky little book that has a wonderfully barbed dreaminess to it. Published in 1962, this novel is rich in language, an evocative tale of a Mrs Armitage (we never know her first name) who suffers a breakdown in the linen department of Harrods ground down by the domesticity of her life and bruised by many betrayals. She is a woman saddled with the constraints of her gender and time.

Twice divorced, when we meet her she is about to marry again. She already has a brood of children – we’re never told how many, in deed Mrs Armitage seems to have lost track of her offspring and seems baffled by their presence.

When she first meets her third-husband-to-be Jake, Mrs Armitage is still married to her second husband and living in a barn. Attracted by the bohemianism poverty, Jake, who is then a struggling writer, falls in love her and she him and, leaving three of the kids in boarding school at the insistence of her father, they marry. Jake becomes an increasingly successful screenwriter and Mrs Armitage moves from poverty to a life of confusing leisure where she’s weighed down by the grinding invisibility of being a wife and a mother.

The novel is an singular description of a woman suffering from depression,  burdened by the domesticity of her life and bruised by many betrayals. There is languid air hangs that hangs over Mrs Armitage, moving through her life as it were treacle, bemused at the presence of all these children and confused by her husband’s infidelity and cruelty. She doesn’t know any other way than the life she is leading – as many women didn’t in the days before the sexual revolution. She was born to breed and dust and not concern herself with her husband’s affairs – in every sense.

The Pumpkin Eater is a loosely autobiographical story. Penelope Mortimer was a woman very much of her time, at the tail end of the 1950s when women were still confined to the domestic world. Mortimer also married several times and had six children. The world The Pumpkin Eater inhabits flirts with Nancy Mitford’s descriptions of a boho world where no one gives a damn about morals, but this is a far more serious, unusual book . I was often reminded of Penelope Gilliatt in the sparse, dialogue-heavy narrative that had an almost filmic quality to it. Mortimer actually succeeded Gilliatt as film critic of The Observer, a fact I gleaned from this great article by Rachel Cooke in the same paper.

The Pumpkin Eater is a darkly funny, wry look at one woman’s world that is so small it’s crushing her, but that isn’t consumed by its own earnestness. Mortimer deserves to be back in print – maybe it won’t be long before she’s back in fashion too.

by Suzanne Elliott

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