Revisiting Penelope Mortimer's The Pumpkin Eater and its devastating portrait of a marriage.
Soon enough, the whole story spills out. (It differs only in the details from Penelope's own, the most significant detail being that Mrs. Armitage is an appendage to her husband rather than a creative figure in her own right.) There are early marriages, the "bodyguard" of children, the breakdown in Harrod's ("I stand in the bloody great linen department and cry and cry quite soundlessly, sprinkling the stiff cloths with extraordinarily large tears"), the slow erosion of the love that once soldered the Armitages together, the affairs, the financial prosperity that brought a different way of life ("I imagined I'd have more time for Jake. But we all began to live alone, that's what really happened"), and a new house under construction (called, simply, "the tower") that never becomes the family home it was intended to be.
At the novel's end Mrs. Armitage, having undergone the same abortion and sterilization that Penelope Mortimer did, has moved into the empty tower, "a cell of brick and glass," "inaccessible to reality," to ruminate on what has brought her to such a pass. In an effort to form a persuasive image of herself that would help her to believe in the actuality of her own life, she thinks about her marriage of 24 years, her many children, and summons up the rites of homemaking: "I stood over stoves, stirring food in a saucepan; I bent and picked things up from the floor; I stepped from side to side in the ritual of bed-making; I ran to the garden calling 'Rain!' and stretched up for the clothes-pegs, cramming them into one fist and hurrying in, bedouined with washing." She considers and rejects the idea of suicide: "To be dead would be a perfect solution for me, I thought. But I couldn't bear the idea of pain, the possibility that I would be a broken mess on the gravel, bleating for help." And then, at the end of the third day of her vigil, her children come to fetch her—"They came up over the brow of the hill spread out, like beaters"—followed by Jake. This unsentimental ending, true to the author's blisteringly disillusioned view of life, offers no more than a reconciliation of sorts—an inconclusive, tentative, and temporary reprieve from anguish.
"The success of The Pumpkin Eater pleased me," Mortimer wrote in About Time Too, "though I couldn't understand it. The literary establishment, with its clubs and societies and guilds and conferences, wine and cheese, coffee and buns, was kindly. Lacking any urge to join in or get together or be organized I didn't understand what it was for, and I still don't. Perhaps I missed many golden opportunities—but to do, to be what? Nothing I wanted."
The response, in its "is that all there is?" sense of desolation, is vintage Penelope, but what she had written is in fact a lapidary classic of the interior life. Despite the passage of more than four decades, its concerns—the essential differences between men and women when it comes to matters of love and sex, the loneliness at the heart of life that can't be assuaged by marriage or children—have not dated. It could have been written yesterday, and in its lucid examination of the fragility that haunts even our most robust endeavors I suspect it will have something urgent to say to generations of readers to come.
In real life, Penelope Mortimer continued to experience anguish of all sorts; her keenest sense of herself seems to have been that of "pressing my nose to the world's window like some famished outcast." She had trouble letting go of her obsessive relationship with John even as they lived apart, failed to find gratification from her literary acclaim, and missed her children—especially her son, Jeremy—as they grew up and away. But finally she was resilient; she didn't go the way of Sylvia Plath or Anne Sexton. She continued to write, came to New York to teach, and made it through to the age of 81, living on her own in a cottage in the Cotswolds, where she had become an avid gardener. "Owning land," she wrote at the close of her second memoir, which ends in 1978 (although it was only published in 1993), "made some stubbornly preserved part of me emerge rampant, sweeping the rest out of sight."
A version of this piece appears as the introduction to a reissue of Penelope Mortimer's The Pumpkin Eater from New York Review Books Classics.