Before the advent of Betty Friedan and Germaine Greer, before it became chic for housewives to swap stories of malaise the way they had once swapped recipes for Thanksgiving stuffing, and before a woman on the edge of a nervous breakdown inspired interest rather than rolling eyes, there was Penelope Mortimer. She was a literary visionary of sorts, not quite of domestic darkness—there is always a brood of children present in her fiction to set off sparks—but of the claustrophobic grayness and casual betrayals of upper-middle-class marriage. In the late 1950s and early '60s Mortimer published a succession of novels— The Bright Prison, Daddy's Gone A-Hunting and The Pumpkin Eater—that might almost be taken as a trilogy, so similar is the existential condition that afflicts her protagonists. The dramas of her heroines—all of whom are transparently alter egos, although only The Pumpkin Eater is told in the first-person voice—are so low-pitched in their despair and so insulated by money that it is all too easy to write them off as cases of overwrought nerves, their condition brought on by too much time and too morbid a point of view. To do so, however, would be to overlook the human truths that inform these situations, the witty if often bleak intelligence that Mortimer brings to her dissection of the glitches—the unbearable muddles—that regularly occur in the most intimate of relationships, between mothers and their children or between husbands and wives.
Of the three novels, The Pumpkin Eater, published in 1962 when Mortimer was in her early 40s, strikes me as the most accomplished and the one closest to the bone. (It was also made into a remarkable film in 1964, directed by Jack Clayton from a screenplay by Harold Pinter, starring Anne Bancroft and Peter Finch.) Although Mortimer's style is always direct, in this account of a woman's emotional collapse and tentative recovery it becomes almost frontal in its urgency. One senses an impelling force behind the pages, as though they were scratched out on torn pieces of paper by someone marooned on a desert island of the mind, where resources are scarce and time is short. The effect is like that of reading a crucial but not fully decipherable message, one that might help us in our own travails if only we read it in time. "I have put into this novel," Mortimer would explain to a television audience during a 1963 BBC reading of a scene from The Pumpkin Eater, "practically everything I can say about men and women and their relationship to one another." From the opening pages of dialogue between the unnamed narrator (we know her only formally, as "Mrs. Armitage," like a character in a Victorian play) and her psychiatrist to the book's concluding passage, in which the reader is assured that everything in this novel in a sense took place—"Some of these things happened, and some were dreams. They are all true, as I understood truth. They are all real, as I understood reality"—the reader is held willing hostage by a captivating, heedlessly honest voice.
Penelope Mortimer was born in North Wales on Sept. 19, 1918, the younger of two children of an eccentric clergyman father and a self-effacing, industrious mother. In her first autobiography, About Time (1979; she wrote a second, About Time Too, published in 1993), she vividly details her irregular vicarage childhood up until the age of 19, when she escaped into her first marriage. Her father comes off sounding like a character out of Tristram Shandy, pierced through and through with oddities of both circumstance and temperament—a preacher who didn't believe in God and who preached "splendid, meaningless sermons," as well as a man of considerable sexual appetite whose wife no longer slept with him. According to Mortimer, her father was wont to do strange things, like showing her a spaniel puppy's genitals, throwing her brother out of the dining-room window, and attending séances. He also sexually molested her, although Mortimer passes off this piece of information so nonchalantly in About Time that it is hard to tell how much weight to give it. (This is, of course, the heart of her literary style, to make light of the traumatic while making visible the trail of damage it leaves behind.) In About Time Too she is much more direct: "My father 'abused' me from the time I was eight until I was about seventeen...It seldom went further than sloppy kisses and inexpert groping in my school knickers, but I hated it and for the next fifty years was under the sad misapprehension that I hated him." Her mother, meanwhile, kept busy decorating her home and the church with as much style as economy, delighting in all that made life more comfortable.
With a lackadaisical education in place—Mortimer attended a secretarial school after finishing up at St. Elphin's School "for the daughters of the clergy"—and possessed of an intermittent yearning to write ("How would I ever be Virginia Woolf if I didn't learn something?"), she fled vicarage life for good. In rapid order she moved to London and attended London University with thoughts of becoming a journalist, then after an engagement of six weeks married a Reuters correspondent, Charles Dimont ("connected in my mind with a kind of obscure stability"), and became pregnant within two months. She was 19 at the time, a dark, gamine beauty who years later would be momentarily mistaken by a waiter for Audrey Hepburn.
Dazzlingly attractive to men, as restless as she was willful, and prone to what her mother called "infatuations"—falling in sexual love—Mortimer seems to have spent her 20s setting up and resetting up domestic households, having affairs, and giving birth to two more daughters. (The third one was not fathered by Dimont, who was off much of the time fighting World War II, but by a close friend of his whom he'd introduced to his wife.) In between she managed to write two novels, neither of them published. On Sept. 6, 1946, she wrote in her erratically kept diary: "At the moment we have some money. I have a Nanny for children. I write, and may possibly become successful. We live at Willersey."
Within a year of writing this entry, Mortimer was cavalierly pregnant once again, this time by a married poet named Randall Swingler. (She and Dimont were living apart.) More to the point, she had met a friend of Swingler's named John Mortimer, who was five years younger than she and already reading for the bar—"a clever, skinny, excitable youth," as his wife-to-be dispassionately described him in About Time Too. John and Penelope became fast pals; they both were about to have their first novels published (Penelope's Johanna, John's Charade) and shared the same agent. She found him funny and companionable; he found her exciting and sophisticated. They also became lovers and when Penelope gave birth to Swingler's daughter (her fourth) at a Catholic nursing home in June 1948, John was the first visitor. Shortly thereafter, much to the astonishment of John's parents and friends, the two of them rented a seaside house and established a humming domestic life together, which John, a lonely only child, took to with great relish. According to John's biographer, Valerie Grove, "he cooked the girls' breakfasts, took them for walks, told them stories, wrote little plays." On Aug. 27, 1949, the Mortimers were married in a small ceremony; exactly nine months later (and two days after the publication of his third novel), John's first child and Penelope's fifth daughter was born.
The Mortimers' marriage, which eventually yielded another child, Penelope's only son, would become the stuff of both their writing. At the beginning, it appeared to be a storybook marriage of the most glamorous sort, with Penelope whipping up clothes for the children on an ancient Singer sewing machine when she wasn't writing, weekend trips to Paris and jaunts to Rome, lots of friends and parties, and grand summer rentals. The early years, as recalled by Penelope, were also filled with blazing rows and impassioned reconciliations: "We make love, we quarrel, we make it up, we quarrel, we make it up, we make love." In 1954, she published her second novel to what in hindsight seems like uneasy-making acclaim, with one reviewer calling it "a brilliantly successful attack on one of the most challenging fortresses of fiction: the spiritual and physical relationship of married life."
Soon enough, the Mortimers' own real-life fortress was under siege, haunted by the ghosts of other women, and would remain so until its official dissolution in 1971. John had become involved in the first of what would prove to be many affairs, and Penelope, who had once been free and easy with her affections (despite her "prim objections to loveless sex"), was heartbroken. "All my life I had been used to absolute power," she wrote in About Time Too, "[to] exclusive attention. Who was I, if I wasn't unique? No one I could recognize. John was correct in saying was like someone who had lost an empire. I fixed the pieces of my self-esteem together in some semblance of the original, but the image was never quite the same." Both of them resorted to amphetamines—"bennies and dexies," as they were called—and went on partying, but in 1956 Penelope made a suicide attempt, after which she started seeing a Freudian analyst. When that failed—"My sense of the ridiculous," she observed, "the only part of me that seemed to have survived more or less intact, got in the way"—she had a course of electroconvulsive therapy. That summer the Mortimers went to Positano at the expense of Penelope's publisher in order to write a book about living abroad with children, With Love and Lizards, and in 1957 Penelope was given a contract by The New Yorker for six stories a year. Despite the discord at home, the family was featured as a gleaming image of fecundity on all fronts for numerous newspaper and magazine articles, with John becoming ever more renowned for his plays and prowess at the bar.
If The Pumpkin Eater reads like a work of catharsis, that's because in part it must have served as such. The 42-year-old Penelope wrote it at a great clip—she began it in November 1961 (its opening sentence, she noted, "lit up the dark corners of my heart") and was done with it by spring—and under great duress. At the urging of her doctor, she had agreed to an abortion and sterilization after becoming pregnant for the eighth time (she had miscarried a seventh pregnancy two years earlier) at the beginning of that year. The womanizing John, meanwhile, had just impregnated one of his girlfriends, the actress Wendy Craig (who happened to be starring in his play Lunch Hour), an affair which Penelope unfortunately found out about just after having the termination procedure done in early March. Several months later, drowning in unhappiness, she was diagnosed as suffering from "involutional depression" and prescribed Cavodil, which left her feeling "half dead and quite uncertain." In the fall of 1961, she rallied, turning to her writing to exorcise her demons, having discovered that "extreme despair is often the final stage of gestation."
The Pumpkin Eater is Penelope Mortimer's seventh novel; during her lifetime it was the most widely known and best received of her books. Through the scrim of fiction, it depicts her tumultuous yet addictive marriage to John with an unsparing eye for the foibles of the particular parties involved and for the weaknesses of the institution itself. ("We should have been locked up while it lasted, or allowed to kill each other physically.") Large patches of it are written in dialogue, at which Penelope is nothing less than brilliant. It begins with a scene in a psychiatrist's office, set against "the tick of the clock" and "the hiss of the gas fire," where clues to Mrs. Armitage's predicament—she cries all the time, worries about dust, and is pregnant with a child her husband, Jake, a rich film producer and screenwriter, doesn't want—are sought by the doctor through gentle but persistent inquiry, much to his patient's annoyance: "I thought I was supposed to lie on a couch and you wouldn't say a word. It's like the Inquisition or something. Are you trying to make me feel I'm wrong? Because I do that for myself." Underneath the symptoms there is, above all—or at least this is what her doctor ferrets out—her "will to self-destruction." He prescribes pills for "those little weeps" and psychoanalyzes her predilection for childbearing as stemming from her fear of the "messiness" of sex, and her distaste for sex "for the mere pleasure of it." (To which she answers, true to deadpan form: "You really should have been an Inquisitor... Do I burn now, or later?")