The Pumpkin Eater by Penelope Mortimer
This painful novel, her seventh published in 1962, is widely regarded as Penelope Mortimer’s most famous. It was filmed with Anne Bancroft, Peter Finch and James Mason in the leading roles and, it is the Oscar-nominated Bancroft who graces the cover of the Penguin that I inherited from my Mum.
The Pumpkin Eater is the story of a woman on the verge of a breakdown, marital and emotional. It starts with the a woman, Mrs Armitage (we never hear her forename), visiting a psychiatrist:
‘When I was a child my mother had a wool drawer. It was the bottom drawer in a chest in the dining-room and she kept every scrap of wool she had in it. You know, bits from years ago, jumpers she’d knitted me when I was two. Some of the bits were only a few inches long. Well, this drawer was filled with wool, all colours, and whenever it was a wet afternoon she used to make me tidy her wool drawer. It’s perfectly obvious why I tell you this. There was no point in tidying the drawer. The wool was quite useless. You couldn’t have knitted a tea-cosy out of that wool, I mean without enormous patience. She just made me sort it out for something to do, like they make prisoners dig holes and fill them up again. You do see what I mean, don’t you?’
‘You would like to be something useful,’ he said sadly. ‘Like a tea-cosy.
She is in her late thirties, and has an unspecified but fairly large number of children by several fathers of ages from just three up to late teens. She is currently married to Jake who is a £50,000 per annum screen-writer and is as prone to having affairs as she is to having babies. It is when she meets the husband of an actress with whom Jake has apparently had an affair on location that things come to a head.
When they married, Jake was not yet successful. Many thought him mad to take on an already twice-married woman with a whole brood of children, and then adding to it. For Jake the reality of what he has let himself in for results in him having to work extremely hard to support them all, and although he says he loves her, he relieves his stress with little affairs. Having married too young, she has been happiest when pregnant and surrounded by her babies – it’s what she does best.
The book is in turns shocking, funny and moving as their emotional baggage ripples through this dysfunctional family towards its surprising conclusion.
I can’t say I particularly enjoyed reading The Pumpkin Eater, but neither did I dislike it. Mortimer’s writing of the narrator Mrs Armitage, despite her melancholia, has bite and some black humour. I had heard before reading that the novel was very autobiographical – Mortimer had six children by four fathers herself, and her marriage to John Mortimer was tempestuous. It almost felt as if you were prying into her own relationships, so it wasn’t entirely comfortable to read. (7/10)
For another take on this novel, read the review by Alex in Leeds
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Source: Inherited. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
The Pumpkin Eater by Penelope Mortimer, NYRB paperback, 222 pages.