I had a great run with NYRB Classics last year, as two of their books made it to my Best of 2018 list. Those two were – Basic Black with Pearls by Helen Weinzweig and The Bridge of Beyond by Simone Schwarz-Bart.
Very keen that 2019 begins on a strong note as well in terms of reading, it only made sense to turn to NYRB Classics again, as I have yet to be disappointed by whatever I have read from their catalogue so far.
I was not wrong. The Pumpkin Eater by Penelope Mortimer turned out to be heartbreaking and compelling read, yet another winner from the publisher.
The Pumpkin Eater is a poignant novel about the challenges and pitfalls of marriage and motherhood told through the eyes of a woman narrator, whose first name we never learn, she is always referred to as Mrs Armitage. It is a tale of her descent into despair, and her gradual and tentative recovery.
The name of the novel comes from the following children’s nursery rhyme, also printed in the book at the beginning…
Peter, Peter, Pumpkin eater,
Had a wife and couldn’t keep her.
He put her in a pumpkin shell
And there he kept her very well.
When the novel opens, Mrs Armitage (Mrs A) is at the psychiatrist, asked to talk about herself. It is quite a moving and touching opening, displaying how Mrs A is prone to bouts of hopelessness, and yearning to be useful.
‘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 knotted 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.’
Mrs A is married to Jake Armitage, who is now a successful screenwriter, a vocation that earns him good money and promises travel. They live in a large, comfortable home with servants who look not only after the house but also Mrs A’s growing brood of children.
Incidentally, Jake is Mrs A’s fourth husband – one of her earlier husbands had died, and she had divorced the other two. Not all her children are from Jake, there are many from her previous marriages too.
From very early on, Mrs A’s insecurity about her purpose in life, and a persistent feeling of fear is very vividly conveyed.
She is enveloped by a sense of emptiness and her so-called comfortable existence only compounds her feeling of isolation. Clearly, the comforts come at a price, not just financially but emotionally as well. Her home and her children are what define Mrs A. But now that there is the household staff to take care of both, what is left for Mrs A to do?
And yet she keeps having more children, possibly because that is the only thing that she knows to do best, which she feels gives meaning to her life much to Jake’s chagrin.
Jake, meanwhile, is anything but an ideal husband. He is quite clear about not wanting to father any more children, there are enough of them already as it is. And he is prone to having extra marital affairs, which keeps Mrs A on the edge because she is fearful of actually discovering them.
Mrs A also keeps referring to the tower (a new house) under construction, a place where the family will move to, a happy ending of sorts. But to the reader it never really comes across that way. It only gives an inkling of the false sense of hope that Mrs A harbours, a dream that will never really shape into reality.
When we went there it looked bleak and foolish, like a monument to a disgraced hero, a folly built for some cancelled celebration.
Through a series of flashbacks, we are also given a glimpse of Mrs A’s childhood, her unrequited love for a clergyman’s son, and her blooming friendship and fascination with Ireen, which only turns to deep disappointment when Ireen comes to stay with them.
Some sketchy details also emerge about Mrs A’s previous marriages although never in any great detail. And the children (who are never named either, the exception being her teenage daughter Dinah) are never presented as individuals but rather as a conglomeration of voices that keep running in and out of the house and demand her attention.
We are also given a hint of the difficult relationship she is likely to have with her children, when three of her very eldest possibly from her first marriage, are sent away to boarding schools when she is about to marry Jake. This is a decision that is taken by Mrs A’s father so that it becomes easier for Jake to provide for the family, a decision that Jake wholeheartedly agrees with. Mrs A’s opinion is not really considered.
All of these incidents only cement the fact that the major decisions in Mrs A’s life are largely taken by the men in her life, and her feelings and views are not given much weight.
If all this gives an impression that it is a bleak tale, it is, only that it is wonderfully written by Penelope Mortimer and in Mrs A she has created a character that is honest, frank, confiding and engaging so that her story tugs at your heartstrings. Large sections of the novel are written in dialogue, at which Mortimer clearly excels.
‘Don’t you think sex without children is a bit messy, Mrs Armitage? Come now. You’re an intelligent woman. Be honest. Don’t you think that the people you most fear are disgusting to you, and hateful, because they are doing something for its own sake, for the mere pleasure of it? Something which you must sanctify, as it were, by incessant reproduction?
‘You really should have been an Inquisitor,’ I said. ‘Do I burn now, or later?’
It really is a feminist novel in some sense, questioning a woman’s role in society as only a mother and a home maker without any other profession or vocation to give her a sense of identity and independence or even solace.
In the introduction to this novel, Daphne Merkin has given an account of Penelope Mortimer’s life and her tumultuous marriage with John Mortimer.
On reading it, one realizes how autobiographical The Pumpkin Eater is – Mrs A’s relationship with Jake is akin to her married life with John Mortimer. The big difference though is that while Mrs A was dependent on her husband, Penelope Mortimer was not. She was an established author and she had her writing to fall back on, to help exorcise her demons.
On The Pumpkin Eater, Merkin further states:
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.