I love Penelope Mortimer. I’ve read two of her books now – The Pumpkin Eater (a novel) and Saturday Lunch with the Brownings (a short story collection) – both terrific (the latter found a place on My Best Books of 2021 list). And I’m happy to say that Daddy’s Gone A-Hunting, my second for #ReadIndies and published by Persephone Books, is as good as the other two.
Daddy’s Gone A-Hunting is a brilliant, superbly crafted tale of a challenging marriage, abortion, and the difficulties of a mother-daughter relationship told in Mortimer’s customary haunting, absorbing style.
We are introduced to Ruth Whiting, a bored housewife who lives with her well-to-do dentist husband Rex in the posh neighbourhood called the Common.
Ruth and Rex have a trying marriage, a union that has been the product of problematic circumstances rather than compatibility or love. Rex is a bully and a bore continuously torturing Ruth with questions and opinions that completely sap her energy. Ruth dotes on her children – her eldest daughter Angela and the boys, Julian and Mike. But they are growing up and have reached that age where they have lives of their own – the boys away at boarding school and Angela, an undergraduate at Oxford. In the holidays, when her children come down, Ruth’s home is filled with chatter, activities and noise, but for the better part of the year, the hours lie empty and the monotonous days stretch endlessly before Ruth.
As Ruth reflects on her reasons for marrying Rex, we are offered a glimpse into her past. On discovering that she is pregnant with Rex’s child (Angela), Ruth’s parents insist that marrying Rex is the only solution, there is no way out, and times being as they were then, Ruth and Rex have no choice but to agree.
The barren days with nothing important to occupy her, the joylessness of being married to Rex and the pressure of keeping up appearances in the well-heeled community they belong to begins to take its toll on Ruth to the point where she suffers a nervous breakdown.
The first stage of the nightmare is losing the ability to believe in insignificance. Consciousness is sharpened to a point in which nothing is trivial but every moment, every detail, has the same unbearable quality of dread. In this condition of despair there are no crises. The merciful censor of memory has broken down and everything is recalled with equal horror, the broken nail becomes a jagged pointer to the senselessness of living, the most commonplace remark, without warning, the grief or terror of a lifetime…the moral judgement delivered on this state of unhappiness is as severe as that pronounced on the lunatics of Bedlam. Lost, it says with smug disgust, all sense of proportion. Which is exactly true.
Rex hires a caregiver to look after her at home and as part of her recovery process Ruth is pushed towards holidaying alone in Antibes, but then a development takes place compelling Ruth to immediately (and with relief) cancel her plans much to Rex’s chagrin.
That development is this – Angela, who was seeing her batchmate Tony, always riding with him on his Vespa, is pregnant. Not knowing what to do, she confides in Ruth expecting the latter to help her. The gamut of conflicting emotions felt by mother and daughter and how they deal with this tough situation forms the backbone of this novel.
As I mentioned earlier, Daddy’s Gone A-Hunting is a book about marriage, abortion, the difference in attitudes between generations and a portrayal of a community bound by strict moral codes where outward appearances matter but there is always tension simmering under the surface.
Ruth is a fascinating, complex character. We first get the impression that she’s a passive housewife, a pushover burdened by Rex’s domineering personality, and yet she fights back in her own way. At a particularly crucial time, Ruth rises up to the challenge of helping Angela with her predicament (the idea of abortion horrifies their GP, so they must discreetly arrange for a doctor and money without Rex ever finding out) even though she’s torn by the fact that this baby will never exist. As a mother she is glad to have supported her daughter in her hour of need, even though Angela’s wish fills Ruth with some modicum of sadness.
Ruth also supports Angela’s decision of not marrying Tony. In many ways, Tony is a replica of Rex and in her heart Ruth is relieved that Angela is not going down a part that she (Ruth herself) has come to regret. But the notion of terminating the pregnancy also troubles her. However, what else could they do? We are talking of a time when single parenting was unheard of; a child born out of wedlock was considered a disaster and a blemish on a woman’s image. If marriage was not an option, abortion was the only way out even if illegal.
Angela, for her part, is very clear about terminating the pregnancy although she laments at the unfairness of the situation. The dilemma she is confronted with brings out both the adult and the child in her; adult because she has her own mind and knows what she wants, child because she feels overwhelmed by it all. Tony is like Rex, only bothered about his image, his own importance, ready to support Angela as long as it does not hamper his chances at a meaningful career.
It’s also interesting to see how the attitudes of generations have evolved over the years. Ruth helps Angela in a way that Ruth’s mother did not when she was in a similar situation decades earlier. But she is also faced with the stark, debilitating truth – her children have flown the nest, are leading their own lives, while she must spend the rest of her days with Rex, a depressing prospect.
Will nothing ever happen to us, she wondered. Will this really go on for ever? Is it possible that nothing will ever change?
It’s her biggest irony that her children who fill her with joy are not the ones with whom she is destined to spend the remainder of her years. Things are further complicated by the fact that Rex has been unfaithful to her, carrying on an affair with a younger woman, although the whole of the Common is aware of this except Ruth.
A lot of the themes in Daddy’s Gone A-Hunting are similar to Mortimer’s other equally excellent book, The Pumpkin Eater – a philandering husband, the wife staring at a dull, desolate existence, the only bright spot being her children who give her a sense of meaning. Indeed, this novel gets its name from a toy Ruth buys as a gift for her neighbourhood friend’s baby but which she eventually keeps for herself – a child’s musical box whose “tune, picked up in the middle of a bar, was an insect requiem, desolate, thin as air.”
Daddy’s gone a-hunting,
Gone to fetch a rabbit skin
To wrap his Baby Bunting in,
Bye Baby Bunting——
The central women in both these books have successful husbands with comfortable homes but the dreariness of their days and the lack of purpose push them to the brink of an abyss. Quite a few of these aspects mirror Mortimer’s own circumstances, she acknowledged in one of her interviews that she has plumbed the depths of her own life for a lot of material for her books. Yet there is one fundamental difference – unlike her protagonists, Mortimer was independent in the sense that she was an author and had her writing to fall back on.
Valerie Grove, in her Preface to this Persephone edition, talks about how the kind of novel Mortimer wanted to write was already boiling inside her. She wanted an outlet to express the cloud of despondency that descended upon women of that era who could not really work and earn their living and had to fill time through endless and pointless activities and excursions. Here’s Mortimer –
“But this is how women spend their lives, not just the bad patches. And like it. And are gentle and loving and philosophical about it. What’s wrong with me?”
Mortimer’s portrayal of this affluent, claustrophobic community and its gender differences is spot on as can be gauged from this paragraph…
The relationships between the men are based on an understanding of success. Admiration is general, affection not uncommon. Even pity is known. The women have no such understanding. Like little icebergs, each keeps a bright and shining face above water; below the surface, submerged in fathoms of leisure, each keeps her own isolated personality. Some are happy, some poisoned with boredom; some drink too much and some, below the demarcation line, are slightly crazy; some love their husbands and some are dying from lack of love; a few have talent, as useless to them as a paralysed limb. Their friendships, appearing frank and sunny, are febrile and short-lived, turning quickly to malice. Combined, their energy could start a revolution.
As ever, Mortimer’s prose is brilliant, honest and incisive. While there’s not much by way of action, Ruth’s internal drama is rendered beautifully making this a very immersive read. In a nutshell, Daddy’s Gone A-Hunting is another superb book from Mortimer’s oeuvre displaying the kind of psychological depth with much to commend it.