Saturday Lunch with the Brownings by Penelope Mortimer

The British writer and journalist Penelope Mortimer is perhaps best known for her 1962 novel The Pumpkin Eater, a semi-autobiographical story of a woman’s breakdown precipitated by the strains of a fractured marriage. Mortimer also drew on her own experiences for Saturday Lunch with the Brownings, a collection of sharply unnerving stories of motherhood, marriage and family relations, many of which uncover the horrors that lie beneath the surface veneer of domestic life. First published in 1960, this excellent collection has recently been reissued by the publishing arm of Daunt Books – my thanks to the publishers and the Independent Alliance for kindly providing a reading copy.

In The Skylight, one of the standout stories in this volume, a mother and her five-year-old son are travelling to France for a family holiday in a remote part of the countryside. The weather is stiflingly hot, conditions that make for a tiring journey, leaving the woman and her child anxious to arrive at their destination (a house they have rented in advance). On arrival, they find the property all locked up with the owners nowhere in sight. The only potential point of access is an open skylight in the roof, too small for the woman to squeeze through but just large enough for the child. So, with no other option at her disposal, the woman proceeds to instruct her son on what to do once she drops him through the skylight. (Luckily, there is a ladder to hand, making it possible for them to reach the open window.)

This is a brilliantly paced story, shot through with a mounting sense of tension as we await the narrative’s denouement. In a tale strongly reminiscent of the work of Daphne du Maurier and Shirley Jackson, much of the horror comes from the imagination – our own visions of what might be unfolding inside the house once the young boy has entered through the skylight. Sound plays a particularly important role here; for instance, the torturous sound of a dripping tap serves to accentuate the intense feeling of unease…

In the silence she heard, quite distinctly, a tap dripping. A regular, metallic drip, like torture. She shouted directions to him, waiting between each one, straining to hear the slightest sound, the faintest answer. The tap dripped. The house seemed to be holding its breath. (p. 21)

Children appear in many of the stories, partly as a way for Mortimer to highlight some of the challenges of motherhood. Interestingly though, it is often the knock-on responses of the fathers to their offspring that precipitate crises for Mortimer’s female protagonists, rather than the actions of the children themselves. In the titular tale – another highlight of the collection – we gain an insight into the lives of Madge and William Browning, two writers who live with their daughter, seven-year-old Bessie. Also living in the house are Melissa (15) and Rachel (9), Madge’s daughters from a previous marriage. The story opens with what appears to be a commonplace domestic setting – a family waking up at home on an ordinary Saturday morning. However, the apparent mundanity of the scene is swiftly undercut by Mortimer’s pin-sharp observations on the underlying tensions at play.

Madge never went down to breakfast. She refused, out of a strong feeling of self-preservation, to acknowledge its existence. William’s temper was unreliable in the early morning, and particularly on Saturdays, with Rachel and Bessie lolling about in a holocaust of cornflakes and burnt toast, the German maid reading letters from home while the coffee boiled dry and the neighbouring children, small, ugly and savage, standing in a row outside the french windows watching him eat, a curiosity which they observed once a week, swarming over the low walls dressed for holiday in feathers, jeans and their mother’s broken jewellery. (pp. 34–35)

Rachel in particular in a source of irritation for William, prompting an eruption of violence as the story progresses. While Madge tries to hold it together for the family, desperately clinging to a false picture of domestic stability she has constructed for herself, William succeeds in undermining her efforts, forcing a confrontation between the couple – this despite Madge’s desire to shield the children from witnessing their marital conflicts. It’s an excellent story, full of telling insights into the presumptions William has made about Madge’s role as primary caregiver within the family.

In other pieces – Such a Super Evening being a case in point – Mortimer demonstrates her eye for sharp humour. The story is narrated by a modest married woman, the wife of a barrister, who is delighted by the prospect of having the infamous Mathiesons over to dinner. Philip and Felicity Mathieson – again, both writers – are a kind of literary power couple, often called upon to comment on various topical issues from childcare (they have eight children) to household management to cultural affairs. They appear to have it all – the perfect marriage, successful careers, remarkable children – in short, the whole shebang.

As the dinner party progresses, the scene becomes increasingly surreal, particularly as the Mathiesons begin to talk so openly about their lives. Gradually, throughout the evening, the ‘perfect couple’ reveal themselves to be money-grabbing, self-centred individuals, dismissive of many of the values they appear to project in public. It’s a deliciously amusing story, relayed in a gossipy style that works perfectly with the satirical subject matter. Another standout piece in this subversive collection.

Miriam’s earrings were quite still, petrified with shock. I cleared away and brought in the Tocinos del Cielo. I’m very proud of these, and perfectly happy to explain how I make them. However, no one seemed to want to know. They were all beginning to look as though they were at a funeral, except for Philip. He was talking about getting away from it all. (p. 67)

One of things that strikes me about this collection is how relevant these stories feel, sixty years after their initial publication. In addition to the topics outlined above, other themes include infidelity, the oppression of women, mental illness, unwanted pregnancies and the use of children as leverage in a marriage.

In the haunting story Little Miss Perkins, a mother – recovering in hospital following the birth of her baby – is sharing a room with a young woman at risk of miscarriage, their beds separated by a flimsy curtain. At first, the narrator assumes her roommate is traumatised at the thought of potentially losing her baby; but as the story unfolds, it becomes clear that this mother-to-be has other, more pressing priorities on her mind. Once again, there is a touch of Daphne du Maurier about this tale which first appeared in The New Yorker in 1960. It’s another story that blends flashes of dark humour with the underlying emotions of horror and tragedy. I couldn’t help but highlight this passage about the young woman’s doctor, complete with his slick appearance and patronising manner.

Her doctor, a Mr Macauley, was better dressed, slightly more suntanned than mine; otherwise, like all successful obstetricians, he looked like a one-time matinée idol who, in early middle-age, had struck oil. (p. 120)

In summary, this is a sharply devastating collection of stories – pitch-perfect vignettes that subvert the supposed idylls of marriage and motherhood with a spiky precision. There is a strong sense of foreboding in many of these tales, a feeling that flashes of rage, violence or cruelty may erupt at any moment… Very highly recommended indeed.

35 thoughts on “Saturday Lunch with the Brownings by Penelope Mortimer

  1. madamebibilophile

    I’ve really enjoyed the two Mortimer I’ve read, and spiky precision is exactly how I’d describe her! She can be unflinching. I’ve not read her short stories but these do sound really appealing, especially with the du Maurier comparison. It’s great that they’ve been reissued.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      This is my first experience of Mortimer’s writing, and I have to say that I’m very impressed! As you say, she doesn’t hold back. I’m guessing that The Pumpkin Eater is one of the two you’ve read? If so, I shall have to add it to the list…

      Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          Excellent! Thank you. The introduction to this collection states that at the time of its initial publication in 1960, the book was somewhat unfairly overlooked as it fell between those two (higher profile) novels. So it’s great to hear that you enjoyed them both! I’ll definitely check them out.

          Reply
  2. A Life in Books

    I read The Pumpkin Eater years ago and didn’t appreciated it as much as I think I would now. This collections sounds excellent if somewhat unsettling knowing that Mortimer was drawing on her own life in writing them.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I felt that way about Hotel du Lac, which I returned to recently having first read it back in my twenties. Sometimes we need a bit of life experience to appreciate certain writers and their work. I can imagine some of these stories falling into that category too, especially the ones about the uncomfortable nature of marriage and motherhood…

      Reply
  3. heavenali

    Oh this sounds like a brilliant collection. I really haven’t read enough by Penelope Mortimer, but The Pumpkin Eater was so good it put her back on my radar. She seems particularly concerned with marriage and motherhood.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      You would like this, Ali, I’m pretty sure. Great to hear that you enjoyed The Pumpkin Eater as it’s a book I’ve looked at in the past without ever actually getting around to buying. I suspect that will change now!

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Someone I follow on Twitter was saying recently that they have a rule about writers named Penelope. More specifically, there’s no such thing as a bad author by the name of Penelope, (e.g. Fitzgerald, Lively, Mortimer…and another whose surname now escapes me).

      Reply
  4. Janakay | YouMightAsWellRead

    Loved the image of the “small, ugly and savage” kids next door, peering in to spy on breakfast! I’ve had The Pumpkin Eater on the list for some time (isn’t there a Persephone edition?) but perhaps I’ll begin with these stories instead.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Great, isn’t it? One of many somewhat ‘angular’ descriptions in the book. She really does have a sharp eye for these things, highlighting the discordant edginess in the seemingly everyday. I’m not sure if Persephone publish The Pumpkin Eater, but I do recall seeing on the NYRB website. One for the future, I think…

      Reply
  5. kaggsysbookishramblings

    Sounds marvellous, Jacqui! I have a couple of Mortimers unread on the stacks, I think, and I really must get to them. This does sound like a particularly strong collection, though, and I do like short stories. I believe Mortimer drew from her somewhat problematic marriages (particularly to John ‘Rumpole’ Mortimer) though from what I’ve read about her she was no saint herself. An interesting woman and I really must read her soon!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, you’re right about PM taking inspiration from her own life. I read somewhere, probably in the introduction to the collection, that she could only write successfully about fictionalised versions of her lived-in experiences. Once she strayed away from these realities, the stories lost something in terms of power or quality. (I’m paraphrasing for memory here, but it’s words to that effect.) Her marriage to John Mortimer was said to have been happy at first but then deteriorated from the mid 1950s onwards as John embarked on a series of affairs (including with Wendy Craig).

      Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          Right again! According to wiki, she had two daughters resulting from affairs while married to her first husband, Charles Dimont. So maybe they’re the basis for Melissa and Rachel in the titular story from this collection…

          Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      That’s a terrific article! Many thanks for the link. Lucy Scholes is clearly an authority on Mortimer as she also wrote the introduction to the Daunt edition of this book. I’m glad to read that PM was able to carve out a life for herself after the divorce from John. What a difficult time that must have been for her, from the mid 1950s through to the ’70s…

      Reply
  6. Jane

    I’ve been meaning to read this particular Penelope for ages and you remind me that I must get on with it as this sounds so good. I like your point that so many of the stories are still so relevant, we’re all just people in the end aren’t we?!

    Reply
  7. MarinaSofia

    I haven’t read her short stories and these sound like just my thing – there are similarities to Shirley Jackson, aren’t there? The Pumpkin Eater was profoundly unsettling and quite vicious, but in a beautifully controlled way.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      The first story in particular is very Shirley Jackson. There’s an impressive ratcheting-up of tension as the story progresses, and the little details PM throws in only add to the sense of dread. By the end of the story, it’s not just the protagonist who’s a nervous wreck; the reader is pretty distraught too!

      Reply
  8. Pingback: A-Z Index of Book Reviews (listed by author) | JacquiWine's Journal

  9. buriedinprint

    So interesting, both your review and the comments which followed! I’ve got a couple of her books on the shelf (a novel and a collection) but not this one (maybe some of the stories would repeat in the collection I have (I hope so, I need to know what happens to that woman in the hospital bed on the other side of the curtain, thank you very much).

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, I hope your collection includes some of these stories – they’re terrific! The hospital one reminded a vaguely of a story by Jean Rhys — Outside the Machine — also set in a women’s clinic. Both stories are very unsettling in their own individual ways…

      And If you can’t find Little Miss Perkins in your collection of Mortimer’s stories, you can read it online via The New Yorker. There’s a link below. Just a word of warning, though – the intro to this piece contains a massive spoiler, so you’ll need to skim over it before accessing the story itself via the archive. (I think it’s free, but you have to register online to read it.)

      https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/1960/04/23/little-mrs-perkins

      Reply
  10. Radz Pandit

    Lovely review Jacqui, this collection sounds simply fab! Reading your piece, I think there are shades of The Pumpkin Eater in many of them, particularly related to the themes of marriage and motherhood. I thought The Pumpkin Eater was excellent – the narrator had such a frank and engaging voice with a subtle dose of humour.

    Reply

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