It’s widely recognised that the British author, journalist and critic Penelope Mortimer mined her life as a source of inspiration for her books. Her most famous novel, The Pumpkin Eater, which I’ve yet to read, was based on the author’s troubled marriage to the barrister, writer and serial philanderer, John Mortimer, a union that lasted for 22 years.
First published in 1971 and recently reissued as part of the excellent British Library Women Writers series, The Home is something of a spiritual successor to that earlier book, also candid and semi-autobiographical in style. In short, the novel follows an attractive but vulnerable middle-aged woman, Eleanor Strathearn, in the months following the breakdown of her marriage as she attempts to establish some kind of life for herself, while also delving into the meaning of ‘home’ with all its various connotations.
The story opens with Eleanor and her youngest child, fifteen-year-old Philip, moving from their longstanding family home in London to a smaller residence near St John’s Wood. The new house is being paid for by Eleanor’s husband, Graham, a successful but self-absorbed doctor with a well-heeled Wimpole Street practice. In one of this novel’s many ironies, Graham seems to have paid little attention to his wife’s emotional well-being over the past twenty-six years despite his professional specialism being mental health. Instead, he has indulged in multiple indiscreet affairs, culminating in his current liaison with Nell Partwhistle, a twenty-two-year-old girl who remains something of a nebulous presence throughout the book.
He [Graham] had left her [Eleanor] six weeks ago for some unimaginable life with a twenty-two-year-old person called Nell Partwhistle. Eleanor thought of her as a person because she could not think of her as a girl and did not think of her as a woman; she thought of her as a kind of gap, a nothing. (pp. 4-5)
By naming the girl in this way, Mortimer is emphasising the idea that Graham has simply discarded Eleanor for a younger model, albeit one known by the shortened name of ‘Nell’.
With her other grown-up children – Marcus, Cressida, Daphne and Jessica – having flown the nest, Eleanor approaches her new life with a strange mix of feelings, oscillating wildly between stoic optimism and crushing grief. In her most upbeat moments, she imagines a world of parties and dinners, a woman constantly in demand. Quite how this transformation might be achieved, however, is far from clear, investing this vision with an air of fantasy from the opening scenes.
She had no clear idea about how she would set about this transformation, since after a life sentence of marriage she was as isolated, as strange to the world as a released prisoner. She had long ago stopped sharing any kind of life with Graham, except for the occasional dull dinner party when she could be used as a wife. Nevertheless, it was a cheerful fantasy… (p. 6)
As readers, we quickly glean that Eleanor’s new life will be characterised not by a whirlwind of social activities but by acute loneliness and grief. Her eldest son, Marcus, who loves his mother, is living in Paris with his partner, Marcel, giving him little opportunity to help. Cressida and Jessica come and stay with Eleanor at various points after the move, but both have significant relationship problems of their own, leaving little time or energy to support their lonely mother. And with Daphne wrapped up in her imminent wedding to Hereward, her attention is directed elsewhere.
Meanwhile, Eleanor tries to make the best of things, recontacting two old lovers, Alex and Ellis, hoping to rekindle former relationships. Alex, however, has moved on, signalling his commitment to girlfriend Georgina by slipping the word ‘we’ into his conversation,a sign that Eleanor swiftly clocks. Further humiliation awaits with Ellis, who seems to be more interested in Cressida, seeing her perhaps as a younger version of Eleanor, fresh with the vitality of youth. Naturally, Eleanor must give way to her daughter without a hint of jealousy or anger, experiencing the pain acutely but lacking an outlet to express it.
It was the hideous situation of finding herself in competition with Cressida – could it really be as crude as that? – that so immensely distressed her. And, worse, the fact that she could never be in competition with Cressida, but must give way gracefully, with love, pretending that nothing was being taken from her. (p. 81)
There’s also a mysterious Irishman in the mix, a chap called Kilcannon, whom Eleanor likes to imagine as her ‘Gaelic Knight’, primed to rescue her from solitude and strife. But when the elusive Kilcannon fails to show, we fear for Eleanor’s well-being as the slide into grief quickens, hinting at the anxiety to come.
She had suffered from loneliness all her life, even when the children were young, and most of all with Graham; now, aimlessly wandering in the warm afternoon, she felt for the first time that it could become a sickness. Kilcannon had failed her and it must, in some obscure way, be her fault. Graham had left her: that must also be her fault. Anger would have been an antidote to this poison, but she could only feel it in brief, spasmodic outbursts; somewhere inside her, anger was being diverted and changed, by abominable alchemy, into grief. (pp. 61–62)
There are times when Eleanor knows she is putting on a brave face for the children, feigning a sense of resilience to prevent them from worrying too much. In truth, though, Eleanor is dying inside, desperately craving someone (even Graham!) to take care of her – to love her and be there for her whenever she needs support. Instead, her life is characterised by a sequence of partings – goodbyes and separations in place of connections and lasting bonds.
Something that Mortimer does so well here is to show us how Graham’s desertion leads to an unravelling of sorts. While Eleanor will not admit to being depressed as such, she does appreciate that she is ill, recognising with a kind of horror the fear growing inside her. Consequently, it’s a painful novel to read, the type of quietly devasting story that deep into the soul.
Reading Mortimer also reminds us just how difficult it must have been for abandoned women to manage financially in the 1960s and early ‘70s following the breakdown of their marriages. While Eleanor’s (ex-)husband, Graham, isn’t mean as such, he does object to having money extorted from him by legal means. In short, he is of the belief that Eleanor should find a job and support herself independently as far as possible. However, like many married women in her position, Eleanor simply doesn’t have the requisite skills or training for several potential roles. After twenty-six years as a wife and mother, she is poorly equipped for self-sufficient living, leaving her reliant on Graham for financial, if not emotional, support. In his afterword and accompanying notes, Simon Thomas outlines key developments in the divorce laws in the early 1970s, which helped to clarify the financial expectations for divorced partners and their children going forward.
As Eleanor is forced to rethink the concept of home and what this means for her and the family, Mortimer shows us how the situation impacts each member of the Strathearn brood, from the various children to their two grandmothers, neither of whom are terribly supportive of Eleanor. In fact, Graham’s mother, Mrs Strathearn, sees nothing wrong in her son abandoning his wife for a twenty-two-year-old plaything. These are ‘the laws of nature’ as Mrs S. understands them. Consequently, Eleanor should take up bridge, get herself a cat and make the best of it. It’s as simple as that.
I won’t reveal how this sad but beautifully-written novel plays out, save to say that the stark ending also comes with a degree of ambiguity. Although Eleanor knows she would be best placed to make a clean break with Graham, a large part of her cannot stop hoping that he will come to the rescue despite his infidelities. Alongside the sadness, this excellent, slightly off-kilter novel has flashes of darkly comic humour throughout. Fans of Muriel Spark would likely enjoy this one, and possibly Elizabeth Taylor, too – it’s a terrific book.
The Home is published by the British Library; my thanks to the publishers for kindly providing a review copy.