Category Archives: Mortimer Penelope

The Home by Penelope Mortimer

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.

My books of the year, 2020 – part 3, short stories

As if you weren’t fed-up of seeing books-of-the-year lists by now, here I am, back again with another instalment of my own! But before we get to the books themselves, a little explanation… My original intention, with these annual round-ups, had been to post two pieces – the first on my favourite novellas and non-fiction from a year of reading and the second on my favourite novels. Nevertheless, as I was looking back at my choices earlier this week, I noticed that I had neglected to include any short stories in my final lists. Not because they weren’t good enough to make the cut – I read some truly excellent collections in 2020 – but for some reason they’d been squeezed out, mostly by other, more prominent books.

So, in an effort to redress the balance, here are my favourite short story collections from a year of reading – all highly recommended indeed. While a couple of these collections are relatively recent publications or reissues, the vast majority of the stories themselves hail from the mid-20th-century – a pattern that reflects my general reading preferences. A longing perhaps for a simpler, less manic world, despite many of the difficulties encountered by women in those less enlightened times.

As ever, I’ve summarised each book below, but you can read the full reviews by clicking on the appropriate links. Hopefully, you’ll find something of interest in the mix.

Dark Tales by Shirley Jackson

A collection of seventeen of Jackson’s stories, several of which first appeared in The New Yorker, McSweeney’s and other publications in the 1960s. As the title suggests, the tales themselves are rather creepy and unnerving, illuminating the sense of darkness that lurks beneath the veneer of suburban society. Confinement and entrapment are recurring themes, from the explicit physical state of being trapped in a room to the more subtle psychological sense of being constrained within the limits of domesticity. In some respects, Jackson was highlighting the relatively limited roles woman were allowed to play in society at the time – wife, mother, homemaker and supporter, with precious little opportunity for personal fulfilment. An excellent selection of stories with a serious message.

After Rain by William Trevor

Once again, William Trevor proves himself to be an incredibly astute chronicler of human nature. Here we have stories of bittersweet regrets and missed opportunities, of the acceptance of life’s disappointments and duties, of crushed hopes and dashed dreams. Moreover, Trevor writes brilliantly about the sense of duty or stigma that guides his protagonists’ lives. Like much of the best short fiction, these pieces leave enough space for the reader to bring their own reflections to bear on the narratives, opening up the possibilities beyond the words on the page. What is omitted or left unsaid is just as important as what is explicitly expressed. A superb collection of stories, possibly up there with Eleven Kinds of Loneliness as an all-time favourite.

The Breaking Point by Daphne du Maurier

A characteristically unsettling collection of eight stories, many of which blur the lines between the real and the imaginary. They’re wonderfully creepy, often tapping into our deepest fears and suspicions, our latent sources of restlessness and anxiety. As the title suggests, each story pivots on a moment of crisis in an individual’s life, a time when the protagonist’s emotions are stretched to the extreme. Whether that person snaps or survives remains the critical question, something du Maurier leaves for the reader to ponder and decide. She also excels at building atmosphere and tension, a style that seems particularly well suited to the short story form.

The Cost of Living: Early and Uncollected Stories by Mavis Gallant

In short, these stories are excellent. The very best of them feel like novels in miniature; the kind of tales where everything is compressed, only for the narratives to expand in the reader’s mind on further reflection. Several of Gallant’s protagonists – typically women – seem lost; cast adrift and unmoored in the vast sea of uncertainty that is life. Here we have stories of terrible mothers and self-absorbed fathers, of isolated wives and bewildered husbands, of smart, self-reliant children who must learn to take care of themselves. Central themes include the failings of motherhood, the heartache of adolescence, the emptiness of false happiness and domesticity, and ultimately, a sense of isolation and abandonment. These are marvellous stories, beautifully observed. I loved them.

Wave Me Goodbye, Stories of the Second World War

A fascinating anthology of stories by women writers, most of whom were writing during the Second World War (or the years immediately following its end). When viewed as a whole, this collection offers a rich tapestry depicting the different facets of women’s lives during this period – from stoic mother and caregiver, to headstrong Land Girl or factory worker, to intrepid journalist or correspondent. We see individuals anxiously awaiting the return of loved ones; women grieving for lives that have been lost, and marriages that have faded or turned sour. The mood and atmosphere on the Home Front are vividly conveyed, through stories of nights in the air raid shelters and the emotional impact of the Blitz. Plus, there are glimpses of Europe too, from the ravages of war-torn France to the tensions in Romania as the conflict edges ever closer. Includes pieces by Jean Rhys, Elizabeth Taylor, Olivia Manning, Barbara Pym and many more.

The Garden Party by Katherine Mansfield

What to say about this collection of fifteen of Mansfield’s short stories, other than to highlight its brilliance? A much-anticipated garden party is tainted by news of a fatal accident, for one member of the family at least; a man longs to be alone with his wife following her return from a trip, only for their closeness to be disturbed by the shadow of a stranger; a lady’s maid remains devoted to her employer, forsaking the offer of marriage for a life in service. These are just a few of the scenarios Mansfield explores with great insight and perceptiveness. Moreover, there is a beautiful fluidity of emotion in these stories, as they move seamlessly from happiness and gaiety to sadness and loneliness in the blink of an eye.

Saturday Lunch at the Brownings by Penelope Mortimer

Mortimer drew on some of her own experiences for this collection of sharply unnerving stories of motherhood, marriage and family relation – many of which uncover the horrors that lie beneath the veneer of domestic life. There are similarities with the Shirley Jackson and the Daphne du Maurier, particularly in the opening story, The Skylight, where much of the horror in this chillingly tense tale stems from the imagination. There is a strong sense of foreboding in many of these stories, a feeling that flashes of rage, violence or cruelty may erupt at any moment. Nevertheless, Mortimer also has a sharp eye for humour, something that comes through quite strongly. In summary, these are pitch-perfect vignettes, subverting traditional images of marriage and motherhood with a spiky precision.

So that’s it from me for 2020. I wish you all the very best for 2021, wherever you happen to be.

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.