As I’ve mentioned previously, the lovely LibraryThing Virago Modern Classics group is hosting this year a monthly themed reading project of books from our collections; I’ve managed to take part in a few of the themes so far, and June’s choice is books by Virago authors, but issued by a different publisher. That opens up all manner of possibilities, and as I hinted in my May round-up post, I was considering picking up “The Pumpkin Eater” by Penelope Mortimer. Reader, I have done so! and I find myself wondering just why it took me so long to read her, because on the basis of this book, I really need to search out some more! 😀

“The Pumpkin Eater” was published in 1962, and was Mortimer’s fifth published novel. Born in Wales, her upbringing was scarred by the sexual abuse of her father; and after a first marriage to Charles Dimont they divorced and she then married barrister and author John Mortimer, although this relationship eventually foundered. She produced journalism, biographies and novels, as well as having six children; and “Pumpkin…” may well be her best-known novel as it was made into a successful film with Ann Bancroft (who features on the cover of my edition).

The book opens with the narrator, known throughout only as Mrs. Armitage, visiting a male psychiatrist; to say he seems less than interested is an understatement. Her marrige to Jake, a successful screenwriter, is her fourth and it’s on the rocks. As the narrative continues, it becomes clear that he’s been having affairs; the couple’s time together is limited anyway by the demands made on the narrator by her children. Curiously, the number of children is never stated specificially, but simply reckoned to be an unusually large collection, by various husbands, and it does seem as if Mrs. Armitage is obsessed with maternity.

Gradually, the narrator becomes more and more unsettled, the sessions with the psychiatrist don’t help and things come to a head when Mrs. Armitage becomes pregnant yet again. Jake cannot cope – slightly reasonably, he points out that he had been hoping that as the younger children grew up, they could actually have more time on their own together – and Mrs. A. is persuaded to not only have an abortion, but also a sterilisation. She doesn’t cope with this well, either physically or mentally, particularly when another infidelity of Jake’s comes to light – and it’s touch and go as to whether she and her marriage will survive.

“Pumpkin…” is a fascinating read on a number of levels, and a particularly interesting book to come to straight after the Brackenbury. The fact that the narrator is only ever known as Mrs. Armitage is telling; she’s obviously a woman defined by her marriages and also by her children, that numerous and sprawling brood. The psychiatrist at one point wonders if she has an issue with sex and constantly bearing children is her way of justifying it; and although this is based on nothing I picked up in the book, I did wonder if Mortimer’s own childhood abuse informed this. The book was written at a time when, as I stated in my post on “A Day to Remember to Forget”, women’s lives were expected to be fulfilled by home and children; however, Mrs. Armitage is quite obviously neither happy nor fulfilled, and like Felicity Ridgley hasn’t got the options for which women would soon be fighting.

Only the three at boarding school remained apart, cut adrift, growing old under their old names… Slowly, little by little, almost imperceptibly, I let them drift until only our fingertups were touching, then reaching, then finding nothing. Our hands dropped and we turned away.

The book is also a vivid portrait of the mores of the time, as well as the sheer hatred that some men obviously felt for women. The circles Jake moves in are full of people having affairs, and the bitterness which follows is nasty; Conway, in particular, is a vile character, intent on making not only his own wife (who’s had a fling with Jake) suffer, but also Mrs. Armitage. The latter’s operations and subsequent physical issues are starkly portrayed (although not graphically) and little real understanding or consideration seems to come her away, apart from a brief reunion with one of her ex-husbands.

It’s fair to say that “Pumpkin…” can feel like a melancholy read at times; it covers complex issues of mental health, emotional breakdown, marriage difficulties and crises of self-identity. Yet the book does not end without hope, and although Mrs. Armitage may never have the perfect life a 1960s housewife was meant to, she does have a kind of resolution. And the children, flitting in and out of the narrative, are something of saviours, particularly one of the older ones, Dinah. A younger woman engaging with the changes happening in society around them, she perhaps represents a future for women different to the proscribed role her mother has had.

I have a vote. Really, anyone would think that the emancipation of women had never happened…let us march together to our local headquarters and protest in no uncertain terms. Let us put forward our proposals, compile our facts, present our case, demand our rights. The men – they are logical, brave, humanitarian, creative, heroic – the men are sneering at us. How the insults fly. You hear what they are saying, as we run the gauntlet between womb and tomb? ‘Stop trying to be a man! Stop being such a bloody woman! You’re too strong! You’re too weak! Get out! Come back!…’ When we were young, we said the hell with it and used our breasts as shields. But the tears fall so easily when they take away love.

“The Pumpkin Eater” is a moving and provocative book, and I found it impossible to read without thinking it was informed by the author’s own experiences; even a cursory glance at the outlines of Mortimer’s life leads to the inevitable conclusion that the book is extremely autobiographical. I presumed that the use of only Mrs. Armitage for the narrator’s name was strongly symbolic, reflecting her only existing in relation to her husband, and it’s intriguing that she was given a name for the film. As I hinted above, I was inevitably drawn to make comparisons with the Brackenbury I read recently, and although nearly a decade separates them, the older women characters seem to have little choice or agency, whereas there is hope for the younger ones. Mortimer’s writing is excellent, capturing her narrator’s state of mind quite brilliantly, and there are some particularly lyrical passages involving the children. I’m really glad the VMC group decided on this month’s challenge, as Mortimer is an author I’ve meant to get to for ages. “The Pumpkin Eater” is a powerful portrait of a woman’s life and her identity crisis, and an unforgettable read.

For more thoughts on the book, you can check out HeavenAli’s lovely review here.