Tag Archives: 1960s

The Pumpkin Eater by Penelope Mortimer

When this novel was published in 1962 the era of permissiveness (if it ever existed) was just about to begin. I was about to enter my teenage years. It seemed as if everything about our social mores was being questioned, including especially marriage and sexual partners. What I remember most from my first reading was the scene where the narrator broke down in Harrods household linens department.

What did I come here for? Why did I walk, in the spring, along a mile of pavement? Do I want bed rest, a barbecue, a clock like a plate or a satin stole, or a pepper mill or a dozen Irish linen tea towels printed, most beautifully, with the months of the year? April brings the primrose sweet, scatters daisies at our feet. I am beginning to cry. I stand in the bloody great linen department and cry and cry quite soundlessly, sprinkling the stiff cloths with extraordinarily large tears. Oh, what has happened to you, Mrs Enterprise, dear? Are your productions limited, your trusts faithless, and what of the company you keep? Think of those lovely children dear, and don’t cry as the world turns round holding you on its shoulder like a mouse.
But I cried just the same. The doctor they sent me to was expensive and Jake said, ‘Do you think you’re going to get over this period of your life, because I find it awfully depressing?’ (p28-9)

What I remember about the film (1964) was how beautiful Ann Bancroft was and what a bastard Peter Finch portrayed as her husband. His reaction to her Harrods tears is typical of his narcissistic gaslighting.

The Pumpkin Eater

This novel is quite short and easily read within 24 hours. The story is told by an unnamed narrator, a woman, who recounts her breakdown and the failure of her 4th marriage. She has many children (unnumbered) and Jake and her doctor assume that she should therefore be very happy. But she finds Jake’s affairs very distressing. She finds his absence on location very distressing. And she is outraged that her husband will support his mistress’s baby despite having persuaded her to agree to an abortion and sterilization. And she is furious when he blames her for her reaction, claiming that she agreed to the operations.

Jake seems incapable of understanding his wife’s point of view. Her psychoanalyst seems unable to understand her either.

‘Apart from everything else you feel about him, all your conflicting emotions … Do you like him?’
‘No,’ I said. ‘Not very much.’
‘That’s my impression. Why don’t you like him?’
I tried to think. One by one I turned over the possible reasons for disliking Jake: he is a coward, a cheat, he is mean, vain, cruel, he is slovenly, he is sly. ‘I … I don’t know,’ I said. (67)

The title

It’s a strange title, and the epigraph points to its origins. It seems like it comes from a Grimm fairy tale. But Wikipedia tells us that its origins are in English nursery rhymes.

Peter, Peter, Pumpkin eater,
Had a wife and couldn’t keep her.
He put her in a pumpkin shell
And there he kept her very well.

Jake does keep his wife, but not very well.

The 1960s

The introduction to the Penguin Classic edition by Daphne Merkin, makes the point that Penelope Mortimer predated Betty Friedan and Germaine Greer when she wrote about ‘the claustrophobic grayness and casual betrayals of upper-middle class marriage’ (vii). ‘Permissiveness’ was on its way. But she was not celebrating the advantages that less strict social codes would bring women. Indeed you could say she was providing a warning.

Motherhood and maternity

The most surprising thing about our narrator is that she has lots of children, the oldest three are casually sent off to boarding school to accommodate her marriage to Jake. She loses touch with them. Nor does motherhood seem to act as a break upon her behaviour, and certainly not on Jake’s. The damage to their children from their dysfunctional relationship does not appear to have troubled the characters or the writer.

Psychological support

It certainly seems as if the expensive doctor to whom she is sent following her Harrods breakdown, is part of the structure to maintain the status quo, when men can demand that women subjugate their lives and wishes within the marriage. The doctor at times seems more interested in Jake, a successful movie director, than in his wife’s troubles.

Teenage episode

An episode from her childhood gives one hope that Jake’s wife would not sacrifice herself. When her school friend Irene comes to stay, the teenagers find themselves at odds about the imperative to attract the attention of boys. There is a telling scene where Irene arrives at the railway station and is not recognizable.

Irene was wearing what I later heard her describe as a powder blue costume. Her hair was rolled in a perfect sausage at the nape of her neck, and another bobbing over her rather low forehead. She wore high heels, a necklace and lipstick. She was carrying a handbag as well as a suitcase. I thought she looked perfectly frightful. I was horrified. (46)

The contrast between the two girls could hardly have been greater. Irene, who is 14 and a half, plans to spend her time provoking the attention of boys. ‘I felt sick with shame for her.’ But although she doesn’t follow Irene’s example, and although she has had three previous marriages, the narrator has expectations of the marriage that she cannot share with Jake and it causes her great pain.

Rereading this novel made me realise how far things have improved, as well as how far they still have to go, in the matter of marriage and relations between men and women. It would not be acceptable today for women to suffer the gaslighting that Jake subjects his wife to. And he would be expected to have more sympathy and understanding of her life, not assume that because they are married it is all okay, everything he does. 

The Pumpkin Eater by Penelope Mortimer, first published in 1962. I used the Penguin Classics edition from 2015 with an Introduction by Daphne Merkin. 144pp 

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The Magic Toyshop by Angela Carter

It was more than a little shocking in the 1960s that this novel began with a 15 year old’s awakening sexuality, and a girl’s at that. Angela Carter was excellent at shocking people into questioning their assumptions, and she certainly did this in The Magic Toyshop.

It was her second novel, first published 1967, and reissued by Virago in 1981. This is my choice for the 1960s in the Decades Project 2020 (see below). Feminism is being openly canvassed from this decade which can be seen in the emergence of new writing by women.

The Magic Toyshop

Melanie (15) has lived a comfortable life with well-off parents, a younger brother (Jonathon 12 who is mad on model shops) and Victoria (5 but still babied). At the start of the novel their parents are absent in America. Melanie discovers her mother’s wedding dress and tries it on one evening and exults in its sensuality. The dress is ruined when she is locked out and has to climb back in up a pear tree. When her parents are killed in the Grand Canyon she sees herself as responsible.

The children are sent to live in London with their Uncle Philip who carves toys in wood and who runs the toyshop. They soon find that the household is larger than they knew: he has married Margaret, who became mute at her marriage. That is such a powerful image. Her two brothers also live in the house above the toyshop, and Finn is apprenticed to the toymaker. Francie is a fiddler. 

Phillip is a patriarchal bully. He believes girls should not wear trousers or speak unless spoken to. His word is law, and he browbeats all the household. His passion is to make nearly life-size puppets and to enact playlets with these. The only audience is the household. 

The Freudian undercurrents are many. One of the enactments is the swan’s rape of Leda, played by Melanie. To look smart Margaret wears an unflattering grey dress and a silver choker made by her husband.

The dress fell straight from her shoulders to a hem mid-way down her shins in a long, vertical line. It fitted her badly, barely skimming her body and catching on her bony hips. It was difficult to imagine she bought the dress on purpose, had one fine day long past go into a shop and tried on dress after dress and, finally, taking this grey and unbecoming tube of cloth from a rack laden with many-coloured garments, slipped it over her head, examined herself fore and aft in the changing room mirror, smiled with pleasure, clapped her hands in approval and said to herself: ‘This is lovely, this is the very thing,’ while a curled, perfumed salesgirl hovered, saying: ‘But it’s perfectly you madam.’ (111-112)

The choker is designed to fulfil its function if she moves too much. ‘It was heavy, crippling and precious …’ (112). 

The story follows the developing relationship between Finn and Melanie, as they observe how Philip treats each of them: physical abuse for Finn and neglect and then sexual abuse for Melanie. The two take tentative steps towards their own relationship, and find strength with each other to finally rebel.

At night, in the garden, they faced each other in a wild surmise. (200)

This fantastic tale, which ends in incest and a conflagration and the possible death of the two younger children, is not a simple contrast between goodness and wickedness, youth and age, or even wicked masculinity vs the goodness of femininity. It has complexity in its themes of love and abuse, adult and adolescent sexuality, play and life, reality and magic. Even the title has an ambiguity or two: a commercial venture that is magical, simultaneously of the adult and the juvenile worlds. The title also indicates that this is not a story of social realism. It’s powerful, rich and very imaginative. 

I loved its magic, its sensuality and the creative way in which abusive behaviour is revealed and gets its comeuppance.

Angela Carter

Angela Carter (1940 – 1992) was born in Eastbourne, UK. She spent some of her childhood with her grandmother in Yorkshire as an evacuee. After school she followed her father into journalism, and then, having married and moved to Bristol, went to Bristol University. 

She left her husband and began travelling, spending two years in Tokyo, and visiting other parts of the world. She returned to write professionally, novels, short stories, articles, as an editor and translator and in TV, film and radio. 

Her biographer Edmund Gordon refers to her ‘subversive intelligence’ which  contrasted with the sober social realists who dominated fiction in the ‘60s in the UK. She continued to write, combining  her taste for playful, gothic, humorous, science fiction, fairy tales, and fantastical surrealism. 

She was not a joiner, but energetically pursued her individual values and beliefs in her writing. Edmund Gordon suggests that she has been subjected to mythmaking since her early death, and I think I have been afraid of reading her work because of the myths. The Magic Toyshop has changed my mind. She has so much to say still today. 

See also: 

Angela Carter: A Portrait in Postcards by Susannah Clapp on her website: www.angelacarter.co.uk

The Invention of Angela Carter by Edmund Gordon (2017)

The Magic Toyshop by Angela Carter, first published in 1967. Virago Modern Classic edition released in 1981, which is the edition I used. 200 pp

The Decades Project 2020

This year I am exploring previously published novels by women. I am framing my choices from the Virago collection: Brilliant Careers: The Virago Book of 20th Century Fiction, edited by Ali Smith, Kasia Boddy and Sarah Wood. This collection reproduces an extract from one hundred books, one published in each year of the century and reissued by Virago. My choices include rereads, classics and some new discoveries. 

The most recent  choices for the project are

Passing by Nella Larsen (1929)

Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston (1937) 

A Stricken Field by Martha Gellhorn (1940)

The Dud Avocado by Elaine Dundy (1958)

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