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)
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 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.
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.
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