Tag Archives: Penelope Mortimer

The Adventures of Elizabeth in Rügen by Elizabeth von Arnim

In 1901 the writer, Elizabeth von Arnim, made a visit to the island of Rügen, the largest German island which lies in the Baltic. She had visited before and was equipped with maps and guidebook and a friend. They brought along a carriage with four horses, maids and baggage. Nothing much happened on the trip, although Elizabeth had hoped it would prove the basis of her next book. She had published Elizabeth and her German Garden to some acclaim in 1898. Undaunted by the lack of adventures she chose to invent some, along with a cast of truly awful characters, and sometimes pay lip service to the idea she was writing her own visitor’s guide. 

The Adventures of Elizabeth in Rügen

Rügen is an island off the Pomeranian coast, renowned for its sandy beaches (and jelly fish apparently). In the novel, the guidebook she found in the library quickly proves to be inadequate for Elizabeth’s requirements, and after a few misdirections and silences Elizabeth takes pleasure in doing the opposite of what it suggests. She is enjoying the freedom to choose what to do and where to go. However events interrupt her idyll and her adventures take a different form.

She is a writer with a sense of the dramatic as well as the absurd, and we are invited from the outset to enjoy the vagaries of her trip. It begins when her carriage barely fits into the ferry across to the island but takes a turn for the worse when their young coachman, August, does not notice that his two passengers, Elizabeth and her maid Gertrud, have alighted. He has been warned not to turn around to look at the women, and so he travels on and on without them. When they finally catch up with him a challenge comes from one of the bystanders as he tells his story.

The crowd waited breathlessly. ‘I turned round,’ continued August, ‘and I saw nothing.’
‘But you said you would never forget what you saw,’ objected a dissatisfied-looking man.
‘Never, never shall I forget it.’
‘Yet you saw nothing at all.’
‘Nothing, nothing. Never will I forget it.’
‘If you saw nothing you cannot forget it,’ persisted the dissatisfied man. (31-2)

Such conundrums and frustrations follow Elizabeth on her adventures. Soon after this inauspicious beginning Elizabeth goes swimming and enters the cold water more or less on top of another woman who turns out to be her cousin Charlotte ‘whom I had not seen for ten years’. Charlotte’s marital situation drives the plot: she married an eminent English professor, much older than herself. She now wants to free herself from him and has left him to promote the cause of women. Actually she appears to be promoting the cause of Charlotte and overlooks other women and has no time at all to consider the servant class, such as the long-suffering Gertrud. The women continue the trip around the island together.

Not long after this Elizabeth’s path crosses the professor’s. He is looking for his wife, but quite happy to be distracted by any women he meets. He is, in truth, a bit of a lech. When Charlotte departs, Elizabeth and the professor give chase, and Elizabeth contrives a plan to bring them together.

Everywhere they go they meet Ambrose (Bosy) and his mother Mrs Harvey-Browne. Bosy is a good-looking young man, but he pays no attention to what anyone says but himself. His mother, however, is horrendous, and Elizabeth tries to avoid the pair on her travels. Mrs Harvey-Browne is the wife of an Anglican bishop and expects to be treated as a person of some status. It has not dawned on her that there would be little understanding of her status on the island as the Germans do not have bishops, and furthermore her status is acquired by connection rather in her own right. Sadly she is often mistaken, for example, refusing to engage with the professor, when they first met, as she mistakes him for a tramp. But worse, she is determined to be critical of everything – landscape, language, service, food, transport, the weather … 

Her negativity puts Elizabeth’s character into relief. Elizabeth is witty, funny and resourceful, prepared to see the best in everyone, to help them, and to enjoy the adventures on Rügen. All is chaos and good humour from her side, but indignation, crossness and self-absorption from the others.

Rügen is clearly a beautiful island with exquisite views and beaches as well as bracing sea bathing and dense forests. I read a second-hand copy of this novel but I don’t recall where I bought it. I was delighted to find a postcard tucked in its pages, showing a watercolour of the church in Bobbin, featured on Elizabeth’s journey (246-249). The artists is W Teich.

Here are links to other posts on Bookword featuring novels by Elizabeth von Arnim:

Expiation by Elizabeth von Arnim (August 2021)

Father by Elizabeth von Arnim (July 2021)

Mr Skeffington by Elizabeth von Arnim (November 2020)

The Enchanted April by Elizabeth von Arnim (August 2017)

The Adventures of Elizabeth in Rügen: by the author of Elizabeth and her German Garden by Elizabeth von Arnim, first published in 1904. It was reissued by Virago in 1990 with an introduction by Penelope Mortimer. 199pp 

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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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