Monday, 30 October 2017

Portrait of a Marriage

I stumbled across Penelope Mortimer's The Pumpkin Eater (1962) by accident. Early for a work meeting, I wandered into a discount bookstore - the kind where everything is under $10 - and there I found the Penguin Modern Classic version of this slender novel. Having never heard of the book, nor it's author, I bought it on a whim and found a nook to read while awaiting my appointment.

The novel tells the story of Mrs Armitage, a frequently married woman who has a wealth of children to each of the men she has  wed. Her latest husband Jake is an up-and-coming screen writer who desperately wants to be rid of all the children to boarding school and stop having more. Mrs Armitage is depressed due to her husband's infidelities and their newly acquired wealth which has left her with far too much time on her hands. Her psychiatrist gives her pills and encourages her to avoid pregnancy. Her sessions with the shrink take her back to her blossoming sexuality and her views on love, fertility and marriage.

This is said to be an autobiographical novel, and having read about Penelope Mortimer's life I understand why. Mortimer was married at least twice and had six children to four men. Her last husband was barrister and writer John Mortimer, of Rumpole fame. The book is a telling indictment of their relationship.

I really enjoyed Mortimer's writing style and the humour she infuses in a rather dark tale. She has a way of describing scenes candidly, often with tremendous wit. For example, a scene where Mrs Artimage remembers that as a teenager she read some women's magazines a friend had given her and
"learned many useful facts such as all men are children, all men are emotionally immature, all men dislike hairnets and criticism, all men are unfaithful, must be trusted, need hot breakfasts, want more than they should have and need more than they are given."
Another scene where Mrs Armitage is listening to her husband speak with her psychiatrist, Mortimer describes as:
"There was a short silence. I eased myself farther down the stairs. My heart was pounding again and I felt sick. Eaves-droppers my mother would say, hear what they deserve."
And again, when Mr Armitage returns from abroad, Mortimer writes that the children were awaiting his car:
"Most of them were in the front bedrooms, watching for him; when they saw his car draw up they cateracted down the stairs, swarming over him as he came through the door..."  
The novel was adapted into a film by Harold Pinter, which starred Anne Bancroft, Peter Finch and Maggie Smith. The poster says it all - 'The marriage bed isn't always a bed of roses!' I am keen to track down a copy of the film and see how the novel was translated to the screen, especially given the talented cast.