Posted by: Lisa Hill | June 21, 2015

The Pumpkin Eater (1962), by Penelope Mortimer

IMG_2344 (800x600)Sometimes, when I’m away from home, the place where I’m staying has a selection of books on offer, usually the detritus of ‘holiday reads’ and a useful reminder that The Rest of the World reads stuff so utterly unlike the books I read, that I might as well be a different species of human.  But occasionally, in amongst the dross, there lurks a treasure, and so it is up here in the Gold Coast apartment where I am staying during my father’s time in hospital.

The Pumpkin EaterPenelope Mortimer’s The Pumpkin Eater is a brilliant book, and I am not surprised to find from GoodReads that it has been reissued as a classic by NYRB.  (The copy up here is a well-loved Penguin from 1979.)  Published in 1962, The Pumpkin-Eater pre-dates all the feminist writing that was so exhilarating to read as the sixties progressed, but I knew Mortimer’s name because I’ve read something of hers before.  (Daddy’s Gone A-hunting, I think, but it’s too long ago to be sure).

For those who have forgotten their nursery rhymes, (or sadly never knew any) the title derives from this rhyme:

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.

(*shudder* When you think how ancient this rhyme is, it is quite horrible to think how it reflects confining women’s lives over the centuries).

Mortimer’s novel begins with an unnamed wife in a psychiatrist’s chair and the black humour is evident from the start.  He is the classic patronising male of the sixties (and if you think you know this type now, trust me, you have no idea what they were like when their power was unbridled and our courage was prudently tentative).   Things have fallen apart for Mrs Jake Armitage – and no wonder – because as the novel progresses we learn that because her life is confined (as so many were) to the role of wife and mother, there is nothing for her to do or be because her (fourth) husband is so wealthy that parenting and keeping house have been outsourced, and his philandering has taken her other role off the agenda.  Her one option is to have yet another baby (there are already so many that they are uncountable) but her husband doesn’t want that and his solution is to browbeat her into a permanent solution.

It sounds bleak, and in some ways it is because it is so representative of what was the norm in western societies and still is the norm in many places around the world.  But there are also hilarious scenes, as when the novel retraces the girlhood of its inspiring heroine.  At her boarding school, where she lacks social cachet because she does not have older brothers as lures, her friend Ireen (sic) bursts into the library with some dreadful news:

‘I’ve been looking for you everywhere,’ she said.  ‘I’ve just had the most awful news.’
‘What news?’
‘Well, you know we were going to Spain this hols -‘
‘Yes. Well?’
‘And Roger was going to bring Brian and maybe the McLarens were going to come with Eric and David -‘
‘Yes. Go on.’
‘Well! Now it seems we can’t go because of this stupid old war! It just seems we can’t go and that’s all there is to it!’ She threw a crumpled letter down on the green baize.  ‘I just got this letter.’
‘What war?’ I asked, disbelieving.
‘Don’t ask me!  Some old General’s invaded it or something.’
‘Invaded what?’
‘Spain, you clot. I don’t know.  Nobody ever tells you a thing in this place.  I don’t see why we can’t go anyway.  I mean, nobody’s going to shoot us or anything, are they?’
‘Oh no,’ I said.  ‘They wouldn’t be allowed to.’
‘Well of course they wouldn’t.  But Pa says it is quite out of the question and we’ve just got to resign ourselves and go to Littlehampton.
‘How awful for you,’ I said vaguely.  I had never been abroad, and Littlehampton sounded rather distinguished to me.
‘Awful?  I could die! Of course Roger won’t invite Brian there. I mean, there’s nothing to do in Littlehampton.  Honestly, I could kill that Franco!
‘Who’s he?’
‘This old General who’s invaded Spain.  I mean, it’ll probably ruin the rest of my life, not spending these holidays with Brian.  I should think we might have got engaged quite easily.’
‘I’m sorry,’ I said. ‘It’s jolly bad luck for you.’      (p. 51)

Ireen is fourteen…

Part of the interest in this novel is the credibility of the narrator.  Always defined by her role in relation to others, (Jake’s wife; ex-wife of two more husbands and widow of one; Dinah’s mother) she is established at the outset as confused and confusing.  There are elements of what she says which might be self-delusion, fantasy, or paranoia.  She confirms this herself, at the end:

I have tried to be honest with you, although I supposed that you would really have been more interested in my not being honest.  Some of these things happened, and some were dreams.  They are all true, as I understood truth.  They are all real, as I understood reality.  (p. 157)

We are meant to be left in doubt, I think, because in 1962 there was no ‘solution’ for what Betty Friedan called ‘the problem with no name’.   An intelligent, sensitive, wise woman for whom society had no use except as a wife and mother, was, in the sixties, caught in a horrible trap when motherhood came to an end and she had been replaced as a wife by household staff and a succession of lovers.

The book begins with the powerful symbol of this woman telling the psychiatrist about tidying her own mother’s wool drawer on wet afternoons.  The wool was all useless scraps, too small to do anything with, and she was made to tidy it for something to do, like they make prisoners dig holes and fill them up again.  Is it Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs that says that in middle age we need to look back on our lives and feel we have done something useful with the time that we have?  How can that be done, if the society you live in denies you the opportunity?

I loved this book.  It’s a reminder of just how lucky I am to have been born in a place and time where I have had the opportunity to do and to be…

Author: Penelope Mortimer
Title: The Pumpkin Eater
Publisher: Penguin, 1979
ISBN: 0140021663
Source: Found in an apartment on the Gold Coast (and left behind with some regret).


  1. I occasionally remind my daughters of how lucky they are and when young women today spout about not needing feminism I get so angry. Sounds like a fascinating read, thanks for the review.


    • Hello Martine, I know exactly what you mean. So many young women don’t know what it was like because it was ‘like, so ancient history’ for them, and they have no idea how hard it was to be taken seriously and to win the gains we’ve got. But more importantly, because they often reject feminism as irrelevant, and they disdain politics completely, they don’t understand the nexus between male attitudes to power and violence against women. Sadly, some don’t realise that they have become a possession that defines their male’s identity until they try to walk away – and by then it’s often too late.
      What we need is a new generation of feisty young women – as brave and confrontational and funny and fair as Greer was – who are focussed on the big picture, but for as long as they are tottering around on high heels and focussing on fashion instead of financial independence, no one will take them seriously, not even me.


  2. I only heard about this book recently when it popped up on the Goodreads NYRB group as a potential read. We didn’t read it as it had been a previous choice. It sounds fascinating.

    I like the mention of Littlehampton, which is my home town. I can confirm there’s nothing to do….except read of course.


    • So it’s true! Will cross Littlehampton off my list of places to go to on my next trip.
      (Yes, there will be a next trip. Not sure when, and to be honest, the idea of getting in a plane again is not very appealing, but I am determined to finish that holiday one day!

      Liked by 1 person

    • And go fishing! I actually love Littlehampton: been a few times to stroll along the pier and the very long beach!

      Liked by 1 person

      • To be fair, it’s ok. It has quite a nice beach as well.


        • Actually….
          (I looked up Littlehampton on Wikipedia)
          It has literary and artistic pilgrimage possibilities. “Lord Byron, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Percy Bysshe Shelley and John Constable are all believed to have spent time there”. A cup of tea in the café where Shelley wrote his poems; a walking trail that takes in a Constable scene; quotations from Coleridge in the pub etc. Fabulous.
          And – while you locals might be dismissive of this – for Australians who are not allowed to have fireworks anymore except at public events where they are done by experts, the Littlehampton bonfire procession, bonfire and firework display would be rather a buzz.

          Liked by 1 person

          • The bonfire procession & fireworks are pretty good. It’s easy to forget what is on offer when you live in a place. A while ago, when I was living in Brighton, I spent some time being a tourist in the town (oops, it’s a city now) I was living in, which is interesting.

            I’m not sure about the Byron, Shelly et al. connections, there are often lots of claims of people staying here etc., usually it’s in regards to royalty.

            A friend of mine had a house that was J.M. Barrie’s, it’s got a blue plaque, but that’s next door to Littlehampton.


            • LOL I found it hard to keep a straight face when I’ve been to places where royalty has stayed. The awed respect shown to a once-royal bed cracks me up.
              But poets and artists, that’s different!


  3. I have a copy of this book in my vintage Penguin collection. It is one of those books that seems to fall off the shelf or I find in op shops all the time. I think it is trying to tell me to read it. Sounds very good and I certainly remember the film with Anne Bancroft. Could not remember what it was about in book form. The review makes me want to read it. Probably now won’t be able to find it on my shelves. 😊


    • It’s very thin, Pam, only 150-odd pages. It will be hiding. I looked at that pile of dross three times before I noticed it.


  4. It sounds wonderful… And that was one of my favourite nursery rhymes, too.


  5. I have this one on my NYRB shelf and have yet to get to it. What luck you found a copy lying about.


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