The Pumpkin Eater by Penelope Mortimer

The Pumpkin Eater by Penelope Mortimer
Indeed.

It’s not Halloween or anything, but let’s still celebrate The Pumpkin Eater (1962). Welsh-born English journalist and novelist Penelope Mortimer (1918-1999) wrote this whilst pregnant for the eighth time – at 42. After a tumultuous series of relationships, which provided her with six children, it’s clear she wrote this work to lampoon married life and gender relations.

It’s a dark novel, but not one without a sense of humour. Back in the 1960s, the general idea for women was to produce as many offspring as possible. 10, 20, 30, 40… whatever, just fire them out and that’ll make the man of the house feel proper macho. And it’s this sensibility from the time that Mortimer tackles.

The Pumpkin Eater

The lead is one Mrs. Armitage, who has several children following four marriages. She’s the wife of a successful screenwriter, but this isn’t stopping a mental health breakdown. His excessive wage is, in fact, contributing to her general malaise and contempt for everything around her.

Despite being surrounded by things, she is empty inside. And it’s clearly in the personal interest of the author to indicate it’s the domestic, patriarchal trappings of her existence that have led her into the situation.

There’s a clear feminist leaning, then, during an era when many women were frustrated by society’s expectations of them: bear children and prop up the kitchen. Whilst her husband gallivants around having affairs enjoying his well-to-do career, she’s left at home quietly disintegrating.

It’s quite a subdued and simple work, as a result. It hints at greater things to come from female writers, but as a story of a marriage in collapse its told with deadly dark humour and acerbic wit. And it’s a coda in history of the feminist movement, representing a time before strides were made to greater equal rights.

So in this respect it’s now a bit of a muted account of marital strife. But it’s also one that lays out the challenge of anxiety and depression in the name of all of that. And that means it’s not exactly a fun book to read. But it’s potentially one many people (women in particular) will likely identify with and find strangely supportive.

Film Adaptation

A high-profile British film adaptation first saw the light of day in 1964. Starring Anne Bancroft and Peter Finch, it was adapted by none other than the much vaunted Harold Pinter. But it was Bancroft who stole the show, claiming an Oscar nomination for her performance (although she’s most famous for her role as Mrs. Robinson in The Graduate).

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