Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Daddy's Gone A-Hunting by Penelope Mortimer



I didn't intend to review another Persphone right away, but once again, Inter-Library Loan has dictated my reading schedule.  (This is what comes of boredom and infinite access to library catalogs via the internet.  I once had eight Persephones arrive at the same time via ILL!)

After carrying this book around in my bookbag for a couple of weeks, a looming due date inspired me to open up this slim volume, vintage 1958 (and a beautiful copy it was, thanks to the Tulsa, Oklahoma public library system).  This is the story of Ruth Whiting, a thirty-something mother in late 1950s England, living a dull suburban existence.  She's just dropped her two sons off at the train enroute to boarding school for the fall term, and returns home to an empty suburban home.  Her eldest child, an eighteen-year old Angela, has just zipped off on the back of some guy's Vespa, and she's home alone since her dentist husband spends the weeknights at a London flat.

Endpapers from the Persephone edition of "Daddy's Gone A-Hunting"

Basically, this is the story of Ruth having a minor breakdown, and how she recovers when forced into  a difficult situation with her daughter; she doesn't want Angela to repeat her mistakes and end up with a life like hers.  

This book was sad but it was a real eye-opener about how life must have been like for women in the late fifties and early sixties before the women's movement began to take off.  Parts of it were bitingly funny; Penelope Mortimer gets in some real zingers, especially her observations about suburban life.  Here's a quote, discussing the people in Ruth's neighborhood:  

Like little icebergs, each [wife] keeps a bright and shining face above water; below the surface, submerged in fathoms of leisure, each keeps her own isolated personality.  Some are happy, some poisoned with boredom; some drink too much and some, below the demarcation line, are slightly crazy; some love their husbands and some are dying from lack of love; a few have talent, as useless to them as a paralysed limb.  Their friendships, appearing frank and sunny, are febrile and short-lived, turning quickly to malice.  Combined, their energy could start a revolution, power half of Southern England, drive an atomic plant.  It is all directed towards the effortless task of living on the Common.  There are times, towards the middle of the school term, when the quiet air seems charged, ready to spit lightning; when it is dangerous to touch a shrilling telephone and a coffee cup may explode without reason. 

Mortimer herself had a difficult life; she had two husbands and multiple affairs.  Eventually, she had a total of six children by four different men.  She was a journalist, and wrote several novels, plus screenplays.   Most of her work is out of print, but another novel, The Pumpkin Eater, is now available as an NYRB classic, so I've suggested it for purchase for my library.  The library also owns a DVD called Portrait of a Marriage, for which Mortimer wrote the screenplay, so I've put it on my request list. It originally aired in the U.S. on Masterpiece Theater and it's about Vita Sackville West, starring Janet McTeer, so I'm intrigued.  I still haven't read anything by Sackville-West but I have The Edwardians on my to-read shelves.

6 comments:

  1. ILL is a complete mystery to me, our library system lets me submit requests on-line, but not to track what I've requested, so I have no idea what is coming when. It does drive my reading schedule a bit as well.

    I've not heard of this author before. This sounds like a challenging but interesting read!

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    1. Ours seems a bit better -- we can see what we've requested, but no way of knowing when and if they're coming until they arrive at the Central library. However, sometimes stuff gets caught in limbo -- I requested a book last August that supposedly shipped, but it's never arrived! I finally gave up and just bought a copy.

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  2. I've read and reviewed The Pumpkin Eater, very disturbing edge to it but there's the same brittle, dark humour to it that you found in this. I have another Mortimer in my TBR stack but will have to keep an eye out for this, she was a surprise find for me and I'd like to read more from her unusual perspective.

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    1. I was happy to see The Pumpkin Eater as an NYRB classic. They publish a lot of great stuff -- when I finally finish the entire Persephone catalog I'll probably tackle all my NYRBs next. And Viragos!

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  3. I have never tried ILL. The only Persephone I have seen at my local library is Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day. I too am finding that the NYRBs offer some really fantastic books. It is encouraging that these imprints, like Virago and Persephone, are making heretofore unavailable books accessible again.

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    1. My library actually has some of the Persephone catalog in older editions, some from the 1950s, and a couple of newer ones available in the U.S. in different editions, like Dimanche and other Stories by Irene Nemirovsky and Still Missing by Beth Gutcheon. I looked through the list of all the Persephones I've read, and nearly half have been through ILL.

      The great thing about the NYRBs is that my library will usually buy them if I submit them as suggested purchases, since they're readily available in the U.S. I did just suggest Cheerful Weather for the Wedding since it's available as a Persephone Classic. I've read it already but if they do buy it there might be another Persephone convert out there!

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