The Home by Penelope Mortimer

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Reviewed by Harriet

I’ve just finished reading this very good and very upsetting novel. It’s good because Mortimer was an excellent writer, vivid, perceptive, witty. But it’s upsetting because it’s almost certainly at least semi-autobiographical, and even if it isn’t, it tells a desperately sad story of someone very emotionally fragile who slowly disintegrates over the course of the narrative. Although the central characters have different names, it’s impossible to see The Home as anything but a sequel to The Pumpkin Eater, Mortimer’s 1962 novel, which was based on her unhappy marriage to the serially unfaithful John Mortimer. At the end of that novel the couple seem to have settled their differences, but in The Home, published in 1971, Eleanor has just realised that her husband Graham has finally moved out for good. He’s a successful doctor, specialising in treating wealthy women with various psychological problems, a career that is superbly ironic given the fact that he totally fails to see what a desperate state his own wife is in.

Eleanor has never done anything in her life except being a wife and a mother to five children. She has put up as best she could with Graham’s infidelities, attempting to cheer herself up by taking a couple of lovers. So although she is apprehensive at the prospect of living as a separated woman, she’s also excited. Graham has rather reluctantly bought her a house, and she is looking forward to furnishing it for her children – furnishing it mainly by removing almost all the furniture from the marital home, much to Graham’s annoyance:

For months, ever since she had first seen the new house, her own [spirits] had been soaring. She had rediscovered energy that she thought had long ago died; at the prospect of living by herself, in her own home, without Graham, without the load of a marriage that had become intolerable, she had felt herself flung helter-skelter, without time to assess or reason, into a life of hope and good sense. She had been unable to sleep at nights, hurrying out of bed to add something more to a list, to write some reminder to herself, or else she had lain on her back, her arms behind her head, smiling at her fantasies and almost unendurably impatient.

It becomes clear pretty soon – indeed, it’s clear to the reader from the start – that things are not going to go the way she hopes. Her oldest son is living in a gay relationship in Paris and has little to do with his mother, and sadly, though her three adult girls come to stay and support her at first, they have lives of their own to live and one after another they drift off. Even fifteen-year-old Philip, who she loves deeply, is at boarding school and wants to spend some of his holidays with his father. He loves his mother but his thoughts are rarely with her when they are apart. She contacts her two ex-lovers, both of whom are happy to hear from her but have moved on. She has high hopes about a mysterious Irishman who promises to visit but somehow never does. So Eleanor becomes increasingly lonely and increasingly desperate. She’s still beautiful and men are attracted to her, but the only one she succumbs to disappoints and disgusts her in an episode which is very painful to read.

Pretty much friendless, Eleanor turns to her mother for support. But Mrs Bennett is not sympathetic. She sees nothing wrong with Graham setting up home with Nell, a girl of his daughters’ age, but believes Eleanor should sink gracefully into middle age, with a bit of needlework to keep her company. Mrs Bennett is indeed a wonderfully conceived character, and her shadow lurks in the back of Eleanor’s mind, criticising her lassitude and indecision:

While not exactly believing in God – the prospect was a little ridiculous – she was devoted to death, regarding it as the cure for all evils, by which she meant life. However, she remained indomitably alive. Other elderly ladies – at the time of the break-up she was eighty-two – suffered from fluttering hearts, poor eyesight, deafness, arthritis. Mrs Bennett was healthier than she had been at eighteen, and as much in command of her faculties. She also grew more knowledgeable every year, and was now far better informed about politics, the arts, drug addiction, space travel, sexual permissiveness and other topics of absolutely no use to her than her husband, a gentleman farmer and Justice of the Peace, had ever been.

Of course it’s easy to say, from the perspective of more than fifty years, that Eleanor should just get a job and get on with her life. But she’s never trained for anything, and it’s hard to imagine what sort of job she could possibly take. As it is, a turning point of sorts has been reached at the end of the novel, though there’s no clue as to where things will go from here. 

I well remember the 1970s, which the novel reminds me was rather a messy period, with the euphoria of the sixties dissipating and leaving people uncertain about what to hold onto. Not that many them are any more certain now, so as well as being a period piece, The Home is remarkably vivid in its portrayal of the aftermath of a broken marriage and an empty nest, as relevant today as ever it was. So as I said, it’s a sad novel, but one with flashes of delightful wit, and a welcome reminder of what a fine novelist Mortimer was.

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Harriet is one of the founders and co-editor of Shiny.

Penelope Mortimer, The Home (British Library, 2023). 978-0712354929, 256pp., paperback original.

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2 comments

  1. Lovely review Harriet – I enjoy Mortimer’s writing, so I’m looking forward to this!

  2. Thank you for this, Harriet, I really appreciated your perspective. And I was so glad we managed to get a novelist of Mortimer’s calibre into the BLWW series.

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