In 1963, Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique shook the lives of women who felt chained to a destiny of quiet domestic drudgery. It marked a sea change in the way they viewed themselves — no longer just wives and mothers, they could search for a new identity in education and the work force.
One year earlier, British author Penelope Mortimer published The Pumpkin Eater, her dark, sardonic look at the building tension between men and women, both sexes dissatisfied with their assigned roles. The novel was not a polemic, railing at the societal pressures keeping women in the kitchen. Through her story of Mr. and Mrs. Jake Armitage (the narrator herself never getting her own first name in the book), Mortimer chronicled the willful surrender of one housewife and the ease with which women, in the decades preceding second-wave feminism, could tie themselves down with their own apron strings.
Mrs. Armitage cannot stop having children. Nor does she want to. Giving birth is something she does very well — it seems, in fact, it's just about the only thing she does. Domestic servants run her household; she holds no job. The assorted fathers of her children are an even lower priority. Indeed, with four marriages under her belt, her spouses are beginning to seem interchangeable. When the novel opens, Mrs. Armitage wants another child, and the unfaithful Mr. Armitage is begging her to save their marriage by not having one. She's under the care of a therapist, but the therapist is more interested in prescribing away her crying fits with medication than figuring out what she's trying to compensate for by filling her house with babies. She finally agrees to an abortion and sterilization, only to be faced with the disappointing state of a marriage she has neglected for so long.
Although abortion was a less controversial topic in 1960s England than it is today, it was still an act to be kept secret — and not commonly spilled on the pages of a popular novel. But, then, Mortimer said many things in her books that a woman was meant to keep quiet about in that era, from the desires of teenage girls to the harsh realities of sexual violence.
The Pumpkin Eater is wickedly funny in a squirmy, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? kind of way. Mrs. Armitage is incredibly self-aware and wry about her impending breakdown, and her barbed witticisms about a family that is self-destructing are as painful as they are hilarious to read. The book is more than simply a snapshot of domestic misery. After all, Mortimer — herself the model for Mrs. Armitage; the mother of many children by many different men and unhappy in an unfaithful marriage — had a more modern lifestyle than her fictional counterpart, with a successful writing career and financial freedom. This abrasive little novel shows that dynamics may change, economic circumstances may evolve, but boredom, despair and marital collapse are, unfortunately, timeless.