Forgotten Treasure

The Neglected Penelope Mortimer Was a Novelist Ahead of Her Time

A feminist author long before it was popular, she survived abortion, her husband’s betrayal and even a Harold Pinter screenplay. Her woefully neglected novels still bristle with wit and insight.

Michael Ward/Rex, via Getty

In 1966 the writer Penelope Mortimer endured a painful sterilization operation that left her with a giant scar across her belly. She languished in a “home” recuperating from a severe depression. Once out, she discovered her husband, John Mortimer, was leaving her for a younger woman. The novel she had been working on for nearly a year had stalled. To give her a change of scene, her employer, The Observer, sent her to Canada. There, inspired by a spontaneous love affair, her sixth novel was born. “I began to feel a flicker in my stomach, growing and spreading until I could hardly bear it, heart thundering, small fires breaking out. I said something foolish like, ‘If you want to know what’s happening, I’m having a novel.’ He took my hand, or smiled, or both. I scribbled it down: a deformity (a cancerous breast removed—my scar); the affair with the man who knew; falling in love with a man who didn’t. It took half a minute. When we reached the border I stepped out on to America with a finished novel in my hand.”

The resulting novel is the remarkable My Friend Says It’s Bullet-Proof. It was published in 1967, and you won’t find it in print anywhere in the United States.

I came across Penelope Mortimer’s work in 2011 when The New York Review of Books reissued her 1962 novel The Pumpkin Eater in their classics series. The books on that list are reliably brilliant, and The Pumpkin Eater is no exception. What’s strange is that while some might know the novel, or its film adaption (1964, starring Anne Bancroft in a screenplay by Harold Pinter—“Harold sent me a copy of the script with ‘I’m SORRY’ scrawled across the page"), Penelope Mortimer remains unknown to many—despite the fact that her work remains some of the most provocative writing we have on marriage, relationships, and the writer’s struggle.

Mortimer was born in 1918 in a small town in North Wales. Her mother “was forty-two, and not delighted… I weighed over ten pounds and (she told me frequently) I nearly finished her off.” As she writes in her memoirs—About Time and About Time Too, both tragically out of print—she was sexually abused by her father and escaped into marriage at the tender age of nineteen. Her marriage and the birth of her first child coincided with Britain’s declaration of war against Germany. Though this all might sound like some kind of stiff-upper-lip British story of resilience in war-time, Mortimer approaches her circumstances with a scorching dry wit. Her father was a vicar. Describing her childhood home, she writes, “it was hard to keep awake, and a beautiful place to die in—the Church of England at its best.”

The first volume of her memoir ends with the beginning of the war. About Time Too begins in 1940, and chronicles her many love affairs, including her marriage to John Mortimer. “The idea of loveless sex horrified me,” Mortimer writes. “Nevertheless I made great efforts to be sexually attractive and none whatever to be lovable. Like many other paradoxes in my life, I find this perplexing.” By 1978, Mortimer had six children with four different men and had weathered a painful divorce, the basis for The Pumpkin Eater. “Respect for marriage? We might just as well have crossed our fingers going under ladders, avoided passing on the stairs, foretold the future by gazing at tea bags.”

In a world before birth control, before choice, Mortimer had survived abortion, and sterilization. In the late ’50s and early ’60s, she wrote several essays for The New Yorker, including “Long Distance,” a fictional account of her time in a mental institution. In the ’60s she was the London Observer’s film critic. In 1986, Mortimer wrote a delightful biography of the Queen Mother that was so controversial that its contracted publisher refused to publish it when the manuscript was delivered. Luckily it was picked up by Viking, but, over time, Mortimer’s work began to fall out of print, and she died in 1999.

The Pumpkin Eater is only one of Mortimer’s nine novels, many of which were published before the work of Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, and Betty Friedan made the lives and choices of women a topic of international debate. This novel is the only book of Mortimer’s in print in the United States. Though copies of her early novels and the memoirs are available in used copies online, it’s shameful that such an influential writer is still largely unknown. Penelope Mortimer deserves to be a household name. On top of her contributions to fiction and journalism, the memoirs are a chronicle of a woman struggling, above all, to create. After a long period of convalescence following her breakdown, she breathes a sigh of relief when she is able to write. “Finally, I am alive again.”