Countless Children, a Line of Ex-Husbands and a Nervous Breakdown – ‘The Pumpkin Eater’ by Penelope Mortimer


“The doctor they sent me to was expensive and Jake said, ‘Do you think you’re going to get over this period of your life, because I find it quite depressing?'”

This 150 page novel, written in 1962, is a semi-autobiographical story of a woman’s breakdown. Mrs Armitage, the protagonist, has three past husbands and a present husband and an army of children. Her current husband, Jake, is excessively well-paid which allows the family to live surrounded by staff, his income only serves to highlight the emptiness of Mrs. Armitage’s new life deprived of the domestic trappings that have defined her for decades. We never find out how many children exactly she has and how many she had with each husband, but with Jake she plans to build a beautiful tower in the country side where they can all live happily ever after. But before this can happen she suffers a nervous collapse in the Harrods linen section, weeping uncontrollably. Her husband, Jake, rather than being supportive finds her breakdown immensely tedious and uses it as an excuse to cheat, lie and drink. She is the victim and she is blamed constantly for her own unhappiness and the unhappiness of her husband and family.

Her doctor gives her pills and aimless advice, calling her desire to have more children a form of self-harm. The treatment of her shows the hypocrisy of the treatment of women in the 1960s, told to have child, settle down and keep their husband happy but not to have too many children and not bother about keeping themselves happy. Despite being surrounded by children and staff, Mrs. Armitage feels completely and utterly alone. By the end of the novel, the tower that was going to be her happy ending, becomes her self-imposed prison, it becomes a metaphor for the claustrophobic greyness of her upper-middle-class marriages. The novel dissects women’s intimate relationships, with their parents, lovers, ex-lovers and children.

The novel combines a ferocious intensity with dry humour. This book fills in a gap in the feminist literature of the 1960s, most of which was incredibly academic and inaccessible, by presenting a story with intense realism. 

Overall rating: 4/5


2 thoughts on “Countless Children, a Line of Ex-Husbands and a Nervous Breakdown – ‘The Pumpkin Eater’ by Penelope Mortimer

    1. Thank you – I haven’t read either of the books you mentioned so ill check them out – the feminist slant I think was what I read into the novel rather than what is directly there on page.

      Liked by 1 person

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