'But I don't want to rest!’

Penelope Mortimer, Saturday Lunch with the Brownings

Daunt Books, 288pp, £9.99, ISBN 9781911547723

reviewed by Thea Hawlin

‘You can’t forget the experience of loving.’ Penelope Mortimer’s narrator notes in her short story ‘The White Rabbit’, ‘You can only push it back and cover it up and use it for something else.’ Experiences of loving are the foundations for Mortimer’s writing, works which delve unreservedly into subjects such as motherhood and marriage. Her short story collection from 1960, Saturday Lunch with the Brownings – reissued by Daunt Books – highlights how women have been artfully interrogating these themes for years. In line with the vogue of ‘rediscovering’ female short story writers Mortimer’s reissue points to how this condensed form often lends itself to intense emotion, a story’s shortness crystallising a severity of feeling wherein anger at female subjugation can repeatedly be felt. At times Mortimer’s personal life threatened to eclipse her professional one as a journalist and writer and this tension lingers in her work, she ‘felt stifled by the woman she had once been,’ Lucy Scholes observes in her introduction to the reedition. We see glimpses of this melancholy in ‘The Man Who Loved Parties’, the story of a successful writer who, tired of society, eventually takes his own life.

In ‘The Parson’, a story which seems to draw from the life of Mortimer’s own religious father, profession outstrips personhood almost completely. Following a man’s life from childhood to old age the story tracks the protagonist’s complicated relationship to faith throughout his life, yet in death, the Parson: ‘existed only as a set of ideas, shifting and fading. [People] could do what they liked with him. There was no way in which he could speak for himself.’ Struggle for power is everywhere, as characters cling to semblances of self, desperate to reconfigure their lives, to grasp a hold of something, to understand, to shape themselves, to regain control. Whether it be a little girl obsessed with love, a parent worried for a child, a wife desperate for a husband’s hands or a silent onlooker finding the answers to their own questions in the lives of others.

Mortimer manages to run to the heart of so many insecurities and truths that plague familial and social life. She understands how we wear many faces, and that those we present to the world often create a rift between our social and private selves. In ‘Second Honeymoon’, the drama which ensues between a bickering husband and wife as they attempt to rejuvenate their love is filled with comical melodrama, yet twinned with scenes that sit so readily within lived experience it is at times jarring. The narrator’s indecision, for example, her desire to be understood despite her own inability to understand what exactly it is she wants: ‘A sharp gasp of outrage (because he had followed her, or followed her too slowly? Because he had spoken, or not insisted on speaking more? Because he had seen her looking ugly, or had not noticed?)’ Mortimer knows that often we find ourselves unable to claim our emotions as readily as we should like – that often people and their emotions do not make sense. It is these contradictions in character on which her stories often hinge. When at last the barriers come down between the couple it is only thanks to the wife’s grief penetrating ‘the insensitive, protective covering of [her husband’s] heart.’

Other couples in the collection are not as fortunate. In ‘I Told You So’ the rift between husband and wife runs deeper. The desire to win and be right – as the title forebodes – drowns out all else. Rather than a marital unit of togetherness the couple are constantly at odds. As the two walk with their three children along the English coast on holiday the sudden shifts between their perspectives show us how the wife feels trapped in their relationship and how the husband is unable to understand, wrestling with his own fears of being ‘unnecessary’. The fears of both remain unresolved, their inability to communicate becomes the essential tragedy. As a reader we understand, albeit passively, the pain of each.

In the title story, which looks at the tensions between a married couple and their relationships with their children, a mother is trapped in an image of motherhood she herself has constructed; she cannot argue with the father in front of their children as their united front becomes ‘part of the picture’. She understands that she has built her husband up as a certain character, a facade she must never tear down before the eyes of her offspring; there must be no disloyalty in this familial theatre. It’s a small but potent moment, a clear demonstration of just how easily women can find themselves complicit in their own oppression, the makers of their own cages. The line that follows this image of the perfect picture she works to maintain jars: ‘She raged inside herself.’ Read together in one swift motion her own internal raging becomes that very picture she has painted: ‘it was part of the picture. She raged inside herself.’ Women’s silent anger depicted as part and parcel of the domestic realm.

Mortimer’s expansion and exploration of these situations, the moments of tension, and conflict, where the feelings we repress rub up against those we express not only make for easy reading but make for enlightening reading. The domestic sphere with all its complications becomes the stage upon which she is able to play out emotions that simmer near constantly under the surface: jealousy, resentment, fear, regret, annoyance, frustration, uncertainty, doubt. The ingredients that make up so many moments of our lives. In ‘What a Lovely Surprise’ the well-intentioned gift of a mother's children that she ‘do nothing’ on her birthday becomes a form of torture for a woman who wishes to do as she pleases: kindness becomes a cage.

Mortimer is masterful at exploring these strange trappings of love, the imprisonments of behaviour it can foster as people tip toe their way around each other’s emotional lives. For this mother, the well-meaning intentions of her children to enable her to ‘relax’ backfires. Desperate to do something she struggles to move a chest of drawers, a physical manifestation of her own desire to retain a sense of power and control over her own life. When her daughter questions her she snaps: ‘But I don't want to rest!’ Yet, as her child begins to cry, it becomes evident that what she wants is beside the point. Yet the mother continues, ‘[she] heaved savagely at the chest, upsetting the cup of coffee which poured, a scalding christening, over her new sweater.’ As she defies the desires of those around her and attempts to take control, the woman is met with a rude awakening, unable to move the furniture successfully in the same way she is unable to redefine the bounds of her own personal freedoms. Mortimer captures how, so often, the weights of our emotional lives tie themselves to physical tasks, how the arguments we have are about so much more than the present moment; actions and emotions can be bound up inextricably with moments that build up over time in stratified, suffocating layers.

Yet it is not just women who are subject to these emotional trappings. In ‘The Renegade’ a child reads a letter from her father about his desire that she ‘soar above the pettiness, the crass stupidity of our so-called intelligent society . . . may no one ever clip your wings’ and takes him for his word. She flees her boarding school, hitchhiking her way home. Yet as the story progresses we understand that the girl’s father, despite his protesting, is caught in his own prison of societal expectations. He mocks his wife for caring what her friends will say when fantasising about taking his daughter out of school, but when the reality of her appearing on his doorstep manifests the threat of impending newspaper headlines shaming him as a clergyman father compels him to return her. He suppresses his own desire to welcome his daughter home, muttering instead: ‘we all have to learn to toe the line’ as he drives her back to the school. Despite his rejection of his wife’s feelings – ‘what shall we tell the parish? What will people say?’ we find he is bound by the same civil codes. Though he would like to believe himself different, free, in control — he is just as tangled in these societal knots. As the child cries she is told by teachers to ‘control herself’. A phrase which itself resonates with what may be Mortimer’s most prevalent theme in this 12-story collection.

The little girl in ‘The Renegade’ holds ‘too much emotion’. Her voice and feelings linger as the story unfolds, by the end, though the perspective stays with her father, the girl’s emotions, her ‘clipped wings’ eclipse all else. The school will try to break the girl, ‘curb her will.’ It must, if she is to understand the rules of the world. The protagonist in ‘Saturday Lunch with the Brownings’ is depicted as equally excessive, a woman ‘with a great burden of love inside her, a heart too passionate and heavy for her flimsy little body.’ Yet in all these stories, despite the ways people attempt to control or constrict women, it is the echo of their collective wills that dominate; whatever the outcome, the resounding volume of their internal voices always seems to have the last word. Mortimer’s implicit question lingers: what kind of world would it be if women were able to think, feel, and will with all their might? If heavy hearts felt weight without fear?

Thea Hawlin is a freelance writer, artist and editor specialising in the arts. Her work has previously appeared in The Guardian, The Times Literary Supplement and AnOther among other publications. She currently works as a social media manager for an Arts Foundation in Venice. For more of her work visit www.theahawlin.com.