Saturday, May 8, 2010
Persephone Reading Week - Daddy's gone a-hunting
I hope I’ve just scraped under the wire for Persephone Reading Week with this review. After thinking I wouldn’t finish a new Persephone in time, I have done just that.
Daddy’s gone a-hunting is the story of Ruth Whiting’s life of suburban frustration & misery in the late 1950s. Ruth is married to Rex, a dentist who lives in London during the week & only comes home for the weekend. She has two younger boys at school & an 18 year old daughter, Angela. Ruth is at home, alone, surrounded by other wives in the same situation. They’re all bored, spending their time in gossip & shopping. Rex is unfaithful. He thinks Ruth doesn’t know but she is well aware of his mistresses. He’s an unsympathetic character, impatient & rude to his wife & daughter although he loves his sons & enjoys spending time with them. Rex’s relationship with his latest mistress, Maxine, is incredibly pathetic. He’s middle-aged, fat & unattractive yet he pleads for compliments & favours from this silly girl.
Ruth & Rex had to get married when she became pregnant & Rex resents Angela because of this. His whole attitude is that Ruth virtually trapped him into marriage & I think he justifies his affairs as his “revenge” for the way his life was hijacked. It’s ironic that he tells Ruth that if Angela ever became pregnant out of wedlock he’d throw her out. Angela does become pregnant to her truly awful boyfriend, Tony. The letter Tony writes Ruth worming his way out of paying for the abortion is horrible, self-serving & selfish. This dilemma, in the days when abortion was illegal, brings Ruth & Angela gradually closer together. Angela is a sulky, awkward girl who has always felt superior to her ineffectual mother. She’s ungracious in her fear although desperate for her mother’s help. It’s only at the end that they seem to reach an understanding. The machinations Ruth has to go through to help Angela (without Rex finding out) are frightening. It’s hard to believe this was just over 50 years ago. I was born in the 60s & the state of women’s lives depicted here hardly seems to have moved on from the 19th century novels I love so much. Thank goodness for feminism is all I can say!
Daddy’s gone a-hunting reminded me of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper, the classic story of the suppression of a woman’s life by the medical establishment & her family. The scenes of Ruth’s breakdown, when the awful Miss de Beer is brought in as nurse/housekeeper/jailer are beautifully done. Ruth’s despair is captured in the scene where she’s trying to escape from the house to visit a doctor who may help with Angela’s abortion. She creeps in stocking feet out of the house,
It was impossible to open the garage doors silently; but by now, even if she was heard, it would be too late. She put on her shoes, pushed the doors back & got into the car. The engine coughed, stuttered & died...She imagined Miss de Beer storming into the garage in her candlewick, her hair in armour, wrenching her out of the car, telephoning Rex...Reversing into the drive she saw the lit square of Miss de Beer’s window & an agitated figure wrestling to open it. She put her hand out of the car & waved cheerfully, keeping her hand fluttering as she swerved away down the drive.
The unreality of the lives of the women trapped in suburbia is highlighted at Christmas when the children are home from school & the husbands are home for over a week,
The women ran around in a fluster, like nuns forced on a secular outing. Between their husbands & their children they didn’t know where they were. The quantities of food made them, used to cream cheese & water biscuits, ill. They were agitated at the prospect of having to explain themselves, of having to live in public for so long. As the time of arrival came nearer they telephoned each other, breathlessly, as though for the last time.
I usually don’t read the Introductions of novels until after I’ve read the book as I don’t like to know too much of the plot. This time though I did read Valerie Grove’s introduction first. It really set the book in the context of Penelope Mortimer’s life. She was married to John Mortimer, barrister & famous author of the Rumpole books. Penelope Mortimer’s novels were created out of her own life to a great extent & this book describes a period in Mortimer’s life when similar things were happening to her. She had periods of mental breakdown, her marriage was blighted by her husband’s unfaithfulness & she lived a similar life to Ruth’s. Mortimer always worked though, at her novels & journalism, so her life had more purpose than poor Ruth’s seems to.
Daddy’s gone a-hunting is a terrifically readable book. The characters & situations are full of a kind of black humour as well as despair at Ruth’s thwarted life. It’s not typically Persephone in period but the themes of domesticity & relationships are very much in the tradition of other Persephone books such as Joanna Cannan’s Princes in the Land & Richmal Crompton’s Family Roundabout.