Although a lovely spring day indoors is wasted, I was glued to Penelope Mortimer’s Saturday Lunch with the Brownings today. It was three o’clock when we finally pushed off on our bicycles, and as we passed huge groups of partying bicyclists, I was meditating on Mortimer’s exquisite collection of short stories. Originally published in The New Yorker, these stories movingly portray the lives of women in mid-20th-century England: tired women who have children in un-idyllic circumstances, women whose husbands yell at their stepchildren, and lonely women who fantasize about getting to know celebrities.
Mortimer’s masterpiece, The Pumpkin Eater, is an autobiographical novel that was made into a very good movie with Anne Bancroft and Peter Finch. But Mortimer never wrote anything bad, as far as I’m concerned, and this 1960 collection of short stories tops my list of favorite fiction this year. Understand, there are several ties for first place. Mortimer ranks right up there with Alice Munro, surely the world’s greatest post-’60s short story writer.
In my favorite story, “Such a Super Evening,” the lacklustre but highly intelligent narrator feels exactly “as though I was Cinderella” when she meets a celebrity couple, two brilliant writers with eight children, at a party. She invites them for dinner and is extremely anxious about the impression she and her dull husband, Roger, will make. She begins the story:
“The important thing about this story, really, is not the Mathiesons, but us. Most people know about the Mathiesons. Nobody knows about us, although I think there are a lot of women who might easily be mistaken for me, and quite honestly, it often takes me a moment or two to recognize Roger in a crowded room. This, of course, could never happen to the Mathiesons, who are recognized by everybody as being themselves.”
She makes me laugh.
The Mathiesons, of course, turn out to be perfectly awful, if very funny. They fight about whether their country mansion is a mile and a half or three miles from Little Gumble. They don’t pay much income tax. They talk about their children as though they are objects: they can’t send them away to school because the press is always wanting to interview them. When a guest says that it must be great for the children to live in the country, Felicity answers, “Oh, they just sit glued to the television wherever they are. It doesn’t make the slightest difference.” Philip says that Felicity does all her work “on pills.”
“One’s got to do something,” she moaned softly. “Otherwise–you know–one would simply wring their necks.”
In “Little Mrs. Perkins,” the thoughtful, humorous narrator has just given birth to her third child and is cynical about the nurses’ strict hygienic baby feeding schedule. Then a new roommate is wheeled into the room, the crying Mrs. Perkins, who has almost had a miscarriage. What the husband and nurses don’t realize is that she wants to have one. The narrator is shocked, but also feels a bit of empathy when the nurse tells the young woman, who wants to lead an active life, that she is pregnant with twins.
In the title story, “Saturday Lunch with the Browning,” Madge Browning’s husband, a writer, spoils a family Saturday by his cynicism, bad temper, and punishing attitude toward his two stepchildren. The story highlights his effect on Madge, whose idea of her family is destroyed by his behavior.
Mortimer is brilliant, funny, and empathetic. Her depictions of women’s lives–bored women, depressed women, mothers, women whose husbands cheat, and women looking for meaning–raise a number of interesting issues while not being preachy.
My review of her novel, Long Distance, appeared at my original Frisbee blog.