Daddy’s Gone A-Hunting by Penelope Mortimer
I am so devoted to my hunt for good books, that I have enlisted the help of quite a few book services in the last couple of years—people who pick obscure, beautifully written books that have gone out of favor in the U.S. or never got here in the first place. Last August I subscribed to McNally Editions (mcnallyeditions.com), who publishes a series of paperbacks they claim are “devoted to hidden gems.” It was an $81 bet and I got my first shipment of three books last week. I haven’t stopped reading since I ripped open the package. Of the three books I received, I started with Daddy’s Gone A-Hunting by Penelope Mortimer. No, I had never heard of her, although she published nine novels, two books of short stories, and two memoirs. Where have I been all my life?
In her book The Situation and the Story Vivian Gornick talks about good novels having a situation (what occurs) and the story (what it means, universally, to readers). The situation in Daddy’s Gone A-Hunting is that Angela, the nineteen-year-old daughter of Ruth and Rex, finds herself unexpectedly and unhappily pregnant. She elicits the help of her mother in obtaining an illegal abortion on condition that her father not be told (because he would insist she marry the father, who Angela detests). Ruth, who is home all day and on the verge of going mad, throws herself into the task of ensuring that her daughter not suffer the same fate she herself suffered. She got pregnant with Angela and was compelled to marry Rex nineteen years previously and her life has been tied and bound ever since. Now there’s a complication!
The story is about freedom, what it is, what it takes to ensure it, and who gets to have it. As Ruth fights for her daughter’s freedom, her daughter is oblivious to the fact that it’s a fight. Additionally, Ruth risks everything so that her daughter can be free, but risks nothing to ensure her own freedom.
The lives of these two women, at once entwined and entirely separate, is a devastating comment on the suppression of women and is particularly current given what is going on in this moment regarding state suppression of women’s ability to control their lives and to achieve freedom. I read this book, written in 41 short chapters, straight through over three days, sick that a story written in the 1950s felt so terribly true today.
The writing is dense, almost violently so. Each description, each scene hammers into you like a spike.
Ruth, in describing her summer with her sons who are home from private school, is describing not just the summer, but the quality of her marriage, and in fact of her life:
[The summer] had begun with strawberries pried out like jewels from under the wet leaves and covering of straw; it had ended with bitter quarrels about who should shred the runner beans, hard and brown as old leather. And now it was over. The children, the summer gone.
This is how Ruth describes her marriage:
These three [children] were real. They were, in their ability to hope, to change, to choose between right and wrong, grown up. For Rex and herself there was no longer any hope or possibility of change; there was no longer any choice to be made. They lay, fully grown, capable of every crime and every greatness, paralysed by triviality.
The joining of those two words, something so great to something so small, is exactly the summary of this story.
Although this tiny scene is of the parents of a neighbor, the description is breathtaking and it adds to the sense of inevitability and doom that pervades the book:
His parents, who are old and failing, creep about their part of the house in plastic macintoshes and retire each night to lie on high, canopied beds like tombs, their little claws peaceably folded, their small faces caved in with sleep. They are the only ones to obey the bells. They know where, and how deep, they will be buried when they die.
The offhanded brutality of that last sentence made me gasp.
Ruth and Angela go out with Tony, the man who impregnated Angela, to talk about the details of the abortion and, most particularly, who will pay the fee. Ruth describes Tony so particularly and can do so because she’s also describing her husband and, in fact, all the men in their social circle:
His cold, already ageless eyes held Ruth’s for a moment. She recognised them as the eyes of a man who felt nothing. Posturing for other people, for the countless mirrors, he would assume attitudes of outrage, love, friendship, even physical need. He would probably go through his entire life imagining that he was real; but not one person would owe him gratitude, remember his comfort.
Mortimer doesn’t waste a single scene, a single description, in using this story to lay out the situation in its full, inglorious detail.
Rex has an affair with Maxine, leaving Ruth house-bound during the week thinking he’s consumed with his work in London. Mortimer describes him waking next to his new, more exciting flame:
He whimpers, this heavy ageing man; wakes with his mouth drawn down at the corners as though he is about to cry. It is grey and cold and Friday. He turns, his stomach falling like a loose, heavy sack between himself and Maxine.
Ruth’s sense of who she is gets revived as she accomplishes all that needs to occur to get Angela an abortion the day before Christmas in circumstances that are all going against her. And yet. She has been bound and caged for so long that it is difficult for her to emerge. These are her thoughts when her daughter is no longer pregnant and has gone off to college, all because of Ruth’s dogged intervention, and Ruth is going home:
She slumped over the steering wheel, her head on her arms. She had no nobility and little courage. Inadequate, commonplace, no longer young, the burden of consequence was too heavy. It crushed her.
I wanted to climb through the book and sit with her in her car and describe her nobility and her courage. I wanted to burn something down.
But this is the situation, even now. And this is also, even now, the story.
You can order Daddy’s Gone A-Hunting from your local bookstore, or you can order it here:
About Susan Edsall
Writing is how I make my way through the thicket of what we’ve made of this planet we’re on. It takes me a long time and lots of words. Social media mystifies me. How do so many people have so much to say, so quickly, and with such resolute certainty? Read more about Susan >