Still fresh, dramatic and uncanny
Saturday Lunch with the Brownings By Penelope Mortimer
TDaunt Books, 288pp, £9.99
olstoy’s famous opener on unhappy families seems particularly appropriate for Saturday Lunch with the Brownings, 12 stories that capture the tensions of domestic life with ferocious precision. Each of the unhappy families featured is certainly unhappy in its own way. Penelope Mortimer’s dexterous, vibrant prose burrows deep into the everyday moments that lead to points of crisis. Her scenarios are fresh, dramatic and uncanny. The familiar turns monstrous, the dark thing that should never be said is always said.
Sixty years after it was first published, the English author’s only collection of short stories is full of brilliantly detailed scenes of family life that could have been written yesterday. Reprinted by Daunt Books as part of its rediscovered classics series, it will hopefully bring new readers to a writer whose books were in part overshadowed by her famous marriage and divorce to fellow writer John Mortimer.
In an excellent introduction, Lucy Scholes talks about the way Mortimer’s stories are viewed as an addendum to her more famous novels, particularly The Pumpkin Eater. This is despite the fact that most of the stories featured here were first published in the New Yorker. Scholes has interesting things on Mortimer’s process, quoting the author directly: “I mined my life for incidents with a beginning, a middle and an end, finding even the dreariest of days contained nuggets of irony, farce, unpredictable behaviour.” Scholes also draws comparisons between the troubled personal lives of Mortimer and writers such as Sylvia Plath and Hannah Gavron, noting that Mortimer (who overdosed twice) lived on into old age and relative obscurity.
Daunt Books has done a service to readers to reissue this collection. Right from the opening story, the terrifying The Skylight, we are plunged into a world where love and fury exist in equal measure, where unsavoury truths are doled out as easily as cups of tea. Many of Mortimer’s protagonists are unlikable – an odious editor on the lookout for orgies, a parson racing through life at the expense of those around him, mothers and fathers who are driven to violence – but they are always compelling, leading us down the rabbit hole, leaving us adrift in the madness.
A couple of the stories – The Man Who Loved Parties, The Renegade – have a slightly disjointed feel but this is only when judged against the heft of the rest of the collection. Mortimer’s dry wit is in evidence from the titles alone. Such a Super Evening, Second Honeymoon and What a Lovely Surprise come with red flags attached.
What a Lovely Surprise closes the collection with a bang. On her 39th birthday, a mother feels suffocated by her family’s laboured celebrations: “A faint smell of burning crept up from the kitchen. How wonderful it is, she told herself sharply, to be loved.” The fuss they make over this one special day only highlights the wider environment of neglect and poverty.
Second Honeymoon explores the petty squabbles of an older couple abroad, and the fears and desires that motivate their behaviour. Such a Super Evening sees Mortimer poking fun at her own life when two lauded writers with a large family are invited for dinner and prove to be shockingly poor company.
There is much here that recalls the writing of Mortimer’s contemporaries Margaret Drabble and Doris Lessing. But there are also strong parallels with today’s writers such as Elske Rahill, Helen Simpson and Jenny Offill, all of whom offer cut-glass depictions of motherhood and marriage.
In Saturday Lunch with the Brownings, Mortimer goes behind the facade of married life – something she understood well from her husband’s infidelities – to look at the violence and betrayal that sit close to love. In the superb title story, the unravelling of a weekend lunch with the children is brutal not just for the father’s violence towards his stepdaughter, but for the fact that it is no longer considered surprising. This dark event is just a weekly episode in the life of the Brownings. Mortimer expertly switches perspectives in this story to give us moments of empathy for each of her characters, however monstrous they might appear.
Other standout stories are The Skylight, a masterclass in suspense set against the backdrop of a malevolent French countryside; the tug-of-war between a couple for their children in I Told You So; and the magnificent Little Miss Perkins, where the narrator watches another woman in a maternity ward commit something that is almost beyond words: “I know more about that woman, I thought, than any other person alive.”
Mortimer brings us back through generations with ease. So much has changed, so much has stayed the same. “My wife,” a character says at one point, “doesn’t understand me”. Penelope Mortimer, on the other hand, understands it all.
Penelope Mortimer: love and fury exist in equal measure