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The catastrophe of unwanted motherhood

The protagonist of Penelope Mortimer’s 1958 novel, Daddy went hunting, is a 37-year-old housewife named Ruth who descends into a madness of mid-life suffocation and despair. Alone in her kitchen, Ruth sips gin at the beginning of the novel and tentatively confesses to an imaginary listener the source of all her fears. When she married Rex, her trivial bully husband, at 18, she was three months pregnant with their daughter Angela. “She doesn’t know, of course,” Ruth explains to no one. “I didn’t want to get married. I didn’t want Angela. We had to get married. There was nothing else to do.”

The burden of consequence on Ruth is a dead weight. It has no discernible life force, no desires, less form than crumpled tissue paper. Their fuzziness is counteracted in the novel by Mortimer’s scathing narration, which infuses Ruth’s boredom with a savage current of social criticism. Daddy went huntingwhich is now being re-released in the US, was released a few years before Betty Friedan’s The female mysticism. But the novel, seemingly set in the late 1950s, seems to anticipate what Friedan called “the problem with no name” – the deep unhappiness of a generation of educated women trapped in the domestic sphere with no way out. In one chapter, Mortimer compares the women of The Common, Ruth’s suburban church, to icebergs, “bright and shiny” on the outside but singularly scratched beneath the surface. “Some are happy,” she writes, “some are poisoned by boredom; some drink too much and some are slightly insane below the demarcation line; some love their husbands and some die for lack of love; a few have talent that is as useless to them as a dying limb.” Together, “their energy could start a revolution, power half of southern England, power a nuclear power station”. Without a socket, however, it tends to short circuit.

Ruth’s despair is clearly rooted in her unwanted pregnancy as a teen, her necessary marriage to a man she despises, and her obligation to care for an unwanted child when she was a child herself. The animating power of the novel is a simple, repetitive plot point: Her daughter, now 18-year-old Angela, announces to Ruth that she is pregnant. Ruth gets angry; She also finds once again that circumstances are forcing her to act against her will. “It wasn’t like she made a move; She had been pushed, stumbled forward and found responsibility in her arms, felt obligated, without knowing how it had happened,” writes Mortimer. Angela wants to have her pregnancy terminated, which was illegal in the UK until 1968. To save her daughter from history repeating itself, Ruth must balance conflicting impulses – her desire to protect Angela from the risk of an illegal trial and her desire to ensure her a less miserable future than her own.


Daddy went hunting based largely on Mortimer’s own experiences. Like Ruth, she was married at 19 and had her first child before long; like Ruth, she helped her eldest daughter to have an illegal abortion when she became pregnant while at college. In a later, semi-autobiographical novel The Pumpkin Eater, which deals with marital infidelity and dissatisfaction, Mortimer presented scenes of middle-class life with a remarkably sharp touch, eliminating any trace of illusion or pretense. With Daddy went hunting, she steps lightly into a sparse and immensely tricky genre, the literature of parental regret. Ruth’s grudge against Angela and Rex is an “unmentioned matter,” a secret “that has been suppressed for so long [it] had become almost unrecognizable as truth.” And yet Angela always felt it; Her life was defined by “being rejected, abandoned, betrayed by someone who should love her”. (Names tremble with symbolism in Mortimer’s story: Ruth means ‘remorse’, ‘rueling’, ‘regret’ in British English. Rex is the cruel king of his sturdy castle in the commuter belt; he disappears midweek to London to take up his dentist’s job, the undertakes countless “careful digs in rotting bones. Angela, meaning “messenger,” is the character whose circumstances compel Ruth to act.)

Mortimer does not theorize or explain; she mangled with the description instead. Her 64-year-old novel is one of the most compelling pro-reproductive arguments I have ever encountered, because of its atmosphere and circumstances. Without choice, she suggests, we are doomed to follow the tramlines of predestination, which punish all involved. Without choice, everyone suffers, including children born not of love but of resentment. (Throughout the novel, Angela has always sensed how differently both her parents seem to see her compared to her two younger brothers, both of whom were born of free choice.) Ruth’s psyche in the book is inexorably atrophied by her inability to define herself before she had children. Reading Mortimer kept reminding me of Merritt Tierces 2021 New York Times Essay – published decades later Daddy went hunting was written – and outlined what it had cost her to get pregnant at 19. “My personality was erased,” she wrote, “and rewritten MOTHER before I even knew who I was.”

Depriving women of the ability to choose when and if they become parents, the novel means depriving them of the ability to ever be or become an independent human being. In one chapter, Angela lies asleep while Mortimer sketches a surreal scene in which the teenager appears to be having a conversation with her subconscious:

How do I look? I mean who am I?

You are a test result, dear. Maybe an honors degree in time. try harder

But myself – I mean myself?

You may find yourself in the guides or somewhere in the New Testament. If not, we can provide various substitutes such as Joan of Arc, Florence Nightingale or Sister Cavell. It’s really none of our business, but we have a few heroines on hand just in case.

Angela’s unformed sense of self is reflected in the novel in Ruth’s infantile state. “For the first time in their history, women are becoming aware of an identity crisis in their own lives,” Friedan wrote in 1963, “a crisis that … will not end until she or her daughters turn an unknown corner and get away with themselves and their own.” Living the new image that so many women so desperately need now.” The moment, she argued, is “a turning point from an immaturity-turned-femininity to a full human identity.” As harsh as Mortimer’s exploration of motherhood is, there are discernible signs of change on the horizon. Angela doesn’t think for a moment about marrying her terrible boyfriend and keeping her baby like her mother did before her. When Ruth asks her if she wants to have an abortion, Angela is “stunned at how someone asks if they want to go on living”. Ruth can easily access a whisper network of women offering advice and recommendations: “There was an Irishman, Susan Raynes said he was a real angel,” a friend tells her. “Then Yvonne used to swear by a man somewhere in Chelsea.” She also has other recommendations: Epsom salts; “something to put on cotton wool”; Soap.

Even with the most awaited baby, the impersonation into motherhood is necessarily painful, a shedding of old needs, priorities, and desires accompanied by the primordial absorption of another soul, another physical body into oneself. “Bone from your bones, strange flesh from yours Meat,” Ruth thinks. “Not a hair, not a fingernail, not a speck of skin is like it was at the moment of birth, yet the aging body that was once a child is a part of you.” Ruth’s love for Angela is elemental and difficult. Still, she is driven to help Angela make the decision Ruth couldn’t make herself: the decision not to have the baby that would deny her a future where she would be anything but a mother.

https://www.theatlantic.com/books/archive/2022/05/penelope-mortimer-daddys-gone-a-hunting-abortion/629766/?utm_source=feed The catastrophe of unwanted motherhood

Jessica MacLeish

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