PENELOPE MORTIMER, novelist, teacher and scriptwriter, is best known of her portrait of the compulsive childbearer in The Pumpkin Eater. About Time is a memoir of her childhood in England between the wars, a childhood spent moving restlessly from place to place. She re-creates not with facts, figures, photographs and yellowed correspondence, but with impressions, half-remembered suffering, flashes of joy. These are woven together into a powerful evocation of the young girl who would grow into the creator of the all-encompassing femal figures dominant in Mortimer's fiction.
Peggy Fletcher, as she then was, had in many ways a tortured childhood, but the immediacy of the pain has faded with the years, and is further softened here by the balm of gentle irony. The author approaches her memories with a spirit almost of curiosity, finding only intermittently a still sensitive spot, an exposed nerve.
Without this distance About Time would be unbearably grim. The Reverend Arthur Fletcher, Mortimer's father, was a passionately erratic, undisciplined man, a victim of his own enormous energies. Time has diffused Mortimer's hatred: "If I try to evoke him, he comes in fits and starts, like a poorly received spirit," she writes. At the core of the discord in the Fletcher household, the mature Mortimer now deduces, was sex, warped and frustrated by the conventions and pressures of an era of moral transition as radical in its changes as our own. The marriage as she views it never had any chance of success: "He sat on the edge of her bed and talked for hours about spiritual passion, and then he raped her. Not, course, that he knew what else to do; neither did she." His wife's inevitable revulsion drove him into the arms of the occasional governess. It also drove him to molest his adolescent daughter, a trauma that she now reflects on with amazing equanimity. She feels that her father was a casualty of enlightenment: "He was constantly being told that sex was a great and glorious experience that could even be enjoyed by middle-class ladies: but he was a clergyman with a frigid wife, so how could he find out?"
Despite a hard-won understanding of her overweight, muddle-headed father, Mortimer's most profound sympathies obviously lie with her mute, lonely mother, who was denied even the luxury of complaint by her self-imposed reserve. "Nobody, except my father, ever said or wrote what they really felt; it would have been bad taste and, equally horrifying, 'inconsiderate.'" Attempts at communication proved abortive throughout Mortimer's childhood. Looking back she gently regrets each lost opportunity and sees many might-have-beens.
By the conclusion of this memoir, Peggy Fletcher has met an acceptable man and can find no compelling reason not to marry him. While they are honeymooning in respectable lodgings at the seaside, her mother comes alone to London and performs a silent labor of love. "My mother had completely transformed the dingy, dirty flat. She must have spent at least a week . . . on her hands and knees, scrubbing. There were a dozen comforts, and indispensable objects like tea towels, wooden spoons, teapots, saucepans. . . . Such hard labor, in a strange flat, alone in stranger London, may have been her form of crying."
And what of the child of this ill-assorted, politely tragic couple? She sees herself as unattractive, "a child with tempestuous nature, heavy spectacles, and a chronic cold in the head," isolated by general poverty and her father's erratic ideologies from the respectable social and spiritual haven of the Church of England. Rather predictably, the Reverend Fletcher was often asked to find another parish. Communism enchanted him briefly. "Christ, he argued [in the parish magazine!] was the first communist. . . . He himself would be the first to turn St. Peter's, Thornton Heath, into a museum or cinema or even garage." The family moved on yet again. Peggy survived - as children will - moving in and out of schools, good and bad, energetically versifying her sorrows.
Mortimer is a harsh critic of her youthful writing, quoting some early poetry in self-mockery. But the adolescent scribbler has grown into a precise and poignant writer. She identifies, almost in passing, one of the secrets of her excellence: "I realized that the most important thing about reading is recognition - yes, yes, that's exactly how it was." Mr own childhood in respectable rural England a few decades later (change comes blessedly slowly there even in this accelerated century) brings that gasp of recognition, the knowledge that she is telling us exactly how it was. She was "the pharmacist's window with the beautiful carboys of green and red and blue water," and I remember in a flash the stately glass jars in my own father's pharmacy and the day a careless assistant broke one and sickly green liquid flooded the entire window display. Mortimer catches the very dust in the air of those long-departed provincial department stores. "Emporiums," she calls them, "where all the ladies seemed to look vaguely like Virginia Woolf and were perhaps wracked with the same genteel passions."
Penelope Mortimer is wise and perceptive. She has captured and set down here many of the emotions and events that permeate her fiction. At the conclusion of this "aspect of autobiography" one is left hoping very much for another to carry us into her life as a novelist, wife and mother of six. We have much left to learn.