By LAURA FREEMAN
“It’ll be alright”, says Mrs Armitage in Penelope Mortimer’s novel The Pumpkin Eater. “I promise you. You’ll like it when it’s born, you always do, perhaps it’ll be a boy, you haven’t got anything like enough boys . . . One more won’t make any difference, I promise you it won’t.”
Mrs Armitage, pregnant for the umpteenth time, is pleading with her husband Jake to be happy about her news. It is never quite clear how many children she has accumulated from her four marriages. They are variously a “brood”, an “army”, a “bodyguard”, and a “bloody houseful”. Her father fears she’ll come “trailing home with half a dozen more in five years' time”. Mrs Armitage wants desperately, obsessively to have another; Jake does not.
The novel was first published in 1962 and is reissued this month as a Penguin Modern Classic. A radio adaptation will be broadcast on BBC Radio 4 next month, with Helen McCrory as Mrs Armitage. So what will it mean to people discovering it now? Is it a period piece or a fiction of enduring relevance?