‘The Home’ by Penelope Mortimer is about the internal struggles of a woman to build a home for her family in the aftermath of the breakup of a 25 year old marriage. Under the scrutiny of her grown up children, elderly mother and mother in law, Eleanor desperately grapples to come to terms with her new life – a life strangely bereft of any kind of emotional support. This novel is reflective of the early 1970’s, when separation sometimes left a dependant woman, unable to earn a living or fend for herself and in this particular instance, unable to reconcile herself to a life without a husband, even if he was unfaithful.
The novel starts with Eleanor and her youngest son moving out of their current home to live in a house, provided by her husband in the London neighbourhood of St John’s Wood. Leaving nothing but a few bits of furniture – Eleanor tries to create a home in the empty newness of a large house. Her husband Graham, is a successful doctor, treating his innumerable rich patients and attending to their varied levels of neuroses with different drugs. Graham, a serial adulterer leaves his marriage of 25 years, five children and wife Eleanor, for a much more youthful version of Eleanor – a young girl called Nell (they even have the same name) Partwhistle. Most of the children are adults and have flown away from the parental nest, there is only one teenage son, Phillip who spends most of his time at boarding school.
Unable to reconcile herself to her single fate, Eleanor meets old flames in hopes of rekindling relationships and even harbours wild romantic dreams of dating men who have paid her attention in the past. None of these men are right for her, in fact in an embarrassing turn of events, an old lover starts sleeping with one of her daughters. The romantic heroes of her dreams fail to keep their dates. Even when Eleanor goes on a date with the father of one of her son’s classmates, she feels a strange emotional disconnect with her sexual self and can only think of Graham, her husband.
Eleanor’s helplessness, her adult children’s level of self-absorption and her youngest son’s decision to run away and join a group of revolutionaries in a far off land feels like the ultimate betrayal. Eleanor is forced to rethink the meaning of home and what it means to her.
‘Home’ is a beautifully written, absorbing and often heart wrenching portrayal of a defeated woman. A woman who nobody cares about. A woman for whom independence, self-worth and ‘home’ seem like empty words – when all she wants at the end of the day is her husband, even if he has never been true to her. One does question Eleanor’s behavior and attitude during the course of the novel. Does she choose to ignore her husband’s serial infidelities in order to live a comfortable life at home? But we find that Eleanor doesn’t find money a major motivator in life. When Graham fails to send her money when her funds run short, she’s not angry or up in arms. She’s merely very bewildered because she has no clue how to manage financial needs and wants. At the heart of the matter, she wants to fill the emptiness of a single life, and for her Graham is still the person who can do that for her.
Achingly sad and beautifully written, ‘The Home’ examines the meaning of home in a context from the past, but which I am sure will resonate with women, even today.
Thank you to the British Library for the press copy for review and for always providing fresh food for thought.