The Pumpkin Eater
By Penelope Mortimer
NYRB Classic, The New York Review of Books, 2011
Originally published, 1962
The Bell Jar
By Sylvia Plath
Harper, Reprint Edition 2015
Originally published, 1963
The sixties seem to be having a moment. After all, it is fifty years since that fatal year of 1968, when students all over the world rebelled. They’d had it up to here with call-ups for The Vietnam War, with parents who seemed to live in the dark ages, with college parietal rules, with laws that acted like scolds. The right to use contraception was not recognized by the US Supreme Court until 1965 – and then only for married couples. Women could not apply for a credit card without a male guarantor. Abortion was illegal.
When I told a young man I know about these restrictions, particularly on women, he was aghast. “It sounds like Saudi Arabia,” he said. Indeed. The times, they needed a-changin’. My work in progress begins in that energetic, crazy, and hopeful time. I’ve been reading a lot to research the period. I’m not up to that era quite yet. The books I have been reading lately are about the first half of the sixties. It was an entirely different time, it seems, from the public turmoil of the second half.
But the turmoil was there, seething away inside, for women. This is the take-away from each of these books. When I saw the 1964 movie, The Pumpkin Eater I was shocked, absolutely astonished, at the subject matter. The movie starred Anne Bancroft, who played a woman who, pregnant again for the umpteenth time, was persuaded by her husband and her mother to have an abortion. This was apparently legal at the time in England, where the movie was set, but illegal elsewhere, and the mere word was unmentionable in polite discourse. The movie followed the book almost exactly, and the book, according to its author, followed her own life almost exactly. The events “are all true…all real”, she said in her afterword. Tellingly, the number of children the author/writer had is never exactly spelled out, and only one, Dinah, is given a name. This is a portrait of a woman in the midst of what used to be called a nervous breakdown. And most interestingly, everyone, including her husband, her mother and her psychiatrist, blames “Mrs. Armitage”, the protagonist, for her pregnancies. As if she created them on her own.
The Bell Jar is a semi-autobiographical novel by the Boston-born poet, Sylvia Plath. The story starts with the protagonist Esther Greenwood’s internship at a New York women’s magazine. If it has the ring of truth, that’s because Sylvia Plath began her literary career here. The first half of the book is lively and very funny. The second is darker, chronicling the protagonist’s descent into depression, the suffocating bell jar of the title. It’s tragic in that one knows Plath’s ending. She took her own life in 1963, when she was the mother of toddlers, felt trapped, and was resentful of her estranged poet husband. The extraordinary gift of this novel is its immediacy, allowing the reader to actually feel how it is to become suicidal. While the book was published in January 1963 (Plath died a month after its publication) it is set ten years earlier. There is a prescient paragraph in the early part of the book when the editor of the magazine to which Esther is apprenticed laments the difficulty that faces her when she must have lunch with two writers. The magazine had bought six stories from the man, only one from the woman. The implication is that the nineteen-year-old Esther knew that both were equally talented.
The theme uniting these two books is that both authors were professionally very successful, with Sylvia Plath achieving world-wide fame. But both were defined in their own minds and the minds of others as mired in domestic difficulties, difficulties their husbands, who were also writers, did not recognize, let alone acknowledge.
I leave political commentary to others. But these two books made me realize that the efforts of our very slightly later generation to enhance the rights of women did reach fruition, even if many obstacles to equality remain. The societal changes of the sixties and later enabled so many of us to lead more fulfilling lives.
In this present moment, we must not let these gains slip away.