The Pumpkin Eater is a semi-autobiographical black comedy about family and love in 60s Britain. Our nameless heroine speaks, at first from a therapist’s couch about her life, her depression and the betrayals she’s suffered. 

Here is the opening of the book, new to Penguin Modern Classics. 

‘Well,’ I said, ‘I will try. I honestly will try to be honest with you, although I suppose really what you’re more interested in is my not being honest, if you see what I mean.’

The doctor smiled slightly.

‘When I was a child my mother had a wool drawer. It was the bottom drawer in a chest in the dining-room and she kept every scrap of wool she had in it. You know, bits from years ago, jumpers she’d knitted me when I was two. Some of the bits were only a few inches long. Well, this drawer was filled with wool, all colours, and whenever it was a wet afternoon she used to make me tidy her wool drawer. It’s perfectly obvious why I tell you this. There was no point in tidying the drawer. The wool was quite useless. You couldn’t have knitted a tea-cosy out of that wool, I mean without enormous patience. She just made me sort it out for something to do, like they make prisoners dig holes and fill them up again. You do see what I mean, don’t you?’

‘You would like to be something useful,’ he said sadly. ‘Like a tea-cosy.’

‘It can’t be as easy as that.’

‘Oh no. It’s not at all easy. But there are other things you can make from wool.’

‘Such as?’

‘Hot water bottle covers,’ he said promptly.

‘We don’t use hot water bottles. Balls you can make, for babies. Or small golliwogs.’

‘The point you are trying to make is that tidying the wool is a useless and probably impossible task?’


‘But you are a human being. The consequences of your . . . muddle are more grave. The comparison, you see, is not a true one.’

‘Well, it’s how it feels to me,’ I said.

‘When you cry, is that how it feels? Hopeless?’

‘I just want to open my mouth and cry. I want to cry, and not think.’

‘But you can’t cry for the rest of your life.’


‘You can’t worry for the rest of your life.’


‘What do you worry about, Mrs Armitage?’

‘Dust,’ I said.

‘I’m sorry?’

‘Dust. You know? Dust.’

The Pumpkin EaterExtract taken from The Pumpkin Eater, Penelope Mortimer (Penguin Modern Classics). 

A BBC Radio 4 dramatisation will begin on August 3rd at 10.45 and run throughout the week.

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