Penelope Mortimer

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Penelope Mortimer
Penelope mortimer.jpg
Penelope Ruth Fletcher

(1918-09-19)19 September 1918
Flintshire, Wales
Died19 October 1999(1999-10-19) (aged 81)
Kensington, England
Spouse(s)Charles Dimont (1937–1949, divorce)
John Mortimer (1949–1971, divorce)
Children6, including Caroline and Jeremy

Penelope Ruth Mortimer (née Fletcher, 19 September 1918 – 19 October 1999) was a Welsh-born English journalist, biographer, and novelist. Her semi-autobiographical novel The Pumpkin Eater (1962) was turned into a 1964 filmAnne Bancroft was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actress for her performance as Jo Armitage, a character based on Mortimer herself.

Personal life[edit]

Mortimer was born Penelope Ruth Fletcher in Rhyl,[1] Flintshire (now Denbighshire), Wales, the younger daughter of Amy Caroline Fletcher and the Rev A. F. G. Fletcher,[2] an Anglican clergyman, who had lost his faith and used the parish magazine to celebrate Soviet persecution of the Russian church.[3] He abused her sexually.[3]

Mortimer later wrote of her father: "I think he was a clergyman for one reason only; there was nothing else – as Nellie Fletcher's second son – he could possibly have been! As a small boy, bullied and teased by six sisters and four brothers, he sat under the nursery table chanting 'Mama, papa, all the children are disagreeable except me', to the tune of Gentle Jesus'."[2]

Her father frequently changed his parish and she attended numerous schools. She was educated across the country, at Croydon High School, the New School, Streatham, Blencathra, Rhyl, Garden School, Lane End, St Elphin's School for Daughters of the Clergy, and the Central Educational Bureau for Women.[2] She left University College, London,[4] after one year.[3]

She married Charles Dimont, a journalist, in 1937[3] and they had two daughters,[3] including the actress Caroline Mortimer. She also had two daughters through extra-marital relationships with Kenneth Harrison and Randall Swingler.[5] She met the barrister and writer John Mortimer while pregnant with the last child and married him on 27 August 1949, the day her divorce from Dimont became absolute.[1][5] Together they had a daughter and a son, Jeremy Mortimer. Their relationship, said to have been happy at first, soon grew stormy[1], and from the mid-1950s onward John had a series of extramarital affairs.[5]

In the 1950s and 1960s the couple were frequently photographed at London high society events.[5][6] However, behind this façade, Penelope had frequent bouts of depression. In 1962, the same year The Pumpkin Eater was written, pregnant for the eighth time and already a mother of six at age 42, she agreed to an abortion and sterilisation at John Mortimer's urging.[1][5] She is said to have been happy with the decision, but during her convalescence, discovered her husband's affair with Wendy Craig, by whom he had a son.[5] They divorced in 1971.[5]


Mortimer wrote over a dozen novels during her career, focusing on upper middle-class life in British society.[6] She had one novel, Johanna, published under the name Penelope Dimont.[5] Then as Penelope Mortimer she wrote A Villa in Summer (1954, Michael Joseph), which received critical acclaim. More novels followed, including Daddy's Gone A-Hunting (1958, republished in 2008 by Persephone Books) and The Pumpkin Eater (1962), which dealt with a troubled marriage and had success as a film released in 1964 starring Anne Bancroft.

Mortimer also worked freelance as a journalist, her work and stories appearing regularly in The New Yorker.[5] As an agony aunt for the Daily Mail, she wrote under the pseudonym Ann Temple. In the late 1960s, she replaced Penelope Gilliatt as film critic for The Observer.

Mortimer continued in journalism, mainly for The Sunday Times, and also wrote screenplays. Her biography of the Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother was commissioned by Macmillan, but when completed it was rejected, and eventually published by Viking in 1986. Her former agent Giles Gordon, in his obituary of her in The Guardian, called it "the most astute biography of a royal since Lytton Strachey was at work. Penelope had approached her subject as somebody in the public eye, whose career might as well be recorded as if she were a normal human being."[4]

Mortimer wrote two volumes of autobiography: About Time: An Aspect of Autobiography, covering her life until 1939, appeared in 1979 and won the Whitbread Prize, and About Time Too: 1940–1978 in 1993. A third volume, Closing Time, remains unpublished.[4]


Penelope Mortimer died from cancer in Kensington, London, at the age of 81.[7]



  • Johanna (1947, as Penelope Dimont)
  • A Villa in Summer (1954)
  • The Bright Prison (1956)
  • Daddy's Gone A-Hunting (1958)
  • The Pumpkin Eater (1962)
  • My Friend Says It's Bulletproof (1968)
  • The Home (1971)
  • Long Distance (1974)
  • The Handyman (1983)

Short story collections[edit]

  • Saturday Lunch with the Brownings (1977)
  • Humphrey's Mother


  • About Time: An Aspect of Autobiography (1979)
  • About Time Too: 1940–78 (1993)


  • Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother (1986), revised edition 1995 subtitled An Alternative Portrait Of Her Life And Times

Travel writing[edit]



  1. ^ a b c d Cooke, Rachel (28 June 2015). "Penelope Mortimer – return of the original angry young woman". The Guardian. Retrieved 11 June 2018.
  2. ^ a b c Gordon, Giles (22 October 1999). "Penelope Mortimer". The Guardian. Retrieved 11 June 2018.
  3. ^ a b c d e Peter Guttridge, Anna Pavord "Obituary: Penelope Mortimer", The Independent, 23 October 1999, as reproduced on Find Articles website
  4. ^ a b c Giles Gordon "Obituary:Penelope Mortimer", The Guardian, 22 October 1999. Retrieved on 17 January 2009.
  5. ^ a b c d e f g h i Scholes, Lucy (2 December 2018). "Penelope Mortimer: A Writing Life". The New York Review of Books. Retrieved 2 December 2018.
  6. ^ a b Honan, William H. (23 October 1999). "Penelope Mortimer, 81, Author of 'Pumpkin Eater'". Retrieved 11 June 2018.
  7. ^ "Deaths England and Wales 1984–2006". Retrieved 11 June 2018.
  8. ^ "Bunny Lake Is Missing". 3 October 1965. Retrieved 11 June 2018.

External links[edit]