Penelope Mortimer; Author of 'The Pumpkin Eater'

TIMES STAFF WRITER

British novelist Penelope Mortimer was fond of this quote from Raymond Chandler: "Scarcely anything in literature is worth a damn except what is written between the lines."

Almost audible between the lines of Mortimer's nine sparely written novels about lonely women trapped in domestic nightmares were the trials and traumas of her own colorful life.

Mortimer, who died of cancer in London at age 81 on Tuesday, had a tortured childhood and a tense adulthood: She was sexually abused by her father and had a remote mother. She had six children by four men, attempted suicide and had lung cancer.

One of England's most respected novelists, she was best known for her 1962 work "The Pumpkin Eater," a disturbing story about a woman whose compulsion to bear children gradually isolates her from her successive husbands.

She also wrote two autobiographies, the second of which contained a scathing account of her troubled 23-year marriage to English barrister and "Rumpole of the Bailey" author John Mortimer. That 1993 volume so distressed her children that she said afterward she could not write anymore. It was the last of the 11 novels and nonfiction books she authored over a 50-year career that also included screenplays, short stories and book reviews.

Born in Wales in 1918, Mortimer described in her writings a tortured childhood in which she never learned to play or make friends. Her mother was a lonely and uncommunicative woman who "lacked every maternal quality except faith in regular meals."

Her father was a loose cannon in the Church of England, a parson who questioned his faith and once defended Soviet persecution of the church in the parish magazine.

Not surprisingly, he frequently was asked to change parishes. Mortimer wound up attending seven schools while growing up.

When she was 17, he tried to rape her. Much later, reflecting on her many sexual liaisons as an adult, she said, "I was so grateful to anybody who loved me, that was the least I could do. I had a great longing to be loved."

Her first novel, "Johanna," was published in 1947 under the name Penelope Dimont. Its exploration of marital angst would continue in the novels that followed, including "A Villa in Summer" (1955), which depicted the decay and breakdown of a marriage. Other novels she wrote in the 1950s included "The Bright Prison" and "Daddy's Gone A-Hunting."

She was most acclaimed for "The Pumpkin Eater," her fifth novel. It was adapted by playwright Harold Pinter for a well-received 1964 movie that starred Anne Bancroft and Peter Finch.

During that period of the 1960s, Mortimer and her husband, John, were one of London's most fashionable and radical couples. She often appeared in black leather with a cigarette dangling between her fingers. During this period she also worked as a book reviewer for the Times of London, published short stories in the New Yorker and succeeded Penelope Gilliatt as film critic of the Observer of London.

Toward the end of the Mortimers' destructive union, marred by frequent infidelities on both sides, Penelope Mortimer wrote "The Home," published in 1971, about a woman who struggles to come to terms with herself and her adult children after the end of an unfulfilling two-decade marriage.

In her second autobiography, Mortimer portrayed her longtime husband as callous and compulsively unfaithful. After they divorced in 1972, John Mortimer married a much younger woman, also named Penelope, and would sometimes refer to his wives as Penny One and Penny Two.

Two more novels followed: "Long Distance" in 1974 and "The Handyman" in 1985. In the latter book, Penelope Mortimer later acknowledged, she came closest to drawing a self-portrait in a character named Rebecca.

"That's the only time I've ever described myself. She's anti-social, impatient, intolerant, always has black fingernails and grubby jeans, is impossible to live with, and a bad mother with a heart of pure mush."

Most of her novels won critical praise. The first volume of her autobiography, "About Time: An Aspect of Autobiography," won the Whitbread Prize in 1979.

Mortimer also was the author of an unflattering--and thus, for its time, unconventional--biography of the top British royal, the Queen Mother, in 1986.

In "Queen Elizabeth: A Portrait of the Queen Mother," she called the queen mum "the greatest sex symbol the royal family has ever known." It offended many, including the publisher who commissioned it, Macmillan, which rejected the manuscript. It was eventually published by Viking.

In her last years, Mortimer grew bleak and withdrew to her house with its gloriously overgrown garden in the back streets of London, unable to enjoy visits with the children and grandchildren who lived in the same neighborhood.

She said she did not fear death; she had defiantly resumed smoking within months of having half her lung removed. But she did fear dying. "One dreads," she once confided in a typically tart and self-deprecating interview, "the relentlessness of getting older and going gaga."

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