Isolated Domesticity: A Review of Daddy’s Gone A-Hunting by Penelope Mortimer

By: Anna Maltbie

One definition of insanity, often attributed to Einstein, is performing the same action over and over and expecting different results. What else can everyday domestic activities be, then, but a descent into insanity?

Daddy’s Gone A-Hunting, written by Penelope Mortimer,was released in 2008 by Persephone Books as their 77th novel. The independent publisher aims to celebrate forgotten female creativity by reprinting books predominantly written by women authors from the mid-twentieth century before female voices were beginning to truly be heard. Although Daddy’s Gone A-Hunting isn’t a light, entertaining read like their most popular bestseller, Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, Mortimer’s novel fits particularly well with the publisher’s goal to depict the situation of women during this time. It presents a realistic portrayal as opposed to a potentially entertaining exaggeration of a housewife’s experiences. The book follows the monotonous existence of a married woman living in a community of similarly positioned wives who must entertain themselves while their children are away at boarding school and their husbands are at work in the city. Weeks living with no one else, a life so isolating it could quite literally drive a woman insane, as the protagonist discovers.

Ruth Whiting is trapped in a loveless marriage that resembles “a long war in which attack, if not happening, was always imminent” (9). After eighteen years and three children, Ruth is living in an affluent neighborhood, the Common, as one of many housewives left to tend the home while their families are away. The wives are all “like little icebergs,” only showing a happy, bright surface while concealing their true selves under the surface (33). The Common is likened to a prison by Ruth. There, she is isolated in her home and confined to a repetitive existence, “months of anguish and boredom” in domestic seclusion (7).

Ruth narrates her own descent into alcohol and insanity at the beginning of the novel, aware of her deteriorating state and how visible it is to her family and neighbors but unable to seek proper help. A doctor and a live-in nurse are hired to care for her, but they diminish her depression to “this little affair of yours” and provide no help (68). She builds fantasies to distract from “unvarying days,” indulging in self-deception to pass the time as she grows older and remains unchanged (9). Ruth has trained herself to ignore unpleasant facts of life.

The expectations of women in the 1950’s when this book was originally published adhere closely to the life Ruth suffers. Confined to the home, women were expected to handle domestic affairs and rear children. Ruth is trapped by her gender, social class, and era to an unsatisfying existence; she is intelligent enough to recognize the pointless repetition of her life but unable to find a way to escape the limitations society has placed on her. However, a woman’s role began to change during this period as feminism started to spread. This ideological shift is apparent in Ruth’s daughter, Angela.

An Oxford University student, Angela is described as intelligent even as the expectation of marriage is still present from her father and the neighbors. The main conflict in the novel centers on generational difference. Angela’s situation mirrors her mother’s; Angela is the same age as Ruth was when she faced these domestic issues. However, Angela takes action to change her fate while Ruth passively followed her father’s demands. Angela acts as a foil to Ruth in her decision to preserve the life she wants rather than conform to societal expectations. She also represents a generational gap as ideas about gender equality that weren’t present during Ruth’s youth enter British society.

Recognizing that her daughter needs her, Ruth pulls herself out of her depression. Her actions are driven by a need to help her daughter escape the fate Ruth currently lives. Despite the effort Ruth goes to and her success in helping her daughter, Angela ultimately leaves to move on with her life and Ruth is left unable to share her “belated love, a small, painfully achieved humanity” with her daughter (239). The inability of Ruth and Angela to connect and bond is due to a failure to communicate with one another. The writing style reveals the characters’ thoughts and feelings that are never spoken aloud in a third-person omniscient point of view that focuses on Ruth but extends to all the characters throughout the novel. This at times uncomfortably intimate perspective highlights how the social environment these characters occupy dissuades them from honest conversation. Ruth is part of a community of women who must meet strict expectations of appearance, manner, and attitude while Angela actively rebels against such uniformity and categorization. She strives for independence in a way Ruth was unable to even identify as a possibility.

The novel begins with Ruth sending her sons Julian and Mike off to school and then going shopping. Sequestered from the outside world in this private system of privilege with no demand for her contribution, Ruth’s only way to occupy her time is to shop, the packages she purchases “her guarantee for the future” (6). The ritualistic unboxing and sorting and storing of items she doesn’t need gives her purpose in an otherwise empty life. By the end of the novel, Ruth is again unloading parcels from her car; the fulfillment she found in helping her daughter is gone, leaving a void she once more fills with unnecessary purchases. Her existence remains repetitive and dull as shown by this reoccurring scene in the beginning and ending of the novel.

Ruth’s reliance on shopping to fill empty hours and an empty house is reflected in today’s focus on consumerism and the ideology of buying happiness. Until recently, women were most commonly placed in the role of consumer as it was assumed the wife would take on the domestic responsibilities of maintaining the house and will therefore make the most purchases. In Mortimer’s novel, Ruth and the other wives living in the neighborhood have nothing else to do but shop and maintain the house, bringing to life this placement of women now considered outdated in a text that will horrify and fascinate readers. Ruth’s excuses to leave the home in search of help for Angela all center on going to London to buy Christmas presents; even when actively going against the mold she is placed in, Ruth must do so by following the expected narrative of the housewife consumer.

Persephone Books has successfully cultivated a recognizable brand by sleeving their books in uniform grey covers and pricing each at £13; yet, all of their releases are unique in content. They publish a wide range from cookbooks to non-fiction. The specialized artwork that decorates the inside of the front and back covers and a personalized bookmark further differentiates each book from the next and highlights the tone or other aspects of the novel. The artwork for Daddy’s Gone A-Hunting—a women alone in the frame, dressed in yellow and dark blue and green, colors that merge with those of the background until she is nearly indistinguishable—reflects how insignificant Ruth finds her own existence. The picture is surrounded by a white border, trapping the woman in her small, isolated section. This visual representation summarizes the novel for potential readers perhaps better than a synopsis or excerpt. Persephone Books is dedicated to reviving lost works and giving a voice to the struggles of women before, during, and following the Second World War; this novelis one of many examples of their success.

Stories like Daddy’s Gone A-Hunting are important to inform readers of how generations of women were once treated; ignored, pitied, and domesticated. The wives of the Common are brilliant individuals in their own right and, “combined, their energy could start a revolution;” yet, there is never any movement of these women (34). This wasted potential suggests that perhaps the true source of domestic insanity lies not in the repetitive motions themselves, but the society that forces women into this mold. The circular nature of the book, the return to conformity at the end, encourages readers to consider how we can break similar often unacknowledged and potentially harmful patterns in our own society.