BOOK REVIEW / Getting to the hurt of the matter: About time too - by Penelope Mortimer: Weidenfeld pounds 16.99

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The Independent Culture
SOME MIGHT object that this book takes too naked a view of the marriage that John and Penelope Mortimer shared for 25 years, a matter he preferred to elide in his beguiling autobiography, Clinging to the Wreckage. It is part of Penelope's more brusque allure that she does not set out to charm, while John finds it difficult to stop, in both work and life. Penelope suggests this in order to belittle the victims of her ex-husband's charm, whom she quaintly calls 'dollies'. She is surgically catty about John breaking out in medallions when he tumbles for a dolly, or when he is with her successor, who is, confusingly, also called Penelope: 'Penny with cosmetic blush on each cheek and John marching about in boots being a gentleman landowner.' At the same time she records her own capitulation to this charm, and seems in some ways never to have escaped it. She had found her match in John Mortimer, and mourned the loss of the marriage even as she dubbed it

an addiction.

Penelope Mortimer's dark witchy beauty (much in evidence in the photographs) probably militated against her generous maternal instincts and cool, orderly ear for plain words. Deeper even than these deep traits lies the shame she feels about her emotional dismissal of the father who clumsily and persistently molested her. She wrote about him with exemplary scrupulousness in the first volume of her autobiography, About Time. In About Time Too, the complex saga of her relations with other men suggests a continuing compulsion not to be left alone. A future volume offers the rich prospect of Penelope Mortimer developing the present memoir's intriguing hints of remorse about her father, and writing of life after age has dimmed her sex appeal and men have ceased their interruptive clamour.

Penelope Mortimer's mother died aged 97, dismissive to the end of her daughter's writing, but never failing to offer stern support no matter how Penelope offended against convention. She died without losing definition, a character impermeable to nonsense, horrified by inhabiting the body of a little old lady. In her daughter, coltish at 75, a similar power is visible. The energy of this book's main characters assaults you. Mortimer plays with the children while writing plays during holidays from court and courtship. Penelope gives birth to two more children, vacuums, produces novels at the speed of dreams, deals with her own and her daughters' suitors, knocks movie moguls into shape. The extras are electric, too: Siriol Hugh-Jones, Bette Davis, Jean Marais, Dirk Bogarde. Hardly anyone escapes unscratched.

When the marriage died, there went with it not only an articulate shared privacy, but the daily drama of big-family life. When Penelope married John Mortimer, she had four daughters, two by her first husband, two by other lovers; Mortimer became the girls' most present father. The decampment of a stepfather may be the more painful in that the severance is more absolute.

One of the book's epigraphs is from Raymond Chandler: 'Scarcely anything in literature is worth a damn except what is written between the lines.' Between this book's lines may be discerned something of John Mortimer's lovableness - in spite of the surface scribble of condemnation. In a prose-style that falls like measured rain, not always soft or refreshing, About Time Too recalls what its author most loves: children, friends, work, a few places. She is most swiftly rescued by places, an apartment in New York empty as a cold beach, a cottage in the lee of a manor house in Oxfordshire, where she settles at the pastoral conclusion of this metropolitan book: 'I expected loneliness. Days, weeks, went by; I waited, but it didn't come . . . The future cleared, spread out in seasons.' Earlier, she describes her reliance upon telegrams: 'They came in brown envelopes, delivered by self-important uniformed lads on motorbikes. People afraid of direct confrontation, like myself, used them constantly.' About Time Too has the brittle elegance of a telegram from a place of pain.

(Photograph omitted)