This book was originally published in 1958, but it’s a story we should all revisit. Not that Daddy’s Gone A-Hunting is peerless prose or a wild tale of derring-do. It is neither. Rather, this book is a glimpse of a place in time where men and women were on the edge of massive, generational change.
The approaching transition was from the cosy but fragile reality of the traditional, nuclear family to something much edgier. In this new something people divorced without stigma, lived together without being married and sat on each other’s laps in public. Women were on the verge of all the freedoms that sheer tights, short skirts and the contraceptive pill conferred. They were ready to turn away from conventional social constrictions and personal repression, towards something much more dangerous and risky.
But in 1958 that was all yet to come. Postwar 1950s Britain was still a seriously limited world, a world where rationing hadn’t finished until 1954 and where Hitler’s ghost still cast a long and menacing shadow. People were subdued and passive, locked in the same class cage as before the war. With Naziism defeated the only war they faced was the Cold War, something too abstractly horrific to truly get their heads around. In this fifties world people clung to traditional roles, to old and dessicated habits because anything different or new was too terrifying. The thought of any kind of upheaval or change was direct trauma.
For most people, ideas that there could be alternatives to pre-war expectations, to new freedoms and roles, had an irrational power to instill fear. It was just too much to think about. Read the novels of Kingsley Amis and the poetry of Philip Larkin and amidst the brilliance you read a celebration of the ordinary and the pre-war status quo. Popular stories, novels and plays were about the quotidien, the unquestionable joys of the steady and reliable British routine. And we had a burgeoning of fantasies and escapism like The Borrowers and the Lord of the Rings presenting alternative safe presentations of struggle and triumph, to replace the horrors of war that had been on the doorstep.
Daddy’s Gone A-Hunting does none of this, but it does challenge the cosiness of the ordinary lives people were encouraged to live and any escapist fantasies they might have had. The decade was marked by economic growth and technological advance. Economic growth made the life of a housewife more exciting because she could shop at will for household appliances and stuff for herself and her family. Technology made life more convenient; television added scope for idle entertainment. But such advances also encouraged people, especially women, to question shifting individual expectations. They wanted to better understand what it means to have a fulfilled life and how to go about having one.
Penelope Mortimer’s Daddy’s Gone A-Hunting is clearly drawn from her own life’s experience as a wife, mother and housewife, and of her own frustrated intellect. In sparse and economical prose she presents a middle-class, white family living in what would once have been described as the stockbroker belt. Ruth and Max Whiting have three children, two pre-teen boys who go to boarding school and an older daughter in her first year at Oxford. An unplanned but approaching birth is the reason for the daughter’s parent’s marriage in the first place, although Angela doesn’t know this. Angela thinks she’s in love and then she too falls pregnant. The young man in question is a carbon copy of her father at about the same age and situation in life.
Abortion wasn’t an option for Ruth and Max, but it has become unquestionably possible for Angela and Tony, even though it’s still illegal. This odious young man has contrived a personna of male authority, hiding his selfish and sleazy character without even a smidge of awareness that he is doing so. He has no moral compass, no sympathy for his girlfriend, no question of any response other than minimising his culpability. All this is carefully hidden behind a mimicry of traditional expectations of male behaviour, bluster and the puerile affectations of youth. That he wants to live up to the responsibility for getting himself and Angela out of a dreadful situation is fine in theory. But as he acts out the part, he lacks the moral courage or even the slenderest shred of nerve to face the horror of the proposed solution. Or its cost. In this regard perhaps not much has changed since the fifties.
But Ruth has been there before and can understand what needs doing, although how to do it is a harder problem. Her daughter’s child, although it will be aborted, becomes fictionalised in Ruth’s imagination. These imaginings are proxies for Ruth’s own future, although she wants to believe that the child will never be born. Daddy’s Gone A-Hunting takes its name from the nursery rhyme which plays on a tiny music box, Ruth has bought for a neighbour’s little girl. She decides to keep it and it becomes a talisman, a reference throughout the novel for Ruth’s need for something reliable and consistent. A bit like how women are these days with their mobile ’phones, the music box gives her something tangible, a reference point. It’s a reminder to keep her feet on the planet. Solving the pregnancy problem for Angela and imagining her unborn child’s fictitious life, together jolt Ruth forwards so she appears to slowly move away from her own nervous collapse.
Nervous collapse was hidden too in the fifties, just like abortion, poverty, failure, affairs. Many of these are still hidden along with anything else that could be considered embarrassing or in need of response. But people today have far higher trust that their frailties might be accepted, their expectations realised. They have far more routes and support for resolutions and towards achieving their goals. Opportunities to express oneself through words, images, sound and any other form of narrative one might think of abound. The internet fuels a perennial explosion of ideas, expressions and opinions, reverberating endlessly, every moment of every day. Central to this inexhaustible supply of content is an obsession with self and individual identity, with the desperate need to express a unique persona and universal validity. Daddy’s Gone A-Hunting is a reminder that such luxuries are relatively new for most ordinary people and especially that they have been very, very hard won. We, men, women and other, have travelled a massive journey and Daddy’s Gone A-Hunting shows us a tiny bend in a very long road. That’s why we should read this book again.