New Welsh Review

Questions of Identity

Sarah Broughton says it's time to claim Penelope Mortimer for Wales

PUBLISHED ON: 13/11/09


TAGS: Anna Kashfi, Penelope Mortimer, biography, conflicted identity, fame, identity

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I’m writing a biography of a woman routinely described as Welsh and sometimes, more specifically, Cardiff – as in ‘Cardiff girl’, ‘Cardiff actress’ etc. To be fair, she has also, occasionally, been described as Irish – but my point is, she is rarely identified by the nationality she actually holds. She is now seventy-five years old and a full sixty-nine of those years have been spent outside Wales – including the first fourteen of her life. This makes me think long and hard about what qualifies you (aside of the Vinnie Jones rule) to be claimed as Welsh.

For instance, at the other end of the spectrum is the distinguished writer Penelope Mortimer who was born in Rhyl, yet doesn’t merit an entry in either the New Companion to the Literature of Wales or in the Welsh Academy Encyclopedia of Wales. She does, however, make the following appearance in the Oxford Companion to English Literature: ‘MORTIMER, Penelope Ruth, nee Fletcher (1918…) novelist, born in North Wales and educated at London University; her works, with their emphasis on frankness about female experience, contributed to the development of the woman’s novel in the 1960s.’

Her career as a writer was actually far broader than this entry suggests; as well as publishing nine novels, a collection of short stories, two volumes of autobiography, a travel book and (bizarrely) a biography of the Queen Mother, she was also film critic for the Observer, an Agony Aunt for the Daily Mail and adapted Nigel Nicholson’s Portrait of A Marriage for the BBC in 1990. With her then husband, John Mortimer, she wrote the screenplay for the Otto Preminger film Bunny Lake is Missing and, in 1974, the New Yorker serialised her novel Long Distance in its entirety – the first time they had done so since JD Salinger’s Raise High The Roofbeam, Carpenters and Seymour: An Introduction a decade earlier. Hard to know then, given all that, why she has been wiped from the Welsh literary canon…

She, of course, may not have identified herself as ‘Welsh’ and she certainly didn’t set any of her novels here. She did, however, write about her childhood in Rhyl and the clergyman father who had lost his faith and used the parish magazine to celebrate the Soviet persecution of the Russian church. She also wrote about the universal experiences of women in the post-war world of illegal abortions, illicit affairs and paralysing marriages – experiences which were as familiar to Welsh women as they were to their English and Scottish counterparts. It’s ten years ago last month since Mortimer died – time perhaps to acknowledge her existence?