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The imperfect life of Rumpole's creator

A Voyage Round John Mortimer A Biography of the Creator of Rumpole of the Bailey Valerie Grove Viking: 542 pp. $27.95

June 25, 2008|Tim Rutten | Times Staff Writer

EMOTIONALLY, William Butler Yeats was a 19th century man, and so his famous dictum that the creative soul must seek "perfection in the life or in the work" once seemed not only practical but also wise.

What would the arch-poet have made, one wonders, of that particularly 20th century sort of artist for whom the bitter chaos of a decidedly imperfect life is the stuff of which the whole work is made? Superb snob that he was, Yeats might well have recognized the inevitability of such an art in an era in which aristocracy and peasantry/proletariat were pushed to history's margins and the sensibility of the self-absorbed upper middle classes emerged triumphant -- at least in the West.

Such thoughts circle rather naturally around Valerie Grove's loosely jointed but engrossing biography of the British author and literary celebrity John Mortimer. Now 85, Mortimer is best known to American readers and public television viewers as the creator of Horace Rumpole, the indomitable Old Bailey hack, the very soul of every English barrister or American lawyer who ever has gloried in the honorific "counsel for the defense." Real Mortimer fans also will recall his two superb novel-length comedies of manners -- "Paradise Postponed" and "Titmuss Regained" -- which eviscerated the popular conservatism of the Thatcher/Reagan era.

In Britain, Mortimer is one of those self-willed characters who has passed into national treasure status. Since the 1950s, though, he's been one of the country's most recognized literary personalities -- a celebrated playwright (accounted part of the "new wave" with John Osborne and Harold Pinter), a novelist, screenwriter, liberal political commentator (he long has reveled in the "Champagne socialist" label) and acclaimed memoirist, as well as barrister, who has won a succession of important free speech and civil rights cases. (He once defended the Sex Pistols' right to use "bollocks" on an album cover.) Along the way, he has fathered five children with two wives and a mistress and played stepfather to three more.

Grove's biography does a dogged job of locating the origins of all this frenetic creativity -- of both sorts -- in Mortimer's tumultuous personal life: first in his deeply but burdensomely affectionate relationship with his father, a celebrated probate and divorce attorney who carried on his practice even after going blind in middle age, then in Mortimer's tormented 22-year marriage to novelist Penelope Fletcher Mortimer, best known for her harrowing accounts of domestic life in "The Pumpkin Eater" and "Daddy's Gone A-Hunting." (Mortimer's second and current wife also is named Penelope, though she is called "Penny.")

Much of Grove's account is taken up with the fecund domestic warfare between Mortimer and his first wife. Both would derive much of their work directly from their internecine strife. From the beginning of their marriage, Mortimer was a serial philanderer and Penelope was bitter, unfaithful, depressed and unwilling to let go -- as was he. English reticence keeps it all from being a soap opera, but nothing can make it anything but unlovely. Penelope's novels are exquisitely drawn testaments to that.

John Mortimer is a fascinating writer with an equally intriguing -- if stomach-churning -- life. That alone makes "A Voyage Round John Mortimer" compelling reading, which is good, since Grove does rather less than one would hope to help. Among other things, she has an unhappy tendency to veer toward the demotic:

"At this point, the bewitching Mrs. Dimont [Penelope's first married name] reenters the narrative: the dark beauty whom John had fleetingly seen that day when he and Michael Fenton went from Oxford to visit Charles Dimont at the Boar's Hill cottage named the Butts, Penelope, her ready-made family and her already complicated history, was destined to be the next most significant person in John's life."

Grove's attention to that word "narrative" can be irritatingly spotty. One of this book's strengths is the author's access to the late Penelope Fletcher Mortimer's diaries, but out of some inexplicable motive, those firsthand observations emerge sporadically -- and often distant by pages or even chapters from the episode they describe.

Given Penelope's lacerating candor, that's worse than a confusing disappointment. Few authors of either gender have written as affectingly about marital discord or destructive love as Penelope Mortimer did in her novels and stories. "A Voyage Round John Mortimer" would have been enhanced immeasurably if Grove had made better and more extensive use of the raw material from which those books were made.

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