A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
From time to time I urge you to try one of my favourite vintage writers from the mid-20th century; the latest is Elizabeth Jenkins. So many novelists called Elizabeth! Taylor, Bowen, von Arnim and now Jenkins. It can be rather confusing. Elizabeth Jenkins was possibly better known as a writer of biography (Jane Austen, Lady Caroline Lamb) and popular history (Elizabeth and Leicester, The Princes in the Tower). She wrote about half a dozen novels of which The Tortoise and the Hare is the best remembered, having been kept pretty well constantly in print by Virago Classics since the 1980s. It is a novel that I read and re-read and find something new in it each time. It can be read in so many ways – I am sure that when I first read my mother’s copy when I was a teenager I had very little understanding of the undercurrents, and my initial view of the characters has shifted radically over time.
At the heart of the novel is Evelyn Gresham, a dashing, successful KC in his early 50s, in the Marshal Hall mould making headlines and winning front-page cases. He is married to Imogen, who is 15 years younger than he is, and they have a son, Gavin. Imogen is beautiful and treasured, fulfilling a wifely role back in their beautiful riverside home in the country. Next door lives Blanche Silcox, single, 50-ish, living comfortably on her family inheritance. Gradually a friendship emerges between Evelyn and Blanche. She is capable and managing, she hunts, shoots and fishes, drives her own Rolls Royce and is still involved in her late father’s business in the City (not a million miles from the Law Courts).
Both Evelyn and Gavin are growing out of Imogen. She is passive and feminine, does not indulge in any masculine pursuits, cannot drive. Evelyn patronises her, Gavin takes his cue from his father and goes further in baiting her. Gradually, Blanche takes a role in their lives (not in Imogen’s, though), driving Evelyn to and from town, recommending riding lessons for Gavin, even turning up on a neighbouring Scottish estate when Evelyn goes away for a manly fishing holiday, until it gradually steals over the reader, long before it occurs to Imogen, that there are three people in this marriage. Imogen is paralysed before this unprecedented situation. Blanche, after all, is the polar opposite to her – elderly (compared to Imogen), stout, tweedy, lacking in style and taste. Her uneasiness at the power of this growing relationship cannot really be articulated – her husband couldn’t possibly be falling in love with her, could he? Imogen’s confidence and self-esteem are gradually sapped, until all comes to a head.
This novel is about an affair with a difference, where an older man falls, not for youth and beauty, but for capability and – well, I suppose the word is maturity, though Blanche can hardly be seen as a poster-girl for that. It is also about a very subtle cruelty and selfishness: Blanche is an incubus, setting out to make herself indispensable to Evelyn, and to Gavin. The Greshams’ friends look on in dismay, provide what support they can but are powerless to prevent the undermining of their marriage. The truest friend Imogen has in all this is her son’s timid friend, Tim, who does provide some reassurance that she can support and befriend another human creature.
The pleasure in this novel lies in answering its questions. Who is the Tortoise and who is the Hare? When I first read this as a teenager I thought I knew – Imogen is the Hare, who made all the running for ten years while she was young and beautiful; Blanche is the Tortoise, who lumbers slowly up to take over when Imogen falters. But Carmen Callil’s lively introduction to the Virago Classics edition that I have (1997; the current edition has an introduction by Hilary Mantel) has made me think again. Blanche in fact has bounded in from nowhere and snatched Imogen’s place. Imogen’s life has a more even tenor, and she carries on, rather doggedly, true to herself with all her limitations, with or without Evelyn. Leaving aside the idea that the prize is Evelyn (who would want him? I am here to tell you that I wouldn’t), who might in the end find a path to fulfilment? I think it may be Imogen, who with or without Blanche was destined to grow out of Evelyn, or he of her. And as my loathing for the dread Evelyn deepened, I found myself urging Blanche to be careful what she wished for.
Readers may find sources of irritation in the novel, mostly based around Imogen. She is presented as such a precious ornament, clueless and helpless on a practical level. Her gifts are of good taste and appreciation of beauty, and as an ‘angel at the table’ providing a calm home for the homecoming breadwinner. In her middle thirties she has no inner or outer resources to replace her initial attraction as a beautiful young bride. In between feeling deeply for her in the tragedy that is unfolding in her marriage, I feel she is a candidate for a good snap-out-of-it slap. The other aspect of Imogen that is hard to absorb is just how she managed to survive to the age of 26 (when she married the older Evelyn), if such a delicate plant. We have no real back story for her, apart from the knowledge that she and her capable friend Cecil Stonor shared a life in London when she was young. However, all this flows from one of the pleasures of the book – that it is pin-sharp in its description of a place, a class and a time. The place is London and the ‘Stockbroker belt’, the time is the early 50s, and the class is the affluent, comfortable professional class (even the parts of London that are their haunts are spot on – the western end of the City, and the area north of Oxford St around Portman and Manchester Squares). This a is beautifully written novel that is unlike any other I have read, a story of relationships with such a shattering twist.
Elizabeth Jenkins: The Tortoise and the Hare. London: Virago, 2009. 288pp
ISBN 13: 9781844084944
First published 1954