The Tortoise and the Hare was Elizabeth Jenkin’s sixth novel, one which was described to me recently as a forgotten masterpiece. I have had a copy for a while so I absolutely had to read it right away. My only other experience of Elizabeth Jenkins was in the novel Harriet – published by Persephone books. Of her writing Hilary Mantel – in her introduction to this edition says:
“…she is like Jane Austen: formal, nuanced, acid. She surveys a room as if she were perched on the mantelpiece: an unruffled owl of Minerva, a recording angel”
The Tortoise and the Hare is a subtle, beautifully written novel of psychological depth and great insight. It is the story of a marriage – and its decline.
Evelyn and Imogen Gresham are a conventional upper middle class married couple, they live comfortably in the country with their eleven year old son, and Evelyn, a successful lawyer spends most of his week up in London. Imogen is quite a bit younger than her fifty two year old husband; she’s beautiful and gentle, quick to tears and her ignorance of country pursuits and her love of pretty things over valuable things have begun to irritate Evelyn. Within her marriage Imogen has become a pacifier, a keeper of the peace, deferring to Evelyn in everything. Evelyn has very definite expectations of his domestic life, comforts he feels are his due, at work everything runs to his exacting standards – he wants nothing less than that at home. Young Gavin, the Gresham’s son, soon off to prep school, is a pretty vile child; he has shown his mother on several occasions that he considers her to be pretty useless. He has the arrogant contempt of a male child, who has learned a lot of bad habits from its father; Imogen almost seems to accept her son’s view of her with very little resistance. Gavin’s friend Tim Leeper is the only person to fully appreciate Imogen; he is a sad little scrap, a sensitive child of a chaotic bohemian household, who spend little time ensuring the well-being of their offspring. Tim spends more and more time at the Gresham home, and even after Gavin goes off to school, Tim spends part of each day with Imogen.
“Imogen went into the house. From the end window of her bedroom she looked out on the drive, a yellow gravelled circus surrounded by evergreens. The gate was pushed back against a box hedge, and standing with one hand on it, Evelyn was talking to Blanche Silcox, a neighbour who lived behind the hanger. She was on the way to the post in the village, it seemed, for she held several envelopes in her leather-gauntleted hand. The tweed suit, expensive but of singular cut, increased the breadth of her middle-aged figure. She appeared kind and unassuming, which made it the more strange that her hats should be so very intimidating.”
The Gresham’s nearest neighbour is Blanche Silcox, a spinster of about fifty, very comfortably off, she understands the countryside and its sports, she does voluntary work, and is a pillar of the local community. Blanche is a tweedy, lumpish woman, viewed as elderly by the beautiful, graceful Imogen; Miss Silcox with her masculine voice, wears odd hats and gloves like gauntlets, she is certainly not an obvious threat. Between Evelyn and Blanche there has over time developed a close friendship, Blanche enjoys giving Evelyn lifts to and from the station, in her Rolls Royce – as Imogen doesn’t drive, they both appreciate the same things and Blanche proves to know exactly how to make Evelyn comfortable.
“Imogen,” he said with forced patience, “you have plenty of occupations of your own, and you don’t care to do the things that give a great deal of pleasure to me – when I have time to do them. You don’t want to fish or shoot and you can’t drive my car, which would be a help to me sometimes. Am I to understand that you object to my having the companionship of another woman who can do these things?”
One of Imogen’s closest friends is Paul Nugent is also a middle aged man married to a much younger woman, only his wife Primrose – quickly decided she had made a bad bargain, and shuns her husband, largely living her own life. Paul tentatively suggests to Imogen who has always had her beauty to rely upon, that she might not understand what it is that men fall in love with. It is some time before Imogen fully realises what it was her friend was trying to tell her. Imogen’s other friend, Cecil ( a woman) is certain that Evelyn has taken Blanche as his mistress, and with Cecil’s help, Imogen discovers that Blanche has a flat in London, not far from Evelyn’s chambers.
As Blanche comes to mean more and more to Evelyn, assisting Gavin with his riding lessons, hosting glamorous lunches for Evelyn in London and even making subtle changes in her own home that will please him, Imogen has to wake up to what is happening. However Imogen’s self-esteem has taken an almighty battering and she is no match for the newly energised sexually assured Blanche Silcox.
The Tortoise and the Hare – is a superbly written novel of 1950’s domestic disharmony, and female sensuality. Jenkins’ characters are brilliantly explored, and the erosion of Imogen’s self-belief is quite heart-breaking. Alongside Imogen’s childlike sensuality, and Blanche’s determined aggressive sexuality is Tim Leeper’s aunt; Zenobia and her siren like sensuality a woman who believes all men will fall in love with her.
Hilary Mantel compares Jenkins to Austen, and also to Sybille Bedford and Rebecca West, possibly, but this novel is certainly very Elizabeth Taylor, acutely observed, quietly devastating and absolutely brilliant.