Review: The Tortoise and the Hare, Elizabeth Jenkins

The Tortoise and the Hare is a book which seems to come up a lot within the book blogging community.  Somehow or other though, I had always had the idea that it was at least slightly comedic.  Because of this, when I finally took a look, the story’s mood took me by surprise.  Evelyn and Imogen Gresham live a comfortable life in the countryside with their eleven year-old son Gavin.  Evelyn is a distinguished and successful KC.  Imogen is beautiful, artistic and gentle.  All should be idyllic.  But then Blanche Silcox steps onto the scene.  Stout, middle-aged and a spinster, Blanche has none of Imogen’s grace – so why is Evelyn’s head turned?  An in-depth and even chilling examination of a marriage in disarray, I could not love this novel but I had to admire its stunning psychological artistry.

The title is an obvious reference to Aesop’s Fables, that tale told to all of us from earliest childhood.  The moral is that slow and steady wins the race.  The conundrum for the reader to consider is who between Imogen and Blanche is the tortoise and who is the hare.  Imogen is fifteen years younger than Evelyn, attractive, accommodating and been brought up to please.  She is however utterly impractical when it comes to domestic tasks, ignorant about country ways and held in increasing contempt by Gavin.  She is unable to even learn to drive.  The only person who does not think her a fool is Gavin’s young friend Tim Leeper.  Blanche may wear odd hats and ugly gloves but she is a pillar of the local community, carries out voluntary work, drives a Rolls Royce and is a dab hand at just about every possible country sport.  She has a self-confidence that Imogen totally lacks and over the course of the novel, Blanche steadily invades and conquers.

Elizabeth Jenkins commented in her memoirs that The Tortoise and the Hare came under criticism from certain readers for being too solely confined to one class, even to one income bracket.  A male undergraduate student told her that ‘what was wrong with the book was that it wasn’t about anything that really mattered. As I felt that the suffering caused by the break-up of a marriage was something that did matter, I asked him, in surprise, what were some of the things that really mattered? After a pause, he said, ‘Well, trade unions.’‘  By contrast, in her introduction to the new Virago edition, Hilary Mantel proclaims that ‘Apart from a war, what could be more interesting than a marriage?‘ Rather than the more commonplace trajectory of girl-meets-boy-and-heads-to-altar, Tortoise looks at long-term relationships as ‘a grand game of strategy‘ with the central territory of Evelyn the grand prize even as the question hovers as to whether he really is so much worth having.

Having studied 1940s literature at university, I was struck by how post-war ideas overshadow the novel.  Imogen embodies the pre-war ideals of how a wife should behave – she is purely decorative.  In the pragmatic post-war era, the more practical Blanche becomes far more attractive.  In Mollie Panter-Downes’ One Fine Day, the Marshall family have to evaluate what their family identity will be now that the country they live in has changed forever.  Here, Evelyn seems to have reconsidered what he wants in a spouse.  With their son Gavin preparing to go away to school, both he and Evelyn appear to have outgrown Imogen.  Blanche can give Evelyn lifts to and from the station, she can help sort out Gavin’s riding lessons, she hosts lunches in her flat in town.  Exceptionally capable in every situation, Blanche’s maturity commands respect in the Gresham men in a way that the lady of the house cannot.

A lot of the other reviews that I read of this book spoke unfavourably of Imogen.  She was seen as limp, lack lustre, deserving of what she got.  Her passivity seemed to frustrate most readers.  I expected to find her pathetic but instead felt an awful sympathy for her.  I was reminded of how Hooper hounds and then overcomes Kingshaw in Susan Hill’s I’m the King of the Castle.  From the assured position of wife, Imogen becomes increasingly frazzled, fraying at the edges in her anxiety.  There is the cruelty of how Evelyn cuts down Imogen’s murmured protest at Blanche’s position in their lives,

“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?”

Perhaps though my own bias comes into play here.  I have always loathed adultery and been disgusted by those who participate in it.  Authors can try to use it to add a frisson to a narrative but I remain invariably stony-eyed and unimpressed.  I should add here that I have never to my knowledge been the victim of it and that in all other areas I try to be as non-judgmental as possible.  I just think that infidelity is the worst thing that one person can do to another which is not actually illegal.  Over the years I have heard any number of excuses about why this situation or that one was somehow ‘not really’ cheating.  One of the most common excuses is to blame the wronged spouse for somehow failing in their duties.  It’s a funny thing how men who have affairs always have dreadful wives.

Although she herself never married, Jenkins described Tortoise as ‘autobiographical not in fact but in feeling’.  If she really felt the misery and humiliation which radiates from Imogen so vividly, I could only feel a horrible sympathy for her.  Apparently the characters of Evelyn and Blanche are indeed drawn from life, with that of Blanche representing the scion of a well-known brewing family and needing to be toned down for publication.  There is something akin to Nora Ephron’s Heartburn going on here.  For all that Imogen may be down-trodden, it is nice to know that in some form at least, she does get her revenge.

Indeed, if Tortoise does represent a vengeance of sorts, it is a remarkably sophisticated one.  It has at its core an emotional complexity seldom seen in literature.  The characters are all fully-realised and there are no true heroes or villains.  The interloper Blanche is described with even-handedness.  Imogen’s friend Cecil expects to dislike her, knowing the threat she represents, but is caught off guard by Blanche’s generosity as a host.  Blanche is very kind to Gavin.  She takes Evelyn’s work very seriously.  She loves him.  Yet she also looks daggers when she sees Imogen with her hand on Evelyn’s arm.  Blanche has the audacity to show jealousy when her lover is touched by his wife.  For that, I could not care for her as a character, not even when she too showed obvious pain at the situation.

Tortoise lays bare the physical humiliation of infidelity.  Imogen, who has always been pleased with her appearance, is appalled that her husband has had his head turned by someone as unattractive as Blanche.  The heavy implication that Evelyn finds Blanche a more satisfying lover only causes Imogen further shame.  Evelyn’s friend Paul, who has long harboured an affection for Imogen, explains to her that she perhaps does not understand what it is that men fall in love with.  The satellite character Zenobia wields a terrifying sensuality and assumes that all men must fall in love with her and yet Evelyn is repulsed by her.  So often we are told that men’s heads can be turned by looks alone but there are few authors shrewd enough to point out that there is generally much more to it than that.

Jenkins was one of the founding members of the Jane Austen Society, an interesting fact given that it was of Austen’s elegance as a prose stylist that I was reminded while reading Tortoise.  Jenkins shares also Austen’s clear-eyed and even acidic view of human relationships.  In the opening lines, Imogen examines a teacup in a shop and appreciates the purity of its colour while Evelyn sees only the chip at its base and orders her to put it back.  From this first moment, we are told everything that we need to know about their relationship.  Like Austen, Jenkins writes with the wisdom of the outsider, seeing all

The Tortoise and the Hare made me feel incredibly sad for Imogen.  The slow capsize of her marriage made me frustrated and even indignant on her behalf, but yet I am unlikely to be the only one who wondered whether Evelyn was really such a prize after all.  The question mark hovers – what is Imogen really holding on to?  If, as Mantel suggests, marriage is akin to warfare, what is its objective when the situation is as unpleasant as the union between the Greshams?  Is the territory really worth holding?  One of the couple’s friends even remarks that Evelyn may not quite know what he is getting into with Blanche – she will not cede to his every wish as Imogen has done.

A less sophisticated writer might have found a way to pair Imogen off with Paul and thus force together a romantic comedy happy ending.  Jenkins does not shy away from the realities of the situation.  Even the loathsome Gavin, who treats his mother with utter disdain, shows distress at the consequences of his parents’ separation.  Yet still, Imogen is not left totally desolate.  While her husband may have lost interest and her son may seem out of reach, young Tim Leeper unexpectedly declares his allegiance.  In the background of the novel, he has been quietly miserable with his bohemian family, spending all the time he can at Gavin’s home and quietly adoring of Imogen.  His appearance at Imogen’s new flat and announcement that he will be living with her now was an expected ray of sunshine in a novel that until then had seemed unremittingly bleak.

Tortoise has stuck in my mind in the months since I read it.  This review may appear spoilerific but the novel is driven by feeling rather than events.  Reading it, I was drawn into the claustrophobic horror of Imogen’s situation, a woman trying to pretend that her husband is not in love with someone else, but worse than that, being gaslit by her husband that the situation is normal.  Evelyn insists to Imogen that Blanche is a family friend rather than a woman who despises his wife and is trying to replace her in his life.  Imogen is a leftover of Victorian morality, encouraged to be the child-wife like Dora Spenlow in David Copperfield and Jenkins shows us how post-war Britain requires more than the angel in the house.  Too unhappy a tale to be beloved, the fight between the tortoise and the hare is nonetheless both a total masterpiece of a marriage plot and also a novel of rare emotional intelligence.  Well worth the reading.

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The Tortoise and the Hare by Elizabeth Jenkins
on April 10th 2012
Genres: Fiction, General
Pages: 288
ISBN: 9781844087471

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4 thoughts on “Review: The Tortoise and the Hare, Elizabeth Jenkins

  1. Great review, thanks for this. I read this book years ago and it has stayed with me. I liked many things about it, its control, its emotional intelligence as you say, and especially the ending. It takes the reader just to the point where we realize that Imogen is going to be all right, and no further.

    1. Yes – that moment when she realises that she has to pull herself together (sort of for Tim but really for herself too) is the perfect note to end on. Things aren’t great but they will get better. So glad to hear from someone else who enjoyed it! I so hope good things for Imogen – I’m so glad Jenkins didn’t leave her on her own.

  2. A book about adultery and the breakdown of a marriage would normally not appeal to me at all, but I also read it years ago, and it has stayed with me as a very honest, and surprisingly not depressing, look at a marriage. As you say, it perhaps reflects the social shift in what was required of a wife after the war. This really will become a classic.

    1. I know – I feel like half a century after it was written, it is still highly relevant in what it has to say about human attraction. It really took me by surprise and has stuck in the mind – really glad to hear from other people who enjoyed it 🙂

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