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Elizabeth Jenkins: The Tortoise and the Hare

This is Jenkins’ best-known novel but, like many writings by women all but disappeared, till rediscovered by Virago, and has since been promoted by Hilary Mantel. While certainly not a great novel, it is a fine novel about a marriage that appears to be slowly disintegrating. Imogen Gresham is thirty-seven years old and a beautiful woman. She is married to Evelyn who is a successful barrister and fifteen years older than she is. They have a son, Gavin, and live in a nice house in Berkshire. Imogen’s life revolves around her son and husband. She seems to have few other interests and does not even have a wide circle of friends. Indeed, her friends seem to be limited to three others. There is one woman – Cecil (yes, that’s her name), unmarried and working for a publisher – and two men – Hunter, well-off, keen on racing and recently divorced from Zenobia, whose sister lives near the Greshams, and Paul, an old friend of Evelyn and a doctor but who has married Primrose, a much younger woman. Their marriage is on the rocks and Paul is in love with Imogen (though he won’t do anything about it.)

Evelyn may well be a typical husband of the day for his class but he is not a particularly nice one. He treats Imogen disdainfully, putting her down and generally looking on her as an intellectual inferior. He is not vicious about it but just does it as a matter of course. To make matters worse, Gavin is following in his father’s footsteps and also treats his mother disdainfully, refusing to go to bed when told and generally answering back. Imogen is devoted to Gavin but cannot control him. However, the key to the novel is Blanche Silcox. She is an older woman (about the same age as Evelyn), never married and living on her own. But she is a formidable woman. She is not only very familiar with country matters but also with the financial world. Right from the very beginning we see Evelyn with her, chatting away, and it very soon becomes apparent to us, if not to Imogen, that something is going on.

The evidence gradually mounts up. Imogen cannot drive and Blanche is always giving Evelyn a lift to London. She has a flat in London and seems to be away whenever Evelyn has to stay in London for the night. Evelyn is always consulting her on various matters. Gradually Imogen starts to suspect but is she justified in doing so? And, if she is, what can and should she do about it? Jenkins keeps the suspicions going on for a long time, gradually adding tantalising pieces of evidence though, of course, leaving us guessing as to whether there really is an affair or just an innocent relationship.

Jenkins also gives us an array of interesting secondary characters, particularly the Leeper family. These are the family of Zenobia’s sister, mentioned above. Mr. Leeper is a planner and he plans on dragging the stuffy village into the modern age. Jenkins takes great pleasure in mocking the couple, Mr. Leeper with his ideas on progressive education and planning (he knocked down two old cottages to build a concrete monstrosity with large windows, where the Leepers now live) and Mrs. Leeper, always occupied with her ballet-work (we get no details) to the extent that she neglects her children. Her two daughters are both unruly and untidy, permanently dirty and wearing torn clothes while Tim, Gavin’s best friend, spends most of his time at the Greshams and looks on Imogen as his surrogate mother.

While not autobiographical, at least not as regards the specifics though, according to Jenkins, as regards the feelings, it is very much of its age, redolent of an earlier period, with the modern age starting to come to the fore. But stories on the breakdown of relationships have always been relevant and this one is certainly well told.

Publishing history

First published 1954 by Victor Gollancz