A quick break from Brazilians in August. Several of my bookish friends had recommended the delightful Backlisted Podcast episode on The Tortoise and the Hare by Elizabeth Jenkins, with special guest Carmen Callil of Virago fame. I listened, was instantly smitten and spent some time searching for the book online, although I had no intention of reading it soon. The subject matter, I thought, might be a bit too painful.
However, when I saw it arrive in the post, I told myself that I had recently read Dorothy Whipple’s Someone at a Distance, after all, which tells a very similar story. So I plunged in and just couldn’t stop reading.
Elizabeth Jenkins has that wonderful and all too rare quality of being able to write the perfect sentence or turn of phrase. That economical yet very densely packed style, that you need to read several times in order to fully appreciate. Her wry observational skills remind me of Jane Austen: this is what Jane Austen might have been writing if she had lived in the 1950s. (It’s not surprising to find out that Elizabeth Jenkins wrote a biography of Austen.)
It is an all too familiar story of the unravelling of a seemingly content marriage as the husband is attracted to someone else. For most of the book we might think of the conventionally pretty, extremely feminine people-pleaser Imogen as the hare, while the older, eccentric-looking, badly dressed and rather masculine Blanche is the tortoise who wins the race (i.e. the man) in the end. However, given that the man is the appallingly self-centred, self-satisfied and endlessly self-justificatory Evelyn Gresham, you may decide that Imogen is well rid of him and that Blanche is no winner after all.
Evelyn is that class of Englishman that you can still encounter at Oxbridge, active in politics or law or medicine, convinced that they are always right and that the world should be their oyster. Imogen at first glance may appear annoying in her passivity. I thought I would not get along with her at all, she is so very different to me: brought up to rely on her looks and social skills, no preoccupations other than being a wife and mother, so very keen to be of service to others, a bit dreamy, a bit too romantic. Yet somehow, the author manages to make you care desperately about her, although avoiding melodrama. Imogen has quite good psychological insights into other people, can sense when they are hurting or indifferent, but seems blind to the dangers in her own marriage. I could relate though to her avoidance of conflict, of being thought a nag, in her relationship with both her husband and her son.
The inevitable descent into divorce is so gradual and so unflinchingly described, it makes for some very painful reading. But what really broke me was Imogen’s realisation that her son Gavin is a mini-version of his father and that she has completely lost him a long while ago. Yet even there, the author gives us a hint that Gavin will not remain unmarked by his parents’ marriage breakdown.
Such a subtle, emotionally wrenching novel! It has given me an appetite to read more of the English classics of the 1930s-1950s. I might do a month of that when I do my geographical tours. After all, ‘the past is a different country’, isn’t it?