The Tortoise and the Hare by Elizabeth Jenkins

Well I’m a bit early for Cornflower’s book group, which is discussing this next week, but this is too interesting to wait to blog about until then.

I was rather surprised by this book. I’ve read lots of very favourable reviews and I was expecting a wronged lady gets her own back and everything ending happily ever after with a nice helping of just desserts for the evil perpetrator story that was witty and well observed and entertaining. But this book is far more subtle and intricate and harder to define than that. It turned all of my expectations on their heads and left me shocked but also surprisingly satisfied considering the way things actually work out. In short, The Tortoise and the Hare is a superb read. I say superb rather than wonderful because it is not particularly uplifting or whimsical; instead it is finely crafted and the characters are brilliantly, acutely, perceptively drawn. I felt a part of their world, and I cared (or didn’t) deeply for the people within it. It has been a while since I have read something that both absorbed and unsettled me in a manner that was filled with a quiet suspense and foreboding, like a black cloud on the horizon of an otherwise perfect sky.

The basic plot is as follows: Imogen Gresham is a beautiful and elegant woman in early middle age; the mother of a young son, Gavin, and the wife of a highly successful, wealthy, distinguished and handsome fifty something barrister, Evelyn. They live very comfortably in a large house in the country, and the action is set after the war, in the late 40s. Imogen is placid and kind, brought up to please others and do not much else. She is endearingly hopeless with all household tasks and her son has no respect for her. Evelyn is the model of succesful and efficient masculinity and his exasperation with, yet indulgence of Imogen’s uselessness makes Imogen feel constantly unsure of herself. She means well in all situations, but she is also passive to a fault, and her failure to assert herself or to try to develop the skills she lacks means she is destined to remain ineffectual and a ball of nerves around her son and husband.

Despite all of this, life runs along nicely for the Greshams; Imogen and Evelyn are affectionate to each other, and Imogen adores Evelyn. However, the storm starts to brew when their neighbour, a stout, wealthy spinster of middle age named Blanche Silcox, begins to take an unhealthy interest in Evelyn. Imogen initially thinks nothing of this; she sees nothing in Blanche that could attract a man. However, when Evelyn begins to spend more and more time at Blanche’s house, and even begins doing things for Gavin, the penny drops and Imogen is left floundering, her self confidence shattered, and completely at a loss of what to do. Incapable of forcing a climax, she struggles on, trying to hold things together and reclaim Evelyn’s affection, but the storm must break and when it does, the after effects are far more surprising than the reader could have imagined.

There are plenty of wonderfully drawn supporting characters too; there is the delightful, neglected son of a neighbouring family, Tim, who is Gavin’s playmate, but whose real reason for coming to the Gresham’s is to see Imogen, who he adores. There are also Imogen’s great friends, Paul and Cecil, who are well rounded, touchingly portrayed and thoroughly wonderful.

I greatly enjoyed this book, but I also found it frustrating and rather complex. At times I didn’t know who to sympathise with. Imogen was the wronged woman, and so naturally I felt my sympathies should have been with her, but her passivity and inability to fight back did irritate me to the point where I understood why Evelyn might have wanted to seek the company of a more competent and independent woman. Even Blanche at times was sympathetic; her loneliness and need for affection, as well as her genuine attempts to make people feel comfortable, made me feel sorry for her, and her love of Evelyn and desire to make him happy made me understand why she didn’t think it was wrong to take Imogen’s husband from her. It is a book that plays with your emotions, that questions your prejudices and your sense of what is right and wrong, and shows the blurred lines of morals that govern so many of our lifestyle choices. It was subtle and unnerving and touching and involving and I encourage you all to read it and judge it from your own points of view; as Carmen Callil says in her afterword, the great charm of this book is that each reader can take something different from it. It is certainly far more than a formulaic man has affair – woman finds out – crisis – all ends happily and neatly novel. Conversely, it is very daring in its answers to the issues it raises, exceptionally so considering the time at which it was written, and I think it has become my absolute favourite Virago.

In other news, it is officially Autumn as of today. Seasons of mist and mellow fruitfulness and all of that Keatsian evocativeness. I am looking forward to cold, crisp days and crunching through piles of golden leaves that have fallen onto the pavements, to the smell of wood smoke in the air, to wearing scarves and gloves and having rosy cheeks, to eating fruit crumbles with vanilla custard and drinking lots of spiced chai tea. Delightful.