The Tortoise and the Hare by Elizabeth Jenkins

Over the course of her career, the English writer Elizabeth Jenkins produced biographies of several leading figures, including Henry Fielding, Lady Caroline Lamb and Jane Austen. There is more than a touch of Austen in The Tortoise and the Hare, Jenkins’ 1954 novel about the slow, stealthy disintegration of a marriage. It’s an exquisitely written book, a masterclass in precision and understatement, currently in print with Virago with an introduction by Hilary Mantel.

While Jenkins’ story takes place in a particular sub-sector of the British class structure – the upper-middle-class ‘home counties set’ in the mid-1950s – its themes and emotions are universal, broadening the novel’s relevance beyond the sphere in which it is set.

Central to the story are the Gresham family – fifty-two-year-old Evelyn Gresham, a successful barrister of the highest rank, his beautiful wife, Imogen, and the couple’s ten-year-old son, Gavin. At thirty-seven, Imogen is fifteen years younger than Evelyn – an age difference that mattered little when the couple married, but now, twelve years into their relationship, the gap is beginning to show. While Evelyn was initially attracted to Imogen’s ingénue-type character, his needs have changed over time. Now Imogen must devote herself to making Evelyn’s home life as efficient and unruffled as possible, a task she finds challenging in light of her husband’s exacting standards. At heart, Imogen is a sensitive, compassionate young woman, but efficient management and organisation are not her strongest suits.

By contrast, Blanche Silcox – the Greshams’ nearest neighbour – is the polar opposite of Imogen. At fifty, Blanche is the living embodiment of the home counties ‘country type’, complete with her dowdy tweeds and forbidding hats. While Imogen is quiet, graceful and unassuming, Blanche is plain, practical and direct, a leading figure in the local community through her roles on various committees.

Slowly but surely, Blanche begins to encroach on Imogen’s territory, worming her way into the Greshams’ marriage in the stealthiest of ways.

She [Imogen] could not have said exactly when she had become aware of how often their neighbour Blanche Silcox’s name occurred in Evelyn’s conversation as that of a woman immensely knowledgeable on rural topics, whose opinions on the ethics of tied cottages, drainage and poultry-keeping for profit called forth respectful agreement. To all such topics Imogen herself could only listen in silence. (p. 39)

Before long, Evelyn is spending an increasing amount of time with Blanche, popping over to see her on a daily basis, taking phone calls at all hours, and accepting lifts from her when he travels from Berkshire to London for work. (Unfortunately, Imogen cannot drive, putting her at a disadvantage to Blanche when it comes to chauffeuring Evelyn around.) Moreover, whenever Imogen dares to comment on her husband’s closeness to Blanche, Evelyn rationalises the relationship by reiterating the latter’s qualities – how nice or helpful it is of Blanche to support him in these ways, thereby implying that Imogen is being unreasonable when she questions these kindnesses.

Sadly for Imogen, her role as Gavin’s mother is also under threat. As far as Gavin is concerned, Imogen is weak-willed and useless, and he barely suppresses his contempt for her tendency to fuss. Blanche, on the other hand, is a more natural fit for the young boy, arranging for him to have riding lessons and access to her land to fish. In short, Gavin is turning into a junior version of Evelyn, following in his father’s footsteps, disregarding Imogen’s feelings while suiting himself.

Imogen does have some support, albeit from outside the family circle. For instance, her closest female friend, Cecil (who occasionally visits from London), has the measure of Blanche from the very start.

Cecil meanwhile had used the opportunity to study Blanche Silcox. Imogen had described the latter to her with great earnestness but the description had conveyed little of what Cecil now found to be the reality. Imogen had said that Blanche Silcox was obviously much attracted by Evelyn, and that she was so thoroughly kind and useful to him it was only natural that he should appreciate it. There was nothing in it on his side, naturally. When Cecil had the people concerned before her eyes, she began to doubt the truth of this judgement immediately. (p. 98)

Cecil is so struck by the sense of magnetism surrounding Blanche that she that likens the effect to the ‘indrawing draught of a furnace’, clearly spotting the danger that Imogen is trying her hardest to dismiss. In Cecil’s eyes, Blanche should not be underestimated – underneath that dowdy appearance is a woman of quiet determination, a force of fire and heat.  

The real strength of this novel lies in the precision and clarity Jenkins brings to her portrayal of Imogen, particularly the lack of agency she feels when faced with Blanche as a competitor. Slowly but surely, Imogen’s self-confidence ebbs away as she forces herself to come to terms with Evelyn’s infidelity. Deep down, it’s something that Imogen has known for a while, but it takes a gossipy acquaintance to reveal the depth of Blanche’s involvement in Evelyn’s life, much to Imogen’s distress.

The revelation of the degree of Blanche Silcox’s intimacy with Evelyn – ‘all those late meals, as he hates restaurants’ – yet did it tell her anything she did not know? Did it not merely fill in the details of a picture she had unconsciously drawn for herself? But she had never known until this moment that in a state of jealous agitation each separate detail is as painful as the whole: The comings and goings, the telephone calls, the brief visits paid by car between the two houses, the evenings in London, the constant, close intimacy filling every hour that she herself was not there, and now this monstrous arrangement of the holiday in Scotland: it was like some closed book she was wild with curiosity to read, although the meaning was known to her already. (p. 157)

One of the most interesting aspects of this novel is its quietly subversive nature, how it goes against some of our traditional assumptions and expectations in affairs of the heart. For instance, in a love triangle of this nature, it is more usual for the man to be seduced away from his wife by a younger, more attractive model, leaving the older, more faded woman in the shade. But in this case, the conventions are reversed, with the beautiful, graceful Imogen potentially losing out to the frumpy but capable Blanche – a woman who matches Evelyn very closely in terms of age. This might lead us to think of Blanche as the Tortoise in this scenario, slowly but stealthily triumphing over Imogen the Hare. Nevertheless, in the novel’s excellent afterword, the publisher Carmen Callil argues for a different interpretation of these labels, viewing Imogen as the Tortoise – the one with the most to gain, especially if she chooses to break free from the pain of her marriage. It’s an interesting interpretation, albeit somewhat hard to discuss without revealing the novel’s ending, which I would rather not do.

All four leading characters – Imogen, Evelyn, Blanche and Gavin – are brilliantly drawn, fully painted on the page with all their individual habits, preoccupations and failings. There’s strong support too from the secondary players, perhaps most notably from Imogen’s perceptive friend, Cecil, and Evelyn’s school friend, Paul – a compassionate man who is more than a little in love with Imogen and caught up in a somewhat mismatched marriage himself. Also of note is Gavin’s friend, Tim, a gentle boy whom Imogen takes under her wing, partly due to his rather chaotic homelife.

All in all, this is a superb book, a devastating portrayal of the erosion of a marriage, all the more impressive for its subtlety and refusal to submit to melodrama. My slightly early contribution to Karen and Simon’s #1954Club, which is just about to kick off!

60 thoughts on “The Tortoise and the Hare by Elizabeth Jenkins

  1. Liz

    Club weeks are so dangerous for one’s TBR list!! This sounds absolutely brilliant, thanks for the great review Jacqui 👏🏻💕

    Reply
      1. JacquiWine Post author

        Yes, they’re absolutely beautiful. I’d read this many years ago in the old green Virago edition, but this Designer VMC edition proved too pretty to resist!

        Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, it’s a fascinating reversal of the usual conventions, but given Evelyn’s personality it totally rings true! It’s the only novel by Jenkins that I’ve read so far, but I’m definitely going to investigate her further. (Persephone have one of her books in their catalogue – Harriet, I think it’s called – but that aside, I’m not sure how much of her work is in print.)

      Reply
    2. gertloveday

      As a follow up to this I have just found Dr Gully’s Story by Elizabeth Jenkins. It is based on The Balham Mystery a scandalous liason from 1876 between a physician and a patient. Irresistable..

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, it’s definitely in a similar vein to Taylor’s novels – partly due to the subject matter (domestic canvas, troublesome marriages, women living unfulfilled lives) and partly due to the style (subtle, perceptive, beautifully observed). You’d find it interesting, I think.

      Reply
  2. MarinaSofia

    I was very impressed with this book, which I read after listening to the Backlisted episode on it. It was not easy for me to read at the time, as it mirrored my own experience in parts, but as you say that is its power: it’s universal, not limited to just one time, place or class.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      It’s brilliant, isn’t it? But, as you say, a very affecting read for women who have felt marginalised or isolated in their relationships. While society has changed over the past 60 or 70 years, those emotions are broadly the same…

      Reply
  3. gertloveday

    I just found a good assessment of her work on Slightly Foxed in 2018. Apparently she wrote ten novels and died at the age of 104. I definitely should be reading her!

    Reply
  4. A Life in Books

    I have a green Virago edition of this which I read decades ago so, sadly, have no memory of it but I like the idea of overturning the usual infidelity tropes. Perhaps I should read it again.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I have the same old green Virago edition – relatively old and careworn by now, hence the decision to treat myself to the lovely Designer VMC for Karen and Simon’s Club. It definitely stands up to a second reading, and I found it an interesting premise to revisit now that I’m in my fifties. My sympathies are still with Imogen, though – happily that hasn’t changed a bit!

      Reply
  5. Janakay | YouMightAsWellRead

    Excellent review, which I enjoyed very much. I had read a little of Jenkins’ biographical work (can’t remember which one, unfortunately) years & years ago (it was extremely well done) and was quite excited to discover this novel, also years ago. But — I’ve put off reading it, despite its undoubted excellence; I was afraid that some aspects of it might resonance just a little too much and a little too personally. I do have a copy of Harriet (Persephone I think), which also sound very interesting.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Janakay, and I can totally understand where you’re coming from on the sensitivities, especially given Marina’s comments above. Jenkins is forensic in her observations of the characters and the interplay between them – her style is subtly acerbic, so you’re right to be cautious with it. Maybe Harriet would suit you better? I’ll have to take a closer look at it….

      Reply
  6. kaggsysbookishramblings

    Wonderful review, Jacqui, and I imagine this will be a popular choice for 1954! I’ve not read it but have often meant to – that subversive look at infidelity is very appealing and I think very realistic. I would imagine that it’s dangerous to underestimate the threat of someone who’s closer to your partner in background and interests – often that can be just as much, if not more, of an attraction than simply the physical. Now I’m going to have to dig in the TBR to see if I still have my copy… 😉

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Karen. I know I’m slightly early in posting this, but hopefully it will still count for the Club. (It’s a busy week for me, but I’ve got a bit for time to respond to comments etc. today, hence the early release.)

      It really is a superb book, and the reversal of the usual expectations makes it fascinating to observe. I guess Evelyn has reached a stage in his life where he wants someone more practical and forthright than Imogen – and Blanche, with her steely no-nonsense centre, is particularly well-suited to his needs. She’s a very interesting character to observe, coming across as somewhat awkward at first, especially in Imogen’s company – but it’s her stealthy encroachment on the Greshams’ marriage that really comes through. Naturally, Evelyn is an absolute horror with no appreciation or understanding of Imogen’s needs – in fact, I’m adding him to my ‘Pompous Ass’ tag, even though he’s not quite as insufferable as some of the other members of that group (e.g. the ghastly neighbour in E. H. Young’s Chatterton Square)!

      Reply
  7. Karen K.

    Great review! I read this about 10 years ago after reading about it on a blog, and I absolutely loved it. I’d nearly forgotten the plot but your post reminded me of how wonderful it is.

    Reply
  8. Julé Cunningham

    Whenever I’ve come across a review of this book it sounds so intriguing, especially the passive-aggressive Blanche and the slow undermining of Imogen who feels so helpless faced with the situation she’s in. And I like the sound of many of those secondary characters.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, I feel as if I’ve skimped a bit on the secondary characters, especially Paul and Tim, both of whom are great supports to Imogen in their individual ways. There’s a really lovely sub-storyline going on with Tim and his relationships with Gavin and Imogen – plus the various dynamics back at Tim’s house, which are quite striking in their own right. I won’t say any more in case you decide to read the book, but it’s woven into the fabric of the novel so skilfully and elegantly.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Isn’t it just? I couldn’t resist, even though I already had an old green Virago edition from way back when. As for the novel itself, you’re right, it’s brilliantly observed. In her intro to the book, Hilary Mantel compares Jenkins to Jane Austen: ‘formal, nuanced, acid’, which is quite the trio of words!

      Reply
  9. heavenali

    Excellent review. I was enormously impressed with this novel. The way Jenkins portrays Imogen and Blanche, and how Evelyn sidelines Imogen, his cruelty in his dismissal of her. It’s a devastating story of a bad marriage. I have also read Harriet by this author, some years ago now. It’s a bit different to this one, but equally devastating.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Ali. This was a re-read for me, and it cut even deeper this time around, maybe because I knew the outcome of the story from the start. It’s brilliantly paced, isn’t it? The way it builds gradually over time, the slow, stealthy unravelling of the marriage is so painful to observe. I’ll definitely take a look at closer look at Harriet for the future…

      Reply
  10. inthemistandrain

    I was interested to read that the wonderful Backlisted have an episode on Elizabeth Jenkins. Luckily I have Virago editions of this book and also Harriet (I’d recommend) as your reviews usually send me to look for my card to start ordering………
    ………Just about to read a William Trevor that you posted about a few weeks ago.
    Many thanks for all the reviews. though!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      You’re very welcome, and I’ll be really interested to hear how you get on with that William Trevor! The Backlisted episode on Jenkins is excellent – partly due to Carmen Callil, possibly one of their best ever guests. As well as being very knowledgeable, she’s also quite open and unguarded with her comments, which is very refreshing to see!

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I’d love to hear what you think of the two novels that came up in our Twitter conversation with Natural Conker. Maybe one of them will turn out to be suitable for the Women Writers series (*crosses fingers*)!

      Reply
  11. Liz Dexter

    I have that pretty edition, given to me by Ali and read ten years ago, I was shocked to find when I went to remind myself of my thoughts. I did remember it was exquisite and dissected a marriage like a surgeon, but not the details. It is an interesting reversal, and not one that happens often in marriages one witnesses or in books, I’m sure there’s another dowdy husband-snatcher in something I’ve read recently, but I can’t think who! And to answer Tredynas Days above, I found it pretty Elizabeth Tayloresque myself. My review is here https://librofulltime.wordpress.com/2012/10/02/book-reviews-27/ – obviously I liked it a lot if those feelings stuck with me.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, a very interesting reversal, and sadly for Imogen it feels all too believable given Evelyn’s priorities. I think the pacing is superb, just as one might expect given the novel’s title, The Tortoise and the Hare. Thanks for sharing a link to your review, and I’ll definitely drop by to read it, probably later this week as the next couple of days are a bit manic! :)

      Reply
  12. 1streading

    A new writer to me but one that does feel very 1954! I suspect it would be quite gruelling to read about Imogen’s treatment as she’s pushed out of her own marriage – it does make me want to know how it ends. I also am wondering yet again how people of this class (in novels at least) always have such gender-fluid names!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Ha! That’s a very good point about the names. Evelyn is a man and Cecil is a woman, which does make things rather confusing at first!

      As for the novel itself, I think you you might enjoy it, partly because it’s fairly similar in style to some of Elizabeth Taylor’s work. (In fact, Carmen Callil considers Jenkins to be even sharper and more precise than Taylor in her dissection of relationships. I’m not sure I entirely agree with her on that point as it seems to undervalue Taylor slightly, but she’s right about Jenkins’ observational skills. Nothing gets past her.)

      The ending is brilliant and somewhat unexpected at first sight; but then, once you start to think about it in more detail, it becomes clear that Jenkins has been seeding the possibility of it all along. The Backlisted team make this observation in their podcast discussion about the novel, and they’re absolutely bang on!

      Reply
  13. Pingback: #1954Club: post your reviews – Stuck in a Book

  14. Brona's Books

    I haven’t had time to read the Introduction or the Afterword in this edition yet, Mr Books didn’t bring enough books away with us, so he has had to resort to mine :-)
    Your review has captured the (painful) spirit of this story beautifully.

    Reply
  15. Pingback: A-Z Index of Book Reviews (listed by author) | JacquiWine's Journal

  16. Pingback: The Tortoise and the Hare | Elizabeth Jenkins

  17. Grier

    I read this gem last year and was intrigued by the unconventional love triangle. The story really stayed with me and your excellent review reminds me of how much I admired it. I’m off to search out Harriet and the Backlisted episode on Jenkins. I didn’t realize Persephone had published Jenkins.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      It’s stayed with me as well, Grier, ever since I read it as an old green Virago some years ago. This was my second time with it, prompted by Karen and Simon’s Club week, and I found that I could recall quite a lot about the three central characters, even down to certain scenes. It’s a reflection of just how much depth Jenkins has invested in these individuals; they really do seem to stand the test of time.

      Reply

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