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!