The Tortoise and the Hare by Elizabeth Jenkins

Oh my. The Tortoise and the Hare by Elizabeth Jenkins is my first finished Virago (I made myself stop rereading Howards End and go back and finish it) and I’m emotionally stunned by it.

One of the reasons I love British authors is that they write about quiet, sensitive, introverted, even passive characters that American authors tend to overlook in their rush for the spunky and headstrong. It’s why I loved Elizabeth Bowen’s novel The Death of the Heart (and that title could definitely apply to Jenkins’ novel as well), I felt it was speaking my language and experience, as a shy person who’s often overwhelmed by those with more powerful personalities.

Imogen at the start of the novel is beautiful and married to a husband she more than adores, with a comfortable country home and son. But all is not perfect and from the beginning an undercurrent of dread for her is introduced. We soon see that she has resigned her personality, preferences and self up to her stronger husband Evelyn:

The eager willingness to put herself under Evelyn’s influence made her subordinate many of her tastes to his as well as her opinions. Had her aesthetic sense not been guided by his she would never have used deep strong colours… Her secret preference was for rooms in twilight and for tangled thickets… She had been largely cured under his influence of her readiness to buy an object that was elegant and graceful, however battered or impaired… Their reading was sometimes a source of disharmony. Imogen read so willingly and so much and, where their tastes coincided, pleased him so greatly by her sympathy and intelligence, that it disappointed him when she declared she could not read Conrad or Herman Melville, or the more political of Disraeli’s novels.

She worships her husband’s strength and magnetism, she lives for and under him and she has let her own light go out. She lives to please and serve and soothe him and he sees this as his due, since he is a busy important man while she is only the rich and idle housewife. From the first I wanted her away from him and yet when he begins to fall under the spell of another woman who is better suited to him, I hurt with Imogen as she is trapped slowly but surely, the affection her husband used to show her leaking away. She has tried to be the perfect wife and mother, to selflessly do what her husband and son endlessly expect, yet it seems it’s not enough. Her son resents her, even almost bullies her. And the other woman (who’s name, Blanche Silcox, I came to absolutely loathe) relentlessly, easily gains pride of place with father and son while Imogen weakens, frightened by nightmares and premonitions. At some points I wanted her to scream at them, to fight back and at other times it seemed so sexist, why fight for a man who is happy to have ‘more than one good thing’ in his life?

The sense of grievance would rise in her breast, making her neglect those small opportunities to be magnanimous and endearing. Her mind, once so sensitive and alert to what was likely to please or annoy him, now seemed hardly to function in that direction. She made mistakes in tact and sense that would once have horrified her, and she did not care… She had felt weary and discouraged and unable to respond when he introduced topics that should have interested any rational person: Land Development Charges, Conrad’s novels, the abolition of capital punishment and the pros and cons of bringing the English coinage into line with the Continental system. In face of all her silence, lack of interest and monosyllabic replies, Evelyn maintained a civil, reasonable and fluent conversation. Any stranger who had overheard them would have pitied him.

It was maddening to read and yet so beautifully written. After a Christmas snowfall, “the trees in the hanging woods were like the breasts of swans, the banks under them silent in snow.” Virago Modern Classics seems to re-release slightly more difficult, ambiguous titles like this than Persephone Books does (they famously refused to republish Dorothy Whipple, who’s more homey style now sells very well with Persephone), so it was a challenge for me to finish this, but it’s one I’m glad I did. I need to be remained to shake off my passivity from time to time, to do more than float through life.

“I used to think,” said Imogen, sitting back on her heels, “that a fire was one of the most potent snares for making you lose yourself. The water in the river was another. I seemed to spend so much time being lost, it used to alarm me, almost, how one half of my mind always seemed to be mislaying the other half. Sometimes at the end of the day, if I’d been more or less by myself, I simply couldn’t account for how the time had gone. Have you ever felt like that?”

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

  1. Alex says:

    Great review! I found you via Librarything’s Virago group and am contemplating signing up for the January Virago reading week. Synchronicity always interests me…I wondered if you knit and/or follow this blog Kate Davies has just released her pattern the Tortoise and the Hare. Insert spooky music 🙂

    • Carolyn says:

      I’m glad you came by, Alex! Now I will have to check out that Virago group. I do hope you join us for Virago reading week, we’ll have lots of edu-taining things about women writers going on!

      I have seen that blog and it’s beautiful, although I don’t knit. After I posted this review today, I looked into my bedroom, where my stuffed bunny always hangs out with… my husband’s stuffed turtle! It amused me, because those animals in the fable do sort of reflect our different approaches to life!

  2. Audrey says:

    I enjoyed reading your thoughts on this. I think ‘stunned’ is a good way to describe my own response to it … it was one of the best books I read this year.

    • Carolyn says:

      Thanks, Audrey. I had to read the last chapter by the middle of the book, because the tension was too much for me… (and then went back and finished it) I’ll have to let it sit in my mind for a while before I can say how much I liked it. The writing is wonderful and exactly what I like, but overall, it disturbed me somewhat.

  3. Chrissy says:

    Hello, Carolyn

    I’ve just found your blog through the wonderful Rachel at Booksnob. I’ve told her already that I’m interested in the Virago week in January (only a week?). A lovely idea.

    What caught my eye was your reference to The Death of the Heart, one of the best books by my favourite author, Elizabeth Bowen. I’ve read it many times and my own heart unfailingly aches for Portia.

    And so glad too to have been introduce to the needled site. Thanks for all of this.

    • Carolyn says:

      Any Elizabeth Bowen fan is welcome here, Chrissy! I’ve only read Death of the Heart once, but it is so moving, it instantly became a favourite and I quickly had to buy all of Bowen’s books, even though I haven’t gotten to most of them yet!

      I randomly shouted out the idea of a Virago reading week because there’d already been a Persephone week and a NYRB week, so it just seemed the natural time in book blogger land allotted to promoting that kind of thing!

  4. Iris says:

    This sounds like a very emotionally heavy read. And I can recognize so much in your review, being shy and usually quite passive as well. I have now added both this book and the Elizabeth Bowen one to my wishlist. I guess I need a Virago Modern Classic project as well as a Persephone one..

    • Carolyn says:

      I’m glad you can understand what it’s like to be shy, Iris. I desperately look for books with characters like that and find them all too rarely. Ooh, I want to know more about your Persephone project!

  5. nymeth says:

    I love this review, Carolyn! Your experience with the book (finding it all so maddening, but realising it makes for such a worthwhile reading experience at the same time) reminds me of my own recent reaction to E.M. Delafield’s Consequences.

    I cannot wait for January!

  6. Claire (The Captive Reader) says:

    I think one of the reasons I haven’t read many Virago Modern Classics is because, as you say, they choose more challenging titles and that’s rather scared me off. It’s rather silly but nonetheless there it is. Thanks for the reminder that sometimes it is good to challenge yourself to read outside your comfort zone.

    • Carolyn says:

      Yes, I’ve felt just the same about Virago (still do a bit), but it’s also wonderful that they’ve brought back and championed so many forgotten women writers. Looking through the Virago list, it’s such a diverse and stirring, intriguing, collection.

    • Carolyn says:

      Hooray, yes do give her a shot and yes, she did write a biography of Jane Austen, as well as ones of Henry Fielding, Lady Caroline Lamb (now there’s someone I’d like to know more about) and Elizabeth I!

  7. Rachel says:

    Oh Carolyn, I’m so delighted that you loved this. I was stunned by it as well when I read it last year. It’s one of those books that really knocks the wind out of you, and leaves you reeling for a few days afterwards. What I thought was so clever about it is that you can be both infuriated by Imogen’s passivity and also feel terribly sorry for her – I felt so conflicted, and even more so when I started even empathising with Blanche. Elizabeth Jenkins was truly a talented author and I’d love to find more books by her.

    I agree with what you say about the difference between Virago and Persephone. Persephone books can be a little subversive and thought provoking, but I’ve never read one that has made me feel genuinely uncomfortable or miserable, and I think that is their strength; you always know where you are with them. Virago, on the other hand, have published a much more loose list that has a fair number of wild cards in it, so you get a wider breadth of genres and plots and characters and situations, some of which are not as palate pleasing as you might hope. Hopefully the Virago Reading Week will throw up a few interesting novels to get our teeth into!

    • Carolyn says:

      Oh I never did empathize much with Blanche (ok she was a better fit for Evelyn and it’s nice she finally finds happiness), but when she meets up with Imogen’s friend behind her back to try to justify her behaviour…! That really annoyed me. She’s just as slavishly devoted to Evelyn as Imogen was, more so, insulting Imogen for being unable to perform for him! She may have a stronger sense of self from being on her own for so long and so can handle acting like his chauffeur etc better than Imogen could. That aside, I’d like to find more books by her too! This one seems to be the only one Virago republished though.

  8. m says:

    I loved this book. But I think what’s so clever about it is that she makes you feel for all of them, including the husband – after all, it can’t have been much fun being married to drippy, sexless Imogen for all those years.

    • Carolyn says:

      I can’t say I felt much for the husband, personally! It’s hinted that he couldn’t be bothered to make sex better for her, so I don’t see how saying it’s all her fault is really fair…? Imogen is also much younger than him and very beautiful, too bad he just couldn’t have it all!

  9. thejaneaustenproject says:

    Enjoyed your review. I loved this book, too. I had never heard of it until reading Elizabeth Jenkins’s obit. I cannot imagine why it is not better known. But I don’t know, maybe it is in the UK and not here in America? It is just so skillful and amazing. What no one has commented on here that really struck me is how there is a kind of comic undertone running alongside all the doom, the way the characters seem both real and convincing and yet faintly ridiculous. That, along with the really fine writing, really won me over.

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