My friend Christine Poulson and I decided that we would set each other a book to read, then each publish our reviews (as yet unseen by the other) on the same day.
She got me to read this wonderful book: I haven’t set her a task yet, but look out for it in the future.
Her blog is over at Christine Poulson: A Reading Life, and you can read her review here.
the book: The Tortoise and the Hare by Elizabeth Jenkins
Evelyn was talking to Blanche Silcox, a neighbour who… was on the way to the post in the village, it seemed, for she held several envelopes in her leather-gauntleted hand. The tweed suit, expensive but of singular cut, increased the breadth of her middle-aged figure. She appeared kind and unassuming, which made it the more strange that her hats should be so very intimidating. For ordinary wear like the present they were stiff felts with unusually large-domed crowns; on dressy occasions they mounted quills that were absolutely formidable.
[Imogen is going to a party with family friend Paul] She did not dress until after the meal, so that… it was 10 o’clock before she came downstairs, in palest yellow, with some of the yellow china roses tucked into her bosom. Paul raised himself from the sofa…
[They arrive at the party] As Paul and Imogen went up the path however sounds began to reach them of talk and laughter, occasionally rising to a shout and a tinkle of broken glass. Imogen was eager to see the sights but approached with a diffident step; Paul, secretly reluctant, walked with a firm tread. They saw at once that Paul had no need to apologize for his clothes; though the women were in full evening dress, few of the men had adopted even the formality of a stiff collar.
commentary: When Chrissie suggested this book, I knew I had a copy on my shelves, and that I’d read it many years ago – it was a Virago Modern Classic with this wonderful and memorable picture on the cover:
I had a vague memory of the plot, and thought I had liked it very much. So I picked it up with some pleasure – and then read it in one sitting, staying up till 2am to finish it. It’s a simple deceptive novel, very much a ‘women’s’ book of the 50s, about relationships, and feelings, and marriages, and the roles of women. I love books like that anyway, but this one is very very different and, I think, very unusual.
Imogen, beautiful and charming, is married to the older Evelyn: they have a lovely home and a cherished son. During the course of the book, Evelyn is lured away from Imogen by a most unlikely person: Blanche, a tweedy spinster neighbour with an interest in local activities and fishing and shooting. Imogen is helpless, passive, and can seem to do nothing to stop this happening.
The thing is, although the bones of this story are common in fiction, this version of it is unprecedented. We are used to the plain woman taking the man away from the spoilt beauty, or a plain woman having a makeover, or the heroine winning out because of her intrinsic worth – there are any number of variations. But I would venture that this particular threesome is pretty much unique. In the end Imogen feels that perhaps Blanche and Evelyn are better suited. At times you long to shake her, and her complete willingness to take the blame is infuriating. Not much is done to show Blanche’s side of the affair (not much solidarity here) – and I did wonder if the breakup of a marriage would be accepted so easily in a traditional country neighbourhood as is suggested here.
The whole story is told in straightforward old-fashioned chapters, in a series of minor incidents – lunches and holidays and lifts in the car and trips to school. Jenkins looks carefully at people’s lives, the details of their feelings.
My only slight complaint about the book is the portrayal of a neighbouring family, the Leepers, who are progressive and not raising their children properly – the vision of them is totally over the top, though it is also very funny at times. The wicked Zenobia is a delight, and I like the idea of having an ‘idiom of life’. The party above is portrayed as an appalling event, where the daughters of the family, in dirty nightdresses, run amok, grabbing food and breaking things. It is horrible, but not terribly convincing, and doesn’t seem to fit with the rest of the book. Elsewhere Imogen has important friendships with equally worried people (like Paul, above), relationships that inch along and leave a lot to the imagination – though I was astonished at her freely kissing one of her male friends. That didn’t seem to fit in at all.
It is very much of its time: Evelyn says that they shouldn’t worry about their son’s school:
All this talk about happiness – happiness is a by-product of doing something in a satisfactory manner. It isn’t the object and and end of existence, as you seem to think.It’s not a point of view you could easily imagine from a modern character’s mouth. It is ironic that it comes from Evelyn, who is quite prepared to go to any lengths to pursue his own happiness.
And now I’m looking forward to Chrissie’s take on the book - and would like to thank her for making me read it.
Blanche is noted for her tweeds and hats – the picture is the composer Ethel Smyth, from the Brooklyn Museum. The yellow evening dress is from Kristine’s photostream.