Sunday, December 20, 2015

The Tortoise and the Hare

My own photo; I couldn't find this '83 pbk
anywhere else. Love these red tights!
The Tortoise and the Hare / Elizabeth Jenkins
London: Virago, 1983, c1954.
252 p.

I've taken ages to review this one, even though it's a really good read. Not a happy one, but a really thought-provoking, well done story.

Imogen, youthful, beautiful, elegant and all that a wife should be, is married to an older and far more brusque person than herself. Evelyn Gresham is a barrister, successful, rich and a very, very strong personality; one might even say he is a bully.

They have an 11 yr old son, a beautiful home in the English countryside, an influential social circle. And they have a neighbour, the "elderly" (in her 50s!!) Blanche Silcox. Blanche is the quintessential country woman. She's stout, chummy, loves shooting and riding, and wanders about in tweed. She and Evelyn have a lot in common -- they are about the same age, have the same habits, and come from the same sort of background. But Blanche is a stout, middle-aged lady -- there's no way she could steal Evelyn away from the elegant Imogen. Or is there.....?

The title of the book is a kind of litmus test as to your reaction to this story. Who is the tortoise and who is the hare? That really depends on how you decipher this rather heart-breaking tale. Is Evelyn the prize to be won? Or is one's freedom the prize? Has Blanche slowly won her race, over the dreamy but expected winner, Imogen? Or has Imogen won by being herself and not changing just to win the final contest? Lots of questions, and lots to think about.

I found the writing really compelling. There is a strong sense of place and time (written in 1954) and the characters, especially the two leading women, are complex, and fascinating in their contrasts. Imogen is very bookish, and all the bookish references are a joy to read and figure out -- they always signify something.

The pace of the story is quiet, but a bit relentless: the conclusion seems inescapable, even as you hope something will change the course of this relationship. It's very sad, but also holds a glimmer of something perhaps hopeful in the final lines, given to Imogen:

‘I must improve [...] There is a very great deal to be done’

I'm including this book in my Christmas review roundup as there is a scene set at a country Christmas - not necessarily a happy one, given the circumstances, but traditions must be followed, and the event must go on.

The Christmas holidays were not favourable to riding. For a week before Christmas there were heavy falls of snow. This froze at night and was renewed the next day for several days, and though when Gavin came home, the weather had become milder, the depths of frozen and fresh snow would lie for some time...

The holidays went by very fast, with the two boys as the centrepiece of the household. The Greshams had now dropped any pretence of consulting the Leepers with regard to arrangements for Tim. They simply told Tim what time he must be ready to be motored up to town to the pantomime, to the skating rink, when the picnic would be held. Evelyn had kept from his boyhood the custom of picnics in the snow. On a bright, still morning, the party under his guidance walked over the downs to the edge of the valley of yew trees. Blanche Silcox came with them; what could be pleasanter?

But despite their own crumbling family at this Christmastime, others -- like the Leepers -- have things a bit more dishevelled, at least in appearance.

The Christmas preparations in the Leeper household were of an ambitious nature but they did not seem to have been made with any view to children's amusement. The walls of the atelier were studded with greeting cards, both dashing and sophisticated, and there was a Christmas tree at the back of the room, but its ornaments were wire mobiles and tiny bottles of liqueurs, and little boxes containing objects that suggested a horrible adult parody of a schoolboy's vulgar joke. There was, strewn about, a wealth of foreign confectionery in elaborate, sticky boxes and the company had the air of having drunk a good deal at lunch... Varvara...hung back, looking cross and dispirited, and frequently kicked the base of the Christmas tree so that the objects on it swayed and jingled. As one of them seemed about to fly off, Evelyn put out a hand to it, glanced at it and let it go. 

Jenkins' writing is this coolly observational throughout the book. The various families and the emotional derangements that are occurring are all described with a certain detachment. This perhaps echoes Imogen's way of perceiving her world; but at what point does she realize that she must indeed pay attention? It's a book that can stand up to rereads and many discussions. It's recommended, but perhaps not when you'd like to feel jolly about your reading. 


  1. Excellent review, Melwyk. This does sound like quite a thought-provoking book.

    1. Very much so. A little bit depressing; one feels that Imogen should just DO something, but the story is implacable. It is a very well done novel though.


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