Wednesday, 13 January 2016

Cross-Blog Reviewing: The Tortoise and the Hare



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


published 1954



Tortoise and the Hare 1Blanche:
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: Tortoise and the Hare 2
[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:

Tortoise and the Hare 3
 

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.



















18 comments:

  1. We see absolutely eye to eye on this, Moira! I agree about Imogen being infuriatingly passive. Did you like the character of Cecil?
    The kissing: yes, surprising, but I felt this went with Imogen's later view that she ought to be able to accept Evelyn's having a mistress.

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    1. I did like Cecil, though she was a woman of the 50s, not the 2010s - but I also thought she wasn't quite rounded out enough. The one chapter where we see her POV made me want more.
      Yes, there was a trope in novels at the time that you should be 'modern' and accepting of infidelity. Being 'true to thee in my fashion' was the thing, though you couldn't accuse Evelyn of that. What a [rude word]. I do keep wondering what became of them all, where they all were 10 years down the line.
      That convincingly annoying boy, for example. Can see HIM repeating the mistakes of his parents in some dire marriage of the 60s/70s.
      I could discuss this book forever.

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  2. Is there a moral judgement at the end: should Imogen have stayed with Evelyn, taken up his offer of leaving Blanche? We see that Gavin is damaged by her decision . . . but we see also why she was incapable of toughing it out. Yes, Evelyn is dreadful, but you can see the ways in which they were just not suited. I could discuss it forever, too. I must get on with writing my own novel!

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    1. That is a very good point - you felt she was taking a cool look at Imogen at times. And yes, I said Gavin was annoying, but I should have added that half this was age, and half was the impossible situation he was in. The mind boggles rather at the other child simply staying with her... so much to think about!

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  3. Just from the snippets you've shared, Moira, I can see that it's a book of its time. I admit I've not read it, but I think I'd want to shake Imogen, too! In any case, sometimes those more intimate stories can really be absorbing. I'm glad you enjoyed this one.

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    1. I did Margot - I like to read this kind of book as a change from crime fiction, and as you can see, Chrissie does too. (and writing crime fiction in her case.)

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  4. I remember reading this book last year and enjoyed it very much, but what a limp rag Imogen is, misused by everyone.

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    1. She is, but I never quite gave up on her. I do wonder what exactly Jenkins meant by the title....

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    2. I've always assumed that Imogen was the hare, and Blanche the tortoise.

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    3. I know, that was my thought, although - yet again - how odd to write your book from the hare's point of view. And I read something saying you could look at it the other way round. I really wish I knew how she thought they would end up...

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  5. Based on your description, I think I would enjoy the way this story is told ... "in a series of minor incidents." Haven't heard of the author or the book.

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    1. She's a very English author - but I think most English people won't have heard her either. But I think this one, in particular, will keep getting reprinted. It is a gem.

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  6. Moira, I don't remember the last time I stayed up late and finished a book. I did a lot of that in my early days. Now I need my quota of sleep. Speaking of a ‘women’s’ book of the 50s, have you read "Sister Carrie" (1900) by Theodore Dreiser? Though not the same period book, it has Caroline "Sister Carrie" Meeber going to Chicago to realise her dreams. It's a terrific book with lots of elements, including fashion of that day, that you will particularly like.

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    1. That's a great suggestion Prashant - I have heard of this book but never read it, so must get hold of it.
      I don't often stay up late to a finish a book any more - I'm too old too - but after it happening last week with this one, it happened again! Blogpost to follow....

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    2. Moira, the book is available legally, in public domain. I look forward to reading your review.

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    3. I have downloaded it Prashant! I don't know how long before a review appears, but it's definitely there on the kindle, so I will get to it.

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  7. Not rushing to the shops for this one either.

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    1. It is a brilliant book, but not your cup of tea at all I would think. You are excused.

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