#100WomenNovelists: Elizabeth Jenkins

Blog Post 31: The Tortoise and the Hare (1954)

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The sunlight of late September filled the pale, formal streets between Portland Place and Manchester Square… Imogen Gresham held a mug in her bare hands; it was a pure sky blue, decorated with a  pattern of raised wheat ears… Her eye absorbed the colour and her fingers the moulding of the wheat. Her husband however saw that there was a chip at the base of the mug, from which the cracks meandered up the inside like rivers on a map.

What a delight to discover Elizabeth Jenkins and to realise how many books she wrote, both biographies and novels. I came across her during my research for my work-in-progress set in the Second World War on the home front. This is the first I have read of her and I am sure I will devour the rest of her books if this is anything to go by.

Jenkins is put into the group of women novelists who wrote in the 30s, 40s and 50s. Her sense of dislocation is compared to her close friend, Elizabeth Bowen’s. Her dry wit is akin to that of Barbara Pym. But, in the introduction to the Virago edition of 2008, Hilary Mantel compares her to Jane Austen – ‘formal, nuanced, acid’.

This is a novel of great subtlety, subtext, and atmosphere. Over the course of the narrative there is an almost unbearable build up of tension. A tension that kept me gripped all the way through to its surprising yet satisfying conclusion.

At its heart, this is a story about marriage. Set not long after the war, the characters are trying to return to a normal, settled life, split between London and Berkshire. But this upper middle-class existence is now on shaky ground and it is very hard for Imogen to know and keep her place at the centre of her older, handsome, QC husband’s attentions. Imogen does her best to placate Evelyn, to bend to his will, to keep him happy, as we see from the opening paragraph where they look at a piece of pottery in an antique shop. While Imogen is struck by the simple beauty of the piece,  Evelyn cannot see past its imperfections. And so they do not buy it.

As the novel progresses, we feel great empathy for Imogen, especially from a 21st century perspective. Her husband is overbearing and her son imitates his father so that she is isolated in her own home. And then there is Blanche Silcox, a middle-aged, frousty, horsey neighbour who has Evelyn in her clutches. Imogen, who only has her looks and femininity to rely on, can do nothing to compete with the competent, countrified, monied Blanche. But the novel is so much more than this. The psychological depth is extraordinary. The characters brilliantly drawn. Each sentence exquisite. Thank goodness there are so many more books to read by this remarkable writer.

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