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First published in 1954, The Tortoise and the Hare is a forgotten gem. At first glance it appears to be a quaint period piece set in a rather unsympathetic milieu – upper class 1950’s. Why bother with a group of people whose world view could be summed up by “man as meal ticket” and the NHS allows “the lower orders to malinger for free” ? My answer would be that Elizabeth Jenkins is a very fine writer and that these issues haven’t quite gone away, so to have the spotlight of 60 years ago shone on them gives a new angle.

This is the portrait of a marriage of a high-flying barrister and his compliant younger wife, the characterisation (even of minor characters) is deft and the use of language original. The threat to the stability of the marriage comes from a “Miss Fixit” neighbour who is the polar opposite of the wife and possesses that ultimate boy’s toy, a purring Rolls Royce!

Strongest piece of characterisation in the whole book is Evelyn, the alpha male QC. Despite being overbearing and insensitive, the author draws him with sympathy and there is no hint of the idea that he might be a control freak (almost obligatory in contemporary writing) which leaves us free to speculate how complicit his wife, Imogen is in her infantilisation. A lot of readers today will be aghast at Imogen’s assessment of her role – “there was never a doubt in her mind that to meet his demands was the most absorbing and the most valuable end to which her energies would be used p.31.”

Elizabeth Jenkins is spot on in the analysis of the subtle elements of marital contempt

“he scolded Imogen for any admiration of natural beauty which disregarded usefulness and sense …..he was irritated by her sympathy with the travelling deer that ate young shoots in plantations and with the rabbits and squirrels that every sensible person regarded as pestilent.” Imogen responded tentatively – “I do see that, I do really” she said earnestly “but that squirrel seemed to ripple along, it was outlined in silver light…” “Blanche Silcox is shooting something” said Evelyn “I hope it’s squirrel.” This passage on p.39 sets the tone of the whole novel. Two people with widely differing philosophies of life. An unequal power balance. “Evelyn’s intimidating good humour …..seemed to encase him like a brilliant armour of glass p.180.”

Contemporary readers will take exception to a retired major’s treatment of Imogen “he ran his eye over her bosom, waist and legs in as thorough and practised a manner as if she had been a mare p.176” but it gives a piquant account of how women were regarded by men in the 1950’s.

Other passages too may be a little hard to take for the modern reader for example the dinner party in Chapter 14. Here the transformational effect of love on one character has a touch of Mills & Boon about it.

But despite a few flaws, the central idea that physical attractiveness can be a hindrance is well-explored. I believe Elizabeth Jenkins has written a novel which you can savour awhile after finishing. A worthy candidate for a bit of “deep reading.”

There is a very interesting interview here with the author including the back story to the novel (hat tip to dovegreyreader)

Update 7 May 2014 Excellent review here which captures the essence of the novel without plotspoiling

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