Elizabeth Jenkins's The Tortoise and the Hare is one of the best novels I've ever read - a near-perfect work of art, like The Leopard and Emma. Yet its author is almost entirely unread, and has no presence on the Web. She should be feted as one of our most extraordinary authors simply on the basis of this one book.
Amazingly, Elizabeth Jenkins is still alive, at 105. She was made an OBE in 1995, and I was familiar with her only through her biography of Jane Austen, one of the few I feel sure JA herself would have approved of both for its elegance of expression and its insight.
But ...to describe The Tortoise and the Hare as a portrait of an agonising marriage is to do it an injustice. It is about Imogen, whose fading beauty and graceful self-effacement are insufficient to keep the interest of her husband, Evelyn. A 52 year old barrister - rich, successful, beautiful in an almost feminine way and selfish - he falls for the last person anyone would expect., a plain, dowdy middle-aged woman of wealth but no tact or taste. In a Bronte novel, our sympathies would perhaps be with Blanche, but it is Imogen in her passivity and silent agony who is the heroine. She can't even drive, she doesn't enjoy sex, she is bullied and derided by her own son... she is the kind of woman in a class which, according to Carmen Callil, has vanished since the early 19850s and yet I feel I know all too many Imogens. You want to scream at her to wake up, fight, do something more than suffer - like Nora in The Doll's House - and by the end of the novel it seems that she may yet make a life for herself, and the one person in the book who sees and loves her.
That makes it sound too grim, though, for the novel is shot through with dazzling wit. There is a gloriously funny portrait of a couple who would be all too familiar to denizens of North Oxford and North London - a woman writer, no less, whose pretentions and lack of maternal care are horribly satirised. Every character is drawn with an even-handed assurance. I haven't been so impressed by anything so much since I read 'Suite Francaise' for although this is about a very different kind of battle, it's just as tense. Who is the Tortoise, and who the Hare? The answers may surprise you. I can't recommend it too highly.