40 of 40 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars a masterpiece about adultery and betrayal
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,...
Published on 4 Jun 2009 by A. Craig
7 of 11 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars DO something!
This novel is set in a social class (the upper-middle) that I, thankfully, have no experience of, and a time - the 1950s - where stiff upper lips were generally worn. A rich KC (Evelyn) becomes friendly with a woman (Blanche) who lives nearby and his wife (Imogen) gradually discovers what is going on behind her back. The unusual element is the ages of the two women...
Published on 12 Feb 2011 by Eileen Shaw
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40 of 40 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars a masterpiece about adultery and betrayal,
This review is from: The Tortoise And The Hare (VMC) (Paperback)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.
44 of 45 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars As good as Elizabeth Taylor,
This review is from: The Tortoise And The Hare (VMC) (Paperback)Whoever is in charge of coverdesign at Virago should be shot. Please, please ignore this silly chick-litty cover - wrap the book in brown paper, if needs be - because it gives entirely the wrong impression of a subtle and perceptive novel.
Imogen is an upper-middle class 1950s wife; decorative, docile, dependent. The terrifying Blanche is a frumpish spinster (scary, how in the 1950s women are described as 'elderly' at 50), full of banked-up sexual energy and terrifying efficiency. The prize is Imogen's Alpha-male husband Evelyn ... now depending on the kind of man you find attractive, you'll either loathe Evelyn or find yourself drawn by his compelling masculinity. And yet, Evelyn - a man with a girl's name! - is magnetically drawn to the almost masculine Blanche.
As Princess Diana said, there are three in this marriage ... Jenkins made me sympathise with all of them. Frightful Blanche glows with this love that has come to her so late in life. Imogen's confidence is shattered - but heavens, you want to pick her up and shake her out of her passivity.
As well as this marital power struggle, Elizabeth Jenkins does a fine job describing the 1950s world that we have lost - its landscape, food, clothes, furnishings, its children and even the sound of its cars.
The longer I think about this novel, the better it seems ... elegantly written, often humorous, as good as Elizabeth Taylor. It was inspired by Jenkins's own relationship, as a very young woman, with a distinguished, married gynaecologist who didn't appear to her to be properly appreciated by his wife. When his wife died, he then married a neighbour - who became Blanche in the book - but soon resurfaced hoping that Jenkins would carry on their relationship as before. By this time she had written The Tortoise and the Hare, so she sent him a copy - and never heard from him again. Sadly, as far as I know, she never married and this was the great love of her life. So no wonder that Evelyn, for all his faults, comes across as a sympathetic character ... at least to those of us who fall for this kind of man!
13 of 13 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Never mind the cover - why are the rest of her novels out of print?,
This review is from: The Tortoise And The Hare (VMC) (Paperback)I lost most of night's sleep reading this wonderful novel. After a succession of Barbara Pym's (and don't get me wrong, I love them too) this felt like steak after ice-cream. Whereas Pym explores her characters and their social milieu largely through dialogue Jenkins analyses the thought processes of her heroine from within.
Imogen does allow herself to be defeated but it is a lucky person who has never experienced the kind of subtle manipulation she is subjected to, and her whole life and particularly her relationship with her husband, has trained her to this vulnerability. Neither her temperament nor her experience has given her any chance to learn how to defend herself but it is clear at the end of the novel that she has a chance to begin to grow into independence and is likely to be set off on that path by a small boy who has experienced and faced the emotional isolation that she has endured without recognising it and is making his own bid for freedom and fufilment.
Although it is is a profoundly satisfying novel in itself it sets up a wonderful set of possibilities for a sequel and, not having one, the reader is sent off on a trail of "what ifs" in the subsequent lives of the characters, perhaps most strongly the inevitable come-upance lurking in the future of the awful Evelyn when the gilt wears off the gingerbread of his second marriage and he finds himself more deeply entapped than he can ever imagine. It's not without perception that one of his friends remarks that the second Mrs Gresham will have a very different view of the sanctity of marriage, particularly her own, than her husband has shown in his easy betrayal of his first wife. Imogen's future is wide with possibility but her former husband's is closing around him like a steel cage and one largely of his own making having met and married his match in selfishness.
Having finished this one I rushed off to the internet to buy the rest of Elizabeth Jenkins' fiction only to be astonished that none of them seem to be easily and cheaply available - why are Virago and Persephone not rushing the rest of her oevre into print?
Do read this very perceptive and engrossing book and if you like it too - clamour for more.
7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Loved it but understand other reviewers reservations,
This review is from: The Tortoise And The Hare (VMC) (Paperback)As with many other reviewers I loved this book - it is very well crafted and the psychological insights that run through the book are extraordinary. Jenkins is clearly a very empathic and perception observer of people. I do however understand why some of the reviewers had reservations about the book. What makes it special i.e., the sharply drawn characters and feelings that are generated in the reader also make this quite a "dense" book. It is a little unrelenting - at no time do things really seem to turn in Imogen's favour and that lack of light and shade made it a little wearing to read for me sometimes.
Also, I think it is a product of its time. I suspect when it was written Imogen would have generated quite a high degree of sympathy and resonance in some of the readers. Modern day readers (particularly women) may find her too wimpy. It generated quite a bit of frustration for me because I just kept feeling that Imogen should have taken more control. Part of this was the author's intent I think but I also think that modern-day women possibly feel more irritation with such a passive character. It is hard to read a book where all the main characters are more than a little unlikeable/irritating. So even though I loved the book there were times where I didn't enjoy reading it. It just felt a little like the balance was too heavily in Blanche's favour but then maybe that is just my need for fairness coming out...
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Clever, perceptive - a novel without a hero(ine),
This review is from: The Tortoise And The Hare (VMC Designer Collection) (Hardcover)One of the fascinating things which emerges from these reviews, and from the foreword and afterword to the book (Hilary Mantel and Carmen Calill respectively) is that it is possible to identify/sympathise most with any of Evelyn (handsome, successful and somewhat exigent KC who, like Mr Bennett, has through a prejudice in favour of good looks married a woman with whom he has next to nothing in common), Imogen (his wife: beautiful, well meaning, wronged and paralysed by her own monumental self-absorption), or Blanche (their neighbour: a woman who has missed out on love, but who has lots of interests about which she can talk well, has the art of empathy and sympathy, and also understands comfort). This is a true three hander of a novel and no-one comes out of it with any great credit - and yet one cannot help extending some sympathy too all involved. Each one of the main characters is well drawn and believable - perhaps not surprising when Elizabeth Jenkins expressly based them on people she knew. So too however are the "bit parts" - Imogen's difficult son and his odd little friend from a truly dysfunctional home, her unhappily married admirer and her businesslike friend - all have a real spark of life about them.
One other interesting point was the parallel between this novel and De Beauvoir's "A Woman Destroyed" which also treats of a liberal minded woman finding the reality of infidelity impossibly hard to deal with.
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Quiet Masterpiece,
This review is from: The Tortoise And The Hare (VMC) (Paperback)There's not much I can add to the other positive reviews; I simply want to reinforce their enthusiasm for this quiet masterpiece. Very much in the same vein as Elizabeth Taylor and Anita Brookner, I find Jenkins' writing to be even more subtle and profound.
I would also highly recommend Jenkins' biography of Jane Austen, which has become a classic of the genre.Jane Austen: A Biography
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Stays in the mind,
This review is from: The Tortoise And The Hare (VMC) (Paperback)This is a novel that keeps working long after reading the final page. I keep going back to it. Who is the tortoise and who the hare? How much is Imogen the author of her own misery? Does Blanche deserve to get her man? Can Evelyn really be as awful as he seems to modern sensibilities? Who is at fault for Gavin's lack of feeling towards his mother? There is so much charm in the descriptions of the countryside, trips to London and the ordered way of life that Imogen stands to lose. This edition has an interesting introduction by Hilary Mantel and an excellent afterword. The negative aspects for me were the portray of Tim's family which I felt was supposed to be comic, but I couldn't find their casual child neglect comic and also the ending, which without giving the plot away I found unsettling and slightly disturbing.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Time of emotional discovery,
This review is from: The Tortoise And The Hare (VMC) (Paperback)Unlike others, I have no objection to the cover illustration; I fear the title is off-putting. However, readers would certainly miss out on one of the most outstanding novels of the post war period if they were influenced by either of these factors.
My copy has an introduction by Hilary Mantel, which begins 'Apart from war, what could be more interesting than a marriage?' and ends with 'What the author offers us does not date; descriptive grace and narrative pulse, dry humour and moral discrimination, tempered elegance and emotional force'.
I would like to say that although this is correct, it is also fair to add that by nature of the era and the subject matter (dissolution of a marriage in the fifties), the novel is still 'old fashioned' and slow paced - but I couldn't put it down!
This is a sad but immensely powerful story of a submissive, gullible, upper class gentle lady who is slowly losing her successful husband to an older, stout, slightly uncouth but clever 'Tweedy' country woman. In fifties format, the husband's needs alter and the wife fails to recognize this or adapt. You truly feel like shaking her; especially as the woman he turns to changes from cringe-worthy to charasmatic before her very eyes!
This book is superbly written; full of wit and unforgettable images. The characters are perceptually drawn and the child observations are outstanding. Elizabeth Jenkins' descriptions of the countryside are both colourful and exact. The Tortoise and the Hare is an excellent study of a society and its nuances relating to the English upper class and will appeal to many, especially Jane Austen fans. And as Hilary Mantel says, 'The surfaces of this story, as well as its depth, will give the reader much pleasure.
5.0 out of 5 stars Riveting read,
This review is from: The Tortoise And The Hare (VMC) (Paperback)Re the cover, I believe Virago may have thought the rather whimsical design might attract floating readers - I too find it inappropriately frivolous.
The psychology of Imogen's dilemma is what makes the story so compelling: how can a young and beautiful woman begin to compete with a rival who is neither? No wonder Imogen feels so helpless and frustrated with the situation. I feel this gives a reason for her inertia.
Evelyn's devotion to Blanche is the more convincing for its being so inexplicable to outsiders - how often does this happen in real life!
Am I the only person to feel constantly reminded of the royal 'three in a marriage' with Diana in Imogen's role and Camilla as Blanche?
8 of 12 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Ignore the cover!,
This review is from: The Tortoise And The Hare (VMC) (Paperback)I agree with a previous reviewer, whoever designs the covers for Virago needs an eye test! A recent release 'Nightingale Wood' by Stella Gibbons was set in the late thirties but displayed characters dressed in early twenties clothing on the cover, misleading, much like this book.
A classic, go read it, you'll love it.
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The Tortoise And The Hare (VMC) by Elizabeth Jenkins (Paperback - 7 Feb 1983)
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