Sunday, June 12, 2011

The Tortoise and the Hare

I had never heard of Elizabeth Jenkins although she is the author of 20+ books. That’s not so surprising I guess. She is a British author with only one title currently available in the U.S. However, when I did a little research I found that Jenkins was critically acclaimed and financially successful during her career. She was good friends with Elizabeth Bowen and Rebecca West. She was slighted by Virginia Woolf, won the Femina Vie Heureuse Prize for her 1934 Harriet and passed away last September at 104 years old. All that should qualify her for a major rediscovery, right? A Masterpiece Theater series or at the very least an appreciative article in a major newspaper or magazine.

My girl Hilary Mantel was the means of my discovery of Elizabeth Jenkins. Ah Hilary. She always does me good. I had gone to my local for a copy of Mantel’s A Place of Greater Safety to give to a friend. This is a new friend. The only reason I meet people these days is to have someone else to pass that novel along to. That book is one of my favorite novels of all time. It is a brilliant retelling of the French Revolution through the eyes of Robespierre, Danton and Desmoulins. Anyway, right there in the middle of Hilary’s shelf space between Wolf Hall (How nice would it be to read that again for the first time!) and Fludd (The scene where the spinster housekeeper is making herself a wedding band out of a sweets wrapper? Genius!) was a copy of The Tortoise and the Hare by Elizabeth Jenkins.

It was fate. My girl wrote the introduction to Tortoise. Her name was on the cover big as life along with the authors’ and a bookseller’s mistake became my delighted discovery. The understandable mis-shelving created a new author experience for me. So thank you confused bookseller.
The Tortoise and the Hare is a title with immediate meaning for any reader. We all know that story, slow but sure the tortoise wins the race. Elizabeth Jenkins does not rewrite this fable so much as she redefines it as a study of marriage. She also talented and smart enough to never let you feel comfortable in your choice of which character is the tortoise and which is the hare.
Your choices are Imogen and Blanche. Imogen is a young 37. She is an attractive, self-effacing, passive, show piece wife. A good hostess, always stylish and a lover of all the arts. Blanche is a moneyed country woman. She can hunt, solve problems, and build a dam with a piece of cheese and robin’s egg shell. She is short, stout with legs like a bull and is a settled 52 years old. The race to win, their competition, is Evelyn Gresham. Evelyn is a successful 50 year old barrister and Imogen’s husband . Imogen and Evelyn, though not unhappy, have a marriage based on her adoration and his condescending affection. Could Imogen possibly lose her husband to Margaret Rutherford’s twin?
Jenkins rounds out this unusual love triangle with a clear eyed look at neighbors, friends and the upper middle class country life of the period. With the exception of Blanche all of the other adults in the novel juxtapose the Gresham’s relationship in some way. For better and worse they are well drawn examples of the road not taken.
Thinking this might be a little chicklit-y? Think again, my friend. This is an intricate comedy of manners with ever more well defined characters encased in absolutely gorgeous writing. The kind of writing that makes you read sentences over and over again. I adored The Tortoise and the Hare and I cannot wait to read more Elizabeth Jenkins!

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