Friday, 14 October 2016
All but forgotten: Elizabeth Jenkins
She had in fallen out of fashion long before she died, at the extraordinary age of 104, in 2010 (she published a memoir in her 100th year). She was a prolific writer - of biographies and historical studies as well as novels - but, held back by her diffident nature, she did little to sustain her career, shunning all publicity and self-promotion (she would have sunk like a stone in today's literary world). Happily, though, one novel of hers - The Tortoise and the Hare - was rediscovered by Carmen Callil and republished as a Virago Modern Classic. This remains the only Elizabeth Jenkins novel that is easily available. Naturally I bought it, and have now read it. It is startlingly good.
The Tortoise and the Hare, published in 1954, relates the break-up of a marriage - a common enough subject, but handled with rare imaginative flair and originality. Imogen is the beautiful, sensitive young wife of Evelyn Gresham, a handsome, brilliant and successful barrister with a high opinion of himself and a strong sense of entitlement, neither of which his compliant wife has done anything to dent. The Greshams have plenty of money, a big house in Berkshire and a place in town, a loyal cook, and a standard of living that might make today's readers blink in disbelief. But are they happy? Of course they are not.
The opening paragraph sets the tone - indeed it tells you almost all you need to know about these two and their relationship:
'The sunlight of late September filled the pale, formal streets between Portland Place and Manchester Square. The sky was a burning blue yet the still air was chill. A gold chestnut fan sailed down from some unseen tree and tinkled on the pavement. In the small antique-dealer's a strong shaft of sunlight, cloudy with whirling gold-dust, penetrated the collection of red lacquer and tortoiseshell, ormolu and morocco. Imogen Gresham held a mug in her bare hands; it was a pure sky blue, decorated with a pattern of raised wheat ears, of the kind known in country districts as a 'harvester'. 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 cracks meandered up the inside like rivers on a map.
'You don't want that, surely, ' he exclaimed. 'It would come apart in no time.' He turned abruptly to the window through which he could see his car standing at the kerb. Imogen with bent head slowly put down the mug...'
Imogen has not told Evelyn that she wanted to buy something as a favour to the antique-shop's elderly proprietor, who is on his uppers. It wouldn't have cut any ice with him if she had.
What that opening also demonstrates is Elizabeth Jenkins' ability as a descriptive writer. There are some arrestingly beautiful passages in the book, especially describing effects of light on water - the Greshams' Berkshire home is on the river, with water all around (and a key scene towards the end takes place on the Thames by Tower Bridge, after a riverboat trip). Jenkins is a writer highly attentive to surroundings, both outdoors and in. She is also highly attentive to the movements of Imogen's mind and emotions as the story unfolds and she begins to realise - but not before it is too late - what is going on between Evelyn and the wildly improbable, therefore easily dismissed, 'other woman'.
This is Blanche Silcox, tweedy, frumpy, older than Evelyn, pillar of village society, spinster, wearer of ludicrous hats, but wealthy, capable, knowledgable in practical affairs and strong-minded. It is in those last attributes - all of which Imogen lacks - that Blanche's fatal attraction lies. With Imogen we have to watch in horror as Blanche gradually engulfs Evelyn's life, leaving no room for his wife. Imogen's passivity, her failure to force a crisis and 'have it out' with Evelyn before it is too late, is at once deeply frustrating and entirely believable. Blanche Silcox has outflanked her, defeating her on her own ground. When it becomes clear that Evelyn 'adores' Blanche and even finds her more sexually satisfying than Imogen, it is all over. Imogen cannot fight back. As a male friend remarks, bluntly summing up the debacle, 'Women who are attractive in that sort of way, it's their thing. They never think about anything else, practically. That's why they're such good value, up to a point. But an affront to that side of them, and they're beaten to the floor. It wouldn't occur to them to try to patch the thing up...'
As it happens, there is an element of autobiography in The Tortoise and the Hare. Elizabeth Jenkins, a beautiful, sensitive woman herself, was dumped by a married lover (a man quite as distinguished and self-important as Evelyn Gresham) in favour of a rival every bit as improbable as Blanche Silcox. The novel was written in a burst of creative frenzy in the immediate aftermath, though you'd never guess that it was written at speed. Jenkins is an elegant stylist, very much in the Jane Austen mould (she wrote a well-thought-of biography of Austen and was a founder of the Jane Austen Society) - and her perception is similarly sharp and often merciless. The novel includes some extremely caustic descriptions of 'progressive' and 'arty' types, and there is a thoroughly Austenesque skewering of a featherbrained babbler along the way.
There is a decent range of well drawn, sympathetic secondary characters, providing some necessary shifts of viewpoint away from the unhappy Imogen. She, however, remains the centre of our fascinated, sometimes appalled interest, and it is her desperate situation that draws us in. The Tortoise and the Hare is a remarkable novel, and I have no argument with those who rate it as one of the classics of postwar English fiction. I'm certainly going to keep my eyes peeled for more Elizabeth Jenkins - she is a writer far too good to be forgotten.