Friday 30 November 2018

Elizabeth Jenkins (one last time?)

Here's the text of my piece on Elizabeth Jenkins in the current issue of 'the real reader's quarterly', Slightly Foxed. Of course it looks better in the pages of that beautifully produced magazine – the perfect stocking filler for the book lover(s) in your life, or indeed yourself.
Bits of this might ring a bell with Nigeness readers with good memories...

Whatever Happened to Elizabeth Jenkins?

When she died in 2010, at the astonishing age of 104, the novelist and biographer Elizabeth Jenkins was all but forgotten, her name known only to a few aficionados, her books mostly long out of print. And yet, in her day, her reputation had been up there with the other distinguished Elizabeths of mid-twentieth-century fiction, Bowen and Taylor. What happened?
  I had never heard of Elizabeth Jenkins myself until a chance conversation with a bookseller friend. He told me he had just sold one of her books and was pleasantly surprised to find that she was still being read. Elizabeth who? I asked, and he gave me the basics. Since then I have found out – and read – much more, and discovered for myself what a very fine novelist she was.
  A literary career that spanned eight decades began soon after she left Cambridge. While still an unpublished author working on her first novel, she was invited to dinner by Virginia and Leonard Woolf, and duly received the usual Bloomsbury treatment – taken up and made much of, then frozen out and humiliated. Though Virginia did praise that first novel, in somewhat patronising terms (‘a sweet white grape of a book’), Elizabeth was so embarrassed by it that she sought out and bought up all the copies she could find. (It was called Virginia Water and it does indeed seem to have disappeared without trace.) However, Victor Gollancz was sufficiently impressed to offer her a three-novel contract. Elizabeth Jenkins was on her way.
  Over the coming decades, a stream of well received novels and equally well received biographies poured forth. Several of the biographies – of Jane Austen (Jenkins was a founder of the Jane Austen Society), of Elizabeth I, Lady Caroline Lamb and others – remain quite easily available to this day, but the novels, though they often went into several printings, are mostly much harder to find. In part, no doubt, this was a matter of changing fashions – Jenkins’s novels generally inhabit an upper-middle-class milieu, and she strongly disapproved of the social changes that came about in the Fifties and Sixties. Things might have been different if she had been more of a self-publicist – or any kind of a self-publicist – but she was not. Held back by her diffident nature, she did little to further her career, shunning all publicity and self-promotion (in today’s literary world she would have sunk like a stone). Happily, however, those novels were not entirely forgotten. One of them – The Tortoise and the Hare – was rediscovered by Carmen Callil and republished as a Virago Modern Classic, and another, Harriet, was later reissued by the excellent Persephone Books.
  The Tortoise and the Hare, originally published in 1954, was the first Elizabeth Jenkins novel I got my hands on, and I was not disappointed. It chronicles the break-up of a marriage – a familiar 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 very 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, and a standard of living that might make today's readers blink in disbelief. But are they happy? Of course not.
  As the story unfolds, Imogen begins to realise just what is going on between her dazzling husband and the wildly improbable, therefore easily dismissed, 'other woman', a tweedy, frumpy pillar of village society, spinster, wearer of ludicrous hats, but wealthy, capable, knowledgeable in practical affairs and strong-minded. It is in those last attributes – all of which Imogen lacks – that Blanche's fatal attraction lies. Imogen looks on in helpless agony – and, worse, in full awareness that she is collaborating in her own suffering.
  There is an element of autobiography in The Tortoise and the Hare. Elizabeth Jenkins, a beautiful, sensitive woman herself, wrote it after being dumped by the love of her life, a married man every bit as distinguished as Evelyn Gresham. She was fatally attracted to such men, and they recur in her novels – as do sympathetic but frail victim figures. And victims don’t come any frailer than the helpless title character of Harriet, Jenkins’s second novel, which in 1935 beat Evelyn Waugh’s A Handful of Dust to win the Prix Femina Vie Heureuse.
  Harriet is a chilling read – indeed one of the most harrowing novels I’ve ever come across. Based on a real-life Victorian murder case, it tells of a young woman being starved to death by members of her own family eager to get their hands on her inheritance. The worst of it is that the young woman, Harriet, is a ‘natural’ (we would now say she had ‘learning difficulties’). Her mother has raised her with care and affection, and all is well until a handsome and entirely ruthless fortune hunter sets his sights on her, woos and marries her, and takes her away from her protective home.
  What follows is almost too painful to read – painful not only in the details of Harriet’s ordeal but in Jenkins’s horribly convincing depiction of the growth, in those supposed to be looking after her, of an ability to regard her as something less than human, something whose suffering and fate are a matter of complete indifference. A contemporary review described this novel as ‘like a cold hand clutching at the heart’ – and that is no overstatement.
  There is nothing of the cold hand in the novel that Elizabeth Jenkins always named as her own favourite of her works – Dr Gully’s Story (1972). This, too, takes its inspiration from a real-life Victorian murder case – the sensational and still unsolved Charles Bravo murder. However, there is no mention of Bravo until more than three-quarters of the way through, and the murder itself and the ensuing inquests don’t happen until the closing chapters. The focus is firmly on the fashionably society physician James Gully (who finds himself a suspect in the Bravo murder), on his feelings and experiences. Jenkins builds up a rich and compelling portrait of a fascinating, successful man – yes, the Evelyn Gresham type again, but additionally blessed with a peculiarly mesmeric presence.
  The real subject of the book is less the murder than the passionate love affair that develops between Gully and his beautiful, rich and very much younger patient, Florence Ricardo (later to be Florence Bravo). The course of this superficially unlikely romance is traced with such imaginative insight that it becomes entirely believable and involving. Jenkins creates around Gully and Florence a world rich in intricate and abundant detail, a densely Victorian, over-furnished, hyperabundant world of stuff – and of servants, ever present, ever vigilant, ever gossiping ­– in which the principals are obliged to live their lives, while trying to keep their love affair secret. It is, of course, a doomed romance, and when it ends much of the heat goes out of the novel, though the subsequent account of the murder and the inquests is fascinating enough in itself.
  One of the most striking features of Elizabeth Jenkins’s novels is their strong sense of place: the riverside locations of The Tortoise and the Hare, Victorian Cheltenham and suburban London in Dr Gully, the grim rural setting of Harriet’s ordeal, all are potently evoked by a writer who really does set her scenes. In Brightness (1963), the setting is the tight-knit Home Counties community of New Broadlands, a pleasant town set on a high ridge, its earliest houses ‘built in the Edwardian era by a community of high-minded cranks’ (we all know places like that).
  Brightness is a curious novel, the first three quarters seeming to be a fictional study of parenting, good and bad, of youthful rebellion and delinquency and the ‘generation gap’. The author’s loathing of ‘progressive’ thought – apparent in the background of The Tortoise and the Hare – comes to the fore here, in the portrayal of a frightful old humbug with the splendid name of Mortimer Upjohn, and, more especially, in the withering depiction of the nouveau riche Sugden family. The Sugdens are bringing up their late-teenage son with a toxic combination of unrestrained indulgence and non-existent discipline – with predictably loathsome results.  
  By way of contrast, we are given Una Lambert, a widow with a beloved son who is a credit to her firm but loving upbringing. As the novel goes on, a strain of theological speculation enters the picture, and the reader begins to wonder what kind of book this is ­– anti-progressive satire, study of parent-child relations, reflection on the nature of faith? – and where it is going. Then, suddenly, we find out exactly where it has all been going – towards a shocking and tragic event that changes everything, and puts all that came before in a wholly new perspective. This is a very bold way to shape a novel – as bold as the long delay of the murder in Dr Gully – but Jenkins, I think, pulls it off.
  Her last novel was A Silent Joy. Though published in 1992 – her 87th year – it is set in 1957, among a still prosperous and servant-attended upper middle class. Once again, a strong-minded and distinguished man – an elderly retired judge – is at the centre of things. The novel is a rather schematic study of three kinds of love: the deep, disinterested affection of the judge for the young daughter of a dead friend; the naked lust of said friend’s widow for a dodgy wheeler-dealer; and the sweetly conventional love of a young couple (older daughter of said friend and cousin of another friend). It is also a portrayal of the terrible effects of easy divorce – in 1957!  The plot is a little lumpy and the chracterisation uneven, but there’s always something there that keeps you reading, some scenes and moments when things come fully alive and remind you just how good Elizabeth Jenkins could be.
  There are more of her novels out there waiting to be rediscovered and read. I like to think they are the kind of books that might turn up in jumble sales, or even elude the hawk-eyed valuers who monitor charity-shop donations these days. I’m certainly keeping my eyes peeled.
  Elizabeth Jenkins continued writing almost to the last, publishing a memoir, The View from Downshire Hill, in her hundredth year. Downshire Hill in Hampstead was where she lived, in a Regency house that her father bought for her in 1939. She furnished it with good Regency furniture, picked up for next to nothing after the war, but could barely afford to heat a few rooms. Because of the furniture, she recalled, ‘people assumed I was comfortably off, instead of being very hard up’.
  Her small, hunched figure was a familiar sight on the streets of Hampstead for many years, but the distinguished and gifted author that was Elizabeth Jenkins had all but disappeared. When, in 1983, Virago issued a promotional booklet with pictures of all the Modern Classics authors, she was the only one of whom no portrait could be found. Instead, she appears in the leaflet as an outline head filled with a blank space.   



  1. Thank you for writing this piece. I enjoy her work and it's good to see it getting a respectful assessment.

  2. Thanks Foose – Good to know she is still being read and appreciated.

  3. I read it in the magazine, great stuff Nige.