Elizabeth Jenkins is a new author to me. But a couple of years back I went through a phase of acquiring as many editions as I could of these stunning Virago designer hardbacks (which also includes Elizabeth von Arnim’s The Enchanted April), and the Jenkins at the time caught my eye. Well, it turned out to be a terrific read, one that pulled me out of a reading slump for the time being atleast.
There’s a certain point in the book where we are told of a particular dinner set in the Gresham household that encapsulates the differing points of view of both husband and wife. These silver coated Sheffield plate dishes sparkled with newness when originally purchased, but after years of use, the plates now appear old with bits of copper showing through. Evelyn, conventional and business-like, wants to get them re-silvered; Imogen, romantic and artistic, prefers them as they are. Evelyn agrees to her wishes, but is secretly not pleased. So much so that later in the book, Imogen is left wondering whether her desire to not re-silver those plates is a possible metaphor for the deteriorating state of their marriage.
The re-dipping of the dishes was a small matter, but the emotional texture of married life is made up of small matters. This one had become invested with a fatal quality.
The Tortoise and the Hare, then, is a brilliant, disquieting tale of the gradual disintegration of a marriage told with the kind of psychological intensity that makes it very absorbing.
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, and of the kind known in the 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.
Our protagonist is Imogen Gresham, a beautiful woman married to the dynamic, successful and distinguished barrister Evelyn, many years her senior. The couple resides in the Berkshire countryside with their school-going son Gavin.
Evelyn Gresham is a man with a strong, forceful personality, quite demanding and opinionated. With his good looks and physique he cuts quite an imposing figure and very often Imogen is unable to challenge his views, just agreeing to everything he says which to her seems so much easier. It’s not just Imogen though. Even in his dealings with other people Evelyn does not think twice about voicing his disagreements, and once set on something, he refuses to be swayed by opposing arguments.
Gentle and sensitive, Imogen could not have been more different. She is blessed with beauty and charm, qualities that first attracted Evelyn to her, but it is pretty apparent early on that she plays second fiddle in their marriage. She is not as assertive as Evelyn and for the most part acquiesces to his moods and wishes when it comes to his pleasures and matters of the household.
Blessed with wealth, comfort and security Imogen considers her married life to be a happy one although there are moments when she is gripped by feelings of dread and unease. That sinking feeling largely revolves around Evelyn; somewhere in the back of her mind Imogen vaguely believes that her efforts to please her husband are simply not enough. That sense of failure is not just limited to household affairs but is also reflected in the physical intimacy between them (“It’s an art, some people have it”, Evelyn had said).
Compounding her feelings of worthlessness is her difficult relationship with her son Gavin. Gavin is in awe of his father but does not think highly of his mother, and he is always in a combative mode with Imogen convinced that she fails to understand him. Imogen loves her son but her endeavors to make Gavin toe the line are often highly fraught affairs.
We meet a host of secondary characters who in many ways play a crucial role in the how the story pans out. First up is Paul Nugent, a close friend of the Greshams, a doctor established in London. Paul resides on Welbeck Street with two rooms of the house leased out to the Greshams when they are in town. Paul is married to Primrose but it’s clear that the couple has nothing in common. It’s almost as if Primrose is leading an independent life within the marriage, and Paul has resigned himself to that fact. A bit gloomy and prone to melancholy, he does hold a torch for Imogen and finds great joy in her company, although he refrains from openly admitting his feelings and is content with the state of things as they are.
There are the Leepers, a bohemian, crude couple whose son Tim becomes fast friends with Gavin. Tim often visits the Gresham household to spend time with Gavin and it’s obvious that given a choice he would much prefer hanging around in the Gresham house rather than going back home. Although now that Gavin is expected to attend preparatory school, Tim is aware of his time with Gavin being curtailed. Corinne Leeper’s husband is dead set on redesigning and redeveloping various structures in the village, plans that are met with increased resistance from the villagers. The Leepers are not deterred however. Corinne Leeper does not care much for keeping an orderly home and is not too bothered with the bringing up of her children either. Left to their own devices, her two daughters pretty much run wild, while for Tim, his time spent with the Greshams is the one bright spot in his life.
We are also introduced to Hunter Crankshaw, a good friend of Evelyn’s, briefly married and then divorced from Corinne’s incredibly stunning sister Zenobia…and to Cecil Stonor, Imogen’s good friend whose company Evelyn also enjoys because of her overall intelligence and sharp grasp of the stock markets.
Last but not the least is Blanche Silcox, the Greshams’ neighbour in the village. Blanche is about the same age as Evelyn and in the eyes of Imogen, an elderly, dowdy woman no man will look at twice. But what Blanche does not have in the looks department she more than makes up for in her sensible, matter-of-fact attitude.
Not taking her seriously at first, Imogen is gradually disconcerted to find Evelyn enjoying Blanche’s company. With a car that she can drive (Imogen can’t), Blanche is more than willing to offer Evelyn a lift to town, and to drop him back and this arrangement becomes alarming frequent. Not only that, as far as hobbies and pursuits go, Evelyn and Blanche share a lot in common, things that don’t interest or excite Imogen at all. Slowly but surely as Evelyn begins to spend more time with Blanche, Imogen, in a state of dismay and disbelief is staring at a potential catastrophe.
“Imogen,” he said with forced patience, “you have plenty of occupations of your own, and you don’t care to do the things that give a great deal of pleasure to me – when I have time to do them. You don’t want to fish or shoot and you can’t drive my car, which would be a help to me sometimes. Am I to understand that you object to my having the companionship of another woman who can do these things?”
At its very core, The Tortoise and the Hare is the story of a marriage, of the compatibility between couples, of a woman in a deep crisis. Confident in her unwavering but faulty belief that men only value beauty in women, Imogen knows she is amply rewarded in that sphere and coupled with Evelyn’s allegedly high moral values, Imogen in the twelve years of their married life has never felt threatened. But Blanche with her practical approach to life upends all that. We are told early on that Imogen’s grace and beauty played a prominent role in Evelyn choosing to marry her, but with the passage of time comes a perceptible shift in Evelyn’s priorities and now domestic comforts matter much more to him than romance. As a couple their tastes and outlook widely differ, and for the most part it appears that Imogen is always pandering to his needs; his meticulous expectations are often a source of distress to Imogen but she takes it in her stride.
It’s also apparent that Evelyn does not really respect Imogen, and part of this can be attributed to the fact that she never stands up to him. Imogen recalls a particular incident in his professional life where he expressed a wish to employ an assistant who is not afraid of him, which she realizes is an indirect criticism of her. But given his magnetic personality and intractable nature, does Imogen ever stand a chance even if she were to muster up the courage to oppose him?
There’s also a sense of how in the novel, the couples portrayed are generally mismatched, and how the perceptions of the children also greatly wary. For instance, it’s possible that Paul and Imogen would have been happier if they were married to each other given how well they get along and enjoy each other’s company; but, alas, that is not to be! Both are trapped in marriages where they are not respected, although Imogen at first does not think she is stuck in a rut. The attitude of the children is also interesting. Gavin holds his mother in contempt fearing she will embarrass him, but Tim would have loved having Imogen as his mother given that he is pretty much neglected back home.
The Tortoise and the Hare then is a domestic drama of the finest quality; a simple, straightforward story that is deliciously disturbing; infused with psychological depth that makes the book so utterly compelling. It’s also an interesting way of turning the concept of the extra-marital affair on its head – an older man, rather than being besotted with an attractive young woman, falls hard for an older, plain-looking woman instead (“Are you sure you know what men fall in love with?“ at one time Paul asks Imogen).
With characters that are brilliantly etched and displaying a sharp acumen plus a keen understanding of the mind, Jenkins is also to be commended for her descriptive powers. The depiction of the calm and tranquility of the natural surroundings in sharp contrast to the innermost turmoil of her characters, the calm before the storm, the disconcerting play of light against dark is very well done.
The weather was warm, bright and still, and London was steeped in that gracious quietness that descends for a brief time in late summer; it cannot show itself over the city as a whole, which is covered with a mesh of screaming traffic at every season of the year, but it is felt in strange midday pauses and early morning quietness, in a blessedly empty space of pavement here and there, an unexpected calmness at a street crossing. Every moment of such relief, every charm of sounds and sight, added to their happiness. In Imogen’s case the happiness was that of an enclosure, outside whose walls pain is kept back for the time being.
As a woman continuously undermined and diminished by both husband and son, Imogen must make the most important decision of her life (“The sense of helplessness in the face of frightful calamity, the longing to project herself through the dark air, filled her heart to bursting”). Her dilemma is this – Should she for once in her life take a firm stand, fight for her marriage and drive Blanche away? Or should she leave Evelyn, leave a marriage where she was not treated as an equal, and preserve her self-respect and dignity? There are no easy answers.