Elizabeth Jenkins Is Amazing

The obit pages are an important source of leads for great yet undeservedly obscure books. That was where I learned of The Tortoise and the Hare by the recently deceased Elizabeth Jenkins, whom I already knew of as the author of a wonderful, though hard to find,  biography of  Jane Austen. I finished reading The Tortoise and the Hare last night, rather too late, and am still under its spell.  Such a book should not be forgotten, yet it largely is.

What made it at once so much fun to read and so satisfying as a work of art? The sly humor, the use of telling detail, and the aptness of the social observation,  though it describes a world that is both unfamiliar to me and long vanished (English, upper-middle class, late 1940s or early 50s) The subtle way the story is told.  The ending. Especially, the ending. It is a truly magnificent ending, which surprised me, for all along, though I was enjoying the journey the book was taking me on, I kept feeling the structure — the plot — was odd. Unusual. Where was she going with this?

The novel tells the story of about a year in the life of Imogen, a sensitive and attractive woman of 37, married to Evelyn, a successful lawyer 15 years older, and her gradually dawning horror and despair as she realizes she is losing her husband to an unlikely rival: a never-married, badly dressed, unattractive neighbor, Blanche, age 50. Blanche is decisive, generous, practical and rich. Unlike Imogen, she enjoys fishing, hunting and outings to the race track. She is everything Imogen is not, and Imogen’s self-confidence, never strong to start with, slowly wilts as she moves from vague discontent to suspicion, then to fear, then to certainty that Blanche has become her husband’s mistress. The couple’s one child, Gavin, is a copy of his father, and his contemptuous treatment of Imogen is a humorous foil for the more subtle cruelty meted out by Evelyn. Only Gavin’s friend, Tim Leeper, who becomes a fixture in the household as a refuge from his own chaotic home (the scenes at the Leepers’ are among the broadest and most amusing in the book), seems to have any admiration for Imogen and her quiet virtues.

The book’s narrative structure is odd, because nearly the entire novel is taken up with the gradual crushing of Imogen. She is passive, inert, completely under the spell of her charismatic and adored husband even as she realizes she is losing him. A woman from another era, she has defined herself completely in the role of wife and mother, only to find she has failed at both. Her despair is nearly total, yet the flashes of wit and beauty keep the story from becoming too depressing. And yet as I kept reading, I kept asking myself, what is she going to DO? And when is she going to do it? The structure of a novel demands conflict and resolution — a character resisting, in some fashion, the mess she has been presented with. And yet Imogen seems powerless to do anything. Until, finally, she does.

To describe the ending would not be to spoil it — there is no shocking development, nothing that does not grow organically out of character and situation — yet it would also not do it justice. All along, the author has skillfully kept the reader just a few steps ahead of Imogen, so we see what she does not yet, the utter ruin of her marriage. And this technique succeeds brilliantly in the end, for we are taken exactly to the point — and no farther — where we realize that Imogen is going to be all right, even though she does not yet fully understand that.  That she has, in fact, escaped a kind of living death, the illusion of happiness with a selfish, cruel husband, and whatever her life is going to be going forward is going to be hers, founded in reality. But the author does not explain any of this as baldly as I have just done; she does not need to. The story tells us everything we need, and no more.

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