The Tortoise and the Hare | Elizabeth Jenkins

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.

The first point I wish to highlight about Margaret Elizabeth Jenkins are her birth and death dates – the 31st October 1905 and the 5th September 2010. She missed her 105th birthday by a couple of months!

Elizabeth was born in Hitchin, Hertfordshire where her father, James Heald Jenkins, had established the Caldicott School along with Ernest Edward Kellett. However Elizabeth attended the progressive, co-educational school, St Christopher School at Letchworth before reading English and History at Newnham College, Cambridge, the women’s only college in 1921. When she finished her studies (women were not granted degrees from Cambridge until 1948, so there was no graduation for Jenkins) she moved to Doughty Street in Bloomsbury.

In 1929 she took up a teaching position at the co-educational King Alfred School in Hampstead. During the war she worked for the Ministry of Information and the Refugees’ Assistance Board, helping Jewish refugees from Europe. During this time she became friends with Chloe Holland, a daughter of the surgeon, Sir Eardley Lancelot Holland (1879–1967). Jenkins became attracted to this (very married) surgeon.

After the war she became a fulltime writer living quietly in her Regency house in Hampstead.

Jenkins was a founding member of the Jane Austen Society, attending its first meeting in May 1940, with Dorothy Darnell and Jenkins as joint secretaries. Her biography of Jane Austen was the first written by someone other than a member of the extended Austen/Leigh/Knight family.

The Guardian obituary for Elizabeth, from 8th September 2010, revealed that The Tortoise and the Hare was autobiographical in nature. Although Elizabeth never married, there was obviously a serious long term relationship that went wrong. Nicola Beauman suggests that Evelyn was the,

well-known gynaecologist Sir Eardley Holland, and the dreadful Blanche was a devastating portrait of the “other woman”, a member of a well-known brewing family, that had to be toned down before publication.

After Holland’s first wife died in 1951, he was remarried in 1952 to Olivia Constable, the daughter of Lionel Leslie Constable, a director of Henty & Constable (Brewers) Ltd. Jenkins remained single for the rest of her life.

Novels

  • 1929 Virginia Water
  • 1931 The Winters
  • 1934 Harriet 
  • 1935 Doubtful Joy
  • 1936 The Phoenix’ Nest
  • 1944 Robert and Helen
  • 1954 The Tortoise and the Hare
  • 1963 Brightness
  • 1968 Honey
  • 1972 Dr Gully’s Story

Biographies

  • 1932 Lady Caroline Lamb
  • 1936 Jane Austen: A Biography
  • 1947 Henry Fielding
  • 1958 Elizabeth the Great
  • 1960 Joseph Lister
  • 1961 Elizabeth and Leicester

Short stories

  • 1955 On No Account, My Love

I don’t always write such a long author bio, but one, I was entranced by Jenkins writing and the autobiographical nature of this story was fascinating to research. And two, my desire to write a book review still seems to be on holidays!

Although I was mesmerised by Jenkins soulful writing, I wasn’t sure I would be able to finish The Tortoise and the Hare at one point. I found Imogen’s devotion and self-sacrificing ways to be almost unendurable as she bent over backwards to appease her husband and their obnoxious 11 year old son. Evelyn was controlling and demanding and regularly dismissive. The son was learning to be the same.

But then I started thinking about the title. Who was the hare and who was the tortoise? Did slow and steady win the race? Who underestimated who? Who was humbled? Over-confident? Who was persistent?

To discuss this properly, I will have to issue a ***spoiler alert*** here.

It could be said that Evelyn was the hare – so sure of himself and his own worth, and that the tortoise, Blanche snuck up on him with her advances. Except of course, that Evelyn is not the loser in this situation. A little loss of face thanks to a divorce, but he gets the girl, without any fuss being made by the outgoing one.

Imogen could also be the hare – the first wife, beautiful and young, a trophy wife no less, while Blanche, the tortoise, slowly, methodically, persistently moves in on her target. Except of course, that Imogen is not secure or confident in her position. Evelyn’s strength of character has eroded her sense of self entirely.

Yet Imogen, too, also has some flirtatious dalliances with other men. Perhaps she was too confident about her beauty and her youth? Maybe that is why, Blanche’s looks are allowed to blossom as Evelyn’s love for her becomes stronger?

Could Blanche be the hare? Thinking she has won the race to get the man, only to find out how controlling and difficult he really is. While, the tortoise, Imogen, finally succeeds in escaping the confines of a soul-destroying marriage?

Imogen’s loss of self and identity in her marriage were drawn with such heart-breaking care by Jenkins, that this reader was thrilled to learn that both Jenkins and Imogen escaped the domineering man in the end.

The emotional texture of married life is made up of small matters. This one had become invested with a fatal quality.

For a more thorough review of the story, please see Jacqui @Jacqui Wine’s Journal‘s recent review for the 1954 Club.

Also reviewed previously by:

Title: The Tortoise and the Hare
Author: Elizabeth Jenkins
Cover Design: Florence Broadhurst 
ISBN: 9781844087471
Imprint: Virago Modern Classics
Published: 1954
Format: Hardback
Pages: 269

This post was written on Yuggera country in The Greater Brisbane region. The original custodians, the Turrubul people, called this area Mianjin/Meanjin.

18 thoughts on “The Tortoise and the Hare | Elizabeth Jenkins

  1. Lovely review of a lovely book – though hard to get into at first as it just seems like a quaint period piece set in a rather unsympathetic milieu – 1950’s British upper class whose worldview believes that universal healthcare allows “the lower orders to malinger for free”. The characterisation of the husband, the alpha male QC is a tour de force “Evelyn’s intimidating good humour ……seemed to encase him like a brilliant armour of glass” . He’s so used to calling the shots that his excessively meek wife with her 50’s upbringing doesn’t stand a chance. I also took away from it that being very beautiful when young is a hindrance because when it fades you may have nothing else to fall back on.

    I loved this edition of the book which is the one I’ve got too, though what did you think of Hilary Mantel’s plot-spoiling in the introduction? It kind of took the edge off my enjoyment a bit.

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    1. I learnt several books ago, NOT to read the Introduction until after I finish the book…and since Mr Books picked this up to read as soon as I finished it, I haven’t had a chance to go back and read it or the Afterword. I find that most Introductions contain spoilers!

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  2. Thank you for including a link to my review! I love that we all read the same pretty edition, too! It is a painful book to read, certainly, I can see why you thought you might have to pause at very least.

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    1. Imogen’s loss of self-confidence and identity was painful to watch initially, but then there was that odd moment when you realise that she was having a kissing fling with Hunter that made me realise she wasn’t as meek or perhaps as maligned as I first thought. She, also was not wholly committed to the marriage.

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  3. I have, and have read, Jenkins’ Jane Austen – actually, I think I was discussing it with Sue (WG) and didn’t ever make it to the end. I should find it and finish it.

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  4. This is an amazing review! I loved the detailed review of the author’s bio which gave more depth to the book review and I am sure added a nuanced layer to your reading! This could not have been an easy book to read that too on a holiday! But kudos and job well done!

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    1. The first section was very painful to read, but once I got into it, it was really quite engrossing in that quiet, gentle, English, class conscious kind of way. Mr Books didn’t take enough books on holidays with us, so he is now about halfway through it himself. He doesn’t like Evelyn either.

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  5. Many thanks for linking to my review, Brona, that’s so kind of you. It’s really interesting to read about this author’s life – a summary that adds an extra layer of poignancy to the novel itself, given its broadly autobiographical nature. I’m not surprised to hear that you found it quite painful to read…

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    1. Mr Books has just read it as well. He also found it quite painful as well as finding Imogen’s timidity frustrating and Evelyn’s arrogance insufferable. We spent ages discussing what it meant in 1950 when Imogen and Hunter were kissing and his ‘love-making so gentle and affectionate’. Was it just more kissing or was their relationship sexual? It certainly added an extra dimension to why the marriage was such a failure though.

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  6. Thank you for this background to Jenkin’s book and her life. The title is known to me, but I was not aware of what it was about. Sounds interesting and it will go on my list.

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