I must be more sentimental than I realise. This is the second book within a month that has left me in tears. Although, whereas Now All Roads Lead to France provoked just a little watery dribble from a moistened eye, The Tortoise and the Hare inspired a fit of wild sobbing.
I finished The Tortoise and the Hare late on Friday night. We got back from dinner and the husband declared he had to do some computer stuff. I decided to read a bit more of my book, and then somehow got through the final hundred pages in a blurry whizz.
I summon the husband. He appears a little later, having been sorting out music or something trivial on his computer, to find me melodramatically heart-broken, bawling into the duvet.
‘Ems?’ he asks, as though not sure if it is actually me, or if I’ve swapped places with some strange twin. ‘Are you ok?’
All I can feebly croak is, ‘It’s so sad.’ I know I’m being ridiculous and try to laugh it off but the sobs only become more vigorous.
The husband decides I’m crazy and brushes his teeth.
I pull myself together and console myself with the thought that at the book club on Sunday, everyone else will have found it just as sad.
But no, I find that the book club thinks I’m bonkers too. One or two others admit to a lump in their throat. Most found Imogen, the main character, quite annoying.
Am I mad? I wonder. Am I really the only person who finds this unbearably moving?
Well in order to make any sense out of this, I shall have to reveal the plot and the ending. So I shall warn you when to look away if you think you’re going to read it. It is SUCH a brilliant book, really, I think that everyone should read it. If I were in charge of the curriculum, I would set it as an A-level text. Everyone would learn so much from it about relationships, and about terribly sad loneliness. In any case, it’s a million times better than The Great Gatsby, which is all anyone seems to remember – other than Shakespeare – from school.
Imogen is married to Evelyn Gresham, who is older than her, very ‘distinguished’, intelligent and a bully of a barrister. Their neighbour is a vile person called Blanche Silcox, who is ‘elderly’ (50!) and stout, keenly into shooting and fishing, and very wealthy. Imogen is beautiful and kind and subservient to her husband. She longs to make him happy. She loves poetry and is quite dreamy, which her husband doesn’t understand at all.
It becomes clear from the beginning that Blanche is making a play for Evelyn. Why on earth would Evelyn leave the lovely Imogen for horrid stout old Blanche? But, puzzling though it may be, their ‘friendship’ escalates and it eventually becomes clear that they’re having a full-on affair.
The title of the book – The Tortoise and The Hare – of course brings to mind Aesop’s race, in which the slow and steady, gentle tortoise outdoes the bragging brash hare. With such a title, Elizabeth Jenkins asks the reader, who is the tortoise and who the hare? It’s a clever title. It’s hard to decide who’s who and one’s opinion can’t help but change as the book progresses. Initially I thought Blanche the tortoise – she’s fatter and older, whereas Imogen is slim, lithe and nimble. But then I thought it the other way round. Imogen is gentle, she steadily plods on with her life, whereas Blanche is quickly and aggressively going for Evelyn.
Here’s where you need to look away:
Having decided that Imogen is the tortoise and that in any case she is a lovely, sympathetic character, who deserves goodness and happiness, I kept on waiting for the tide to turn at the last minute, and for Evelyn to realise what a horrid idiot he is and how much he is hurting her and then give up vile pushy Blanche and commit himself to his wife, fair Imogen. But – and this is what was so unbearably sad – there is no fairytale happy ending. The tortoise doesn’t win! Evelyn leaves Imogen for Blanche. And Imogen is left broken. Poor Imogen!!
But of course Elizabeth Jenkins is far too clever and subtle for the book to be so straightforward. Imogen isn’t completely loyal – she wanders off kissing a male friend while walking through a meadow. But, more importantly, Jenkins suggests that Imogen is unhappy in her marriage and that she will be happier without Evelyn. The final line of the book is a hopeful one:
‘I must improve,’ she said half aloud. ‘There is a very great deal to be done.’
Super last line.
Spoilers are over. You can look again here:
The more I think about The Tortoise and the Hare, the more it seems to be to be a product of its time. It was first published in 1954, and the fifties comes across as a time of change and transition. Imogen is rooted in older habits of keeping house, of being subservient to her husband, and of thinking that beauty should be a lady’s chief goal. And it is because of this old-fashioned view that she suffers. After all, people like Mr Leeper the modernist architect, are around:
He had acquired two elegant little semi-detached Regency cottages, in sound condition, that stood at the end of the village street. These he tore down, and erected on their site a concrete dwelling with windows the size and shape of those in a railway dining-car, through which could be seen a spiral staircase with copper finish ascending from the ground-floor living-room to the upper storey.
And so are people like Cecil Stonor, the androgynously named friend of Imogen’s who works in a publishing house, has her own London flat, and invests on the stock market. Even the ghastly Blanche can drive and understand stocks and shares. Women are inserting themselves into a man’s world. It is no longer possible to be Imogen and waste away at home, pining and reading poetry. Fair point Elizabeth Jenkins. But I can’t help but feel it’s not really fair on Imogen. Is it really her fault that she’s so left behind, so at odds with the current climate?
On reflection, the ending isn’t quite as sad as I initially felt it to be. It ends on a note of hope – a new stage, a new adventure. Throughout the novel, Imogen has been on a journey, learning to understand the new way of things through imagined whispers of nature, nights of lying awake in the moonlight, and troubled dreams. Imogen has grown and we end the book with her better-equipped to face the changing world around her, and the feeling that she will be happier.
I suppose it’s still just so dreadfully sad that she had to go through such a terrible time in order to come out the other side of it. Either that or I really have become a sentimental old fool.
Incidentally, I loved reading this neat, elegant hardback edition, which Virago brought out last year. Far nicer than the paperback, which has a silly belittling cover.
Tags: Elizabeth Jenkins