Big news this week in the world of Emilybooks.
This beloved belated birthday present from the husband joined us on Saturday morning, when we went and bought her from a very friendly pet shop in Essex. You’ll be pleased to hear that she is settling in well – enjoying bathing in the warm rays of her special heat lamp before pootling off to explore our flat.
It is very peculiar trying to get on with my work while Daphne is here, scrabbling around. It is lovely to have a bit of company, a wise reptilian companion. I feel sure that we are already establishing a rapport – funny things like we both yawned at the same time this morning. And she wouldn’t touch her breakfast until I started munching my bowl of cereal. Perhaps I’m reading too much into this.
As I am so tortoise-brained this morning, and to welcome this marvellous little creature into the world of EmilyBooks, here are my Top Five literary tortoises.
This is a delightful tortoise love story, written by Roald Dahl, and illustrated by Quentin Blake. Shy Mr Hoppy pines for Mrs Silver, who lives in the flat below. They strike up a friendship over her tortoise Alfie, who she worries won’t grow. Mr Hoppy comes up with a very clever plan. He writes down the following words on a piece of paper:
ESIO TROT, ESIO TROT,
TEG REGGIB REGGIB!
EMOC NO, ESIO TROT,
WORG PU, FFUP PU, TOOHS PU!
GNIRPS PU, WOLB PU, LLEWS PU!
EGROG! ELZZUG! FFUTS! PLUG!
TUP NO TAF, ESIO TROT, TUP NO TAF!
TEG NO, TEG NO, ELBBOG DOOF!
He tells Mrs Silver to whisper this spell to her tortoise three times a day and, he assures her, Alfie will get bigger. They are of course normal words written backwards!
Mr Hoppy bulk buys tortoises in all different sizes and when Mrs Silver is out, reaches down to her balcony and swaps Alfie for a very slightly bigger tortoise. And so on… Mrs Silver is at first thrilled that Alfie seems to be getting bigger, but of course women have a habit of changing their minds and are never happy with something for long…
Having bonded over Alfie, Mr Hoppy plucks up the courage to ask Mrs Silver to marry him and everyone – including the original Alfie – lives happily ever after. Who knew tortoises could be such a fruitful conversation opener?!
The Tortoise and the Hare
Yes, there is Aesop’s fable, which we all know so well, with its moral that slow and steady wins the race. I have to say, little Daphne is surprisingly speedy. Look at her go!
I am thinking, however, of the novel by Elizabeth Jenkins, which I wrote about at length here. This wonderful, too-often overlooked novel from the 1950s is another tortoise love story, although rather more complicated, adult and with only a metaphorical tortoise.
Lovely, gentle self-effacing Imogen is married to brute of a bullying barrister husband Evelyn. Their neighbour – stout, brash Blanche Silcox – makes a play for Evelyn … which of these utterly contrasting women will win?
What is so clever about Jenkins’s book is that as you read it, you’re forever questioning who is the tortoise and who the hare. I suppose it depends a little on where you think the finish line is. Is Evelyn really the prize, or is it independence and freedom from such a brutish man?
It was a small tortoise with Julia’s initials set in diamonds in the living shell, and this slightly obscene object, now slipping impotently on the polished boards, now striding across the card-table, now lumbering over a rub, now withdrawn at a touch, now stretching its neck and swaying its withered, antediluvian head, became a memorable part of the evening, one of those needle-hooks of experience which catch the attention when larger matters are at stake.
Just a few pages later, the poor tortoise, jewels and all, is said to have buried itself. We learn this soon after Charles Ryder leaves Brideshead, telling himself he shall never go back, and that:
I was leaving part of myself behind, and that wherever I went afterwards I should feel the lack of it, and search for it hopelessly, as ghosts are said to do, frequenting the spots where they buried material treasures without which they cannot pay their way to the nether world.
A diamond-encrusted tortoise would get you far indeed into the nether world. Not as far, however, as Catholicism, as Waugh is keen to point out.
had an uncanny knack of making themselves so inconspicuous that you either overlooked them or forgot ever seeing them… Since nobody noticed them, nobody stopped to wonder where they had come from, or indeed, were still coming from, for their numbers continue to grow with every passing day.
I used to associate them with men in suits. Perhaps that’s the point. It is a wonderfully anti-establishment children’s book.
Momo is a little orphan girl, with a knack for listening to people. When the Men in Grey turn up, they persuade everyone that they have to ‘save time’, which results in them stopping doing everything fun and always being in a rush. It’s an awful trick, of course. Everyone becomes miserable thanks to their time-saving, but the Men in Grey need everyone else’s time to survive, smoking their sinister cigars of hour lilies. Yes, it is a surreal book.
Momo fights against the grey men with the aid of Professor Hora and his tortoise, Cassiopeia, who can see half an hour into the future and – better yet – can communicate, helping Momo by making words appear on her shell.
Apparently Michael Ende had a soft spot for tortoises. I don’t blame him!
You know what it is to be born alone,
The first day to heave your feet little by little from the shell,
Not yet awake,
And remain lapsed on earth,
Not quite alive.
A tiny, fragile, half-animate bean.
To open your tiny beak-mouth, that looks as if it would never open
Like some iron door;
To lift the upper hawk-beak from the lower base
And reach your skinny neck
And take your first bite at some dim bit of herbage,
Alone, small insect,
To take your first solitary bite
And move on your slow, solitary hunt.
Your bright, dark little eye,
Your eye of a dark disturbed night,
Under its slow lid, tiny baby tortoise,
No one ever heard you complain.
You draw your head forward, slowly, from your little wimple
And set forward, slow-dragging, on your four-pinned toes,
Rowing slowly forward.
Wither away, small bird?
Rather like a baby working its limbs,
Except that you make slow, ageless progress
And a baby makes none.
The touch of sun excites you,
And the long ages, and the lingering chill
Make you pause to yawn,
Opening your impervious mouth,
Suddenly beak-shaped, and very wide, like some suddenly gaping pincers;
Soft red tongue, and hard thin gums,
Then close the wedge of your little mountain front,
Your face, baby tortoise.
Do you wonder at the world, as slowly you turn your head in its wimple
And look with laconic, black eyes?
Or is sleep coming over you again,
You are so hard to wake.
Are you able to wonder?
Or is it just your indomitable will and pride of the first life
And slowly pitching itself against the inertia
Which had seemed invincible?
The vast inanimate,
And the fine brilliance of your so tiny eye,
Nay, tiny shell-bird.
What a huge vast inanimate it is, that you must row against,
What an incalculable inertia.
Little Ulysses, fore-runner,
No bigger than my thumb-nail,
All animate creation on your shoulder,
Set forth, little Titan, under your battle-shield.
The ponderous, preponderate,
And you are slowly moving, pioneer, you alone.
How vivid your travelling seems now, in the troubled sunshine,
Stoic, Ulyssean atom;
Suddenly hasty, reckless, on high toes.
Voiceless little bird,
Resting your head half out of your wimple
In the slow dignity of your eternal pause.
Alone, with no sense of being alone,
And hence six times more solitary;
Fulfilled of the slow passion of pitching through immemorial ages
Your little round house in the midst of chaos.
Over the garden earth,
Over the edge of all things.
With your tail tucked a little on one side
Like a gentleman in a long-skirted coat.
All life carried on your shoulder,
Isn’t it brilliant?!
Let us hope that little Daphne will inspire me to similar great heights of tortoise literature.
And yes, that book on to which she is climbing is none other than The Tortoise and the Hare by Elizabeth Jenkins.