Posts Tagged ‘Elizabeth Jenkins’

Second-hand book-hunting with Cosybooks

June 12, 2013

 

*********************Introducing the first guest blog ***********************

 

This special spot is a chance for you to meet, or, indeed, reacquaint yourselves with, other talented book bloggers.

The first guest blogger is Cosy Books – a Canadian librarian, who has a penchant for brilliant twentieth-century novels written by women. A taste that I, for one, share. Here she takes you on an illuminating tour of second-hand book buying in Canada.

If you would like to contribute to the Emilybooks guest blog spot then get in touch here.

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If you have been following Emily’s blog for a while or landed here via a link from another blog you probably already know that a keen interest in books is a connecting thread.  While my fondness for reading reaches back as far as I can remember a certain group of book bloggers has made it possible for me to achieve an even greater appreciation for the written word.  This camaraderie has also unearthed a side of me which never existed before I carved out my own tiny space in the world of book blogging.  As a circulation clerk at a public library I nearly always borrowed my books but over the past few years I have turned into a book buyer on a mission.  It’s a nice way of saying that accumulating books at a rate faster than I can find space for them has become a pleasurable pastime.  Woeful posts by bloggers surrounded by bursting shelves only serve to reassure me that my guilt about unread books is unwarranted and that my collection is practically inadequate.

Since 2009, my reading has been centred around twentieth century authors such as Elizabeth Bowen, Elizabeth Taylor, E M Delafield, Dorothy Whipple and their contemporaries.  Since I have yet to meet another person in my daily life who has struck up a conversation about any of the aforementioned authors you can imagine how rare it can be to find their books in nearby shops.  This makes the hunt more challenging than if I were spending the day on Charing Cross Road, but not impossible.

Little Boy LostSo where have I found some of my favourite treasures, you might ask?  The best place for turn-over is called BMV Books.  They have a few locations in Toronto with my favourite being on Bloor Street.  Each day there are green plastic book bins dotting the floor waiting to be unpacked and shelved.  There is no catalogue so if you’re looking for something specific you have to be willing to dig for it.  The books are mostly used but in excellent condition. BMV also get batches of books sold back to them from local university students so you get an idea of what has been on offer in the English courses that term.  I was thrilled one day to spot the orange Penguin edition of Marghanita Laski’s Little Boy Lost, pushed back a bit further than the other books and for the pittance of only two dollars.  The Persephone edition was already on my shelves but that image of the little boy on the cover has always haunted me so I just had to bring it home.

The Tortoise and the HareAnother interesting place, albeit filthy, for some outstanding older clothbound books has been our local Reuse Centre.  Picture a massive warehouse full of the contents of your grandparents’ attic or garage sale rejects.  It’s an intriguing mix of dump run/nostalgia tour.  The lighting is horrible, my contact lenses go dry and you can taste the dust but it’s where I found a gorgeous black Virago edition of Elizabeth Jenkins’ The Tortoise and the Hare.  The cover design features a young lady wearing the most stunning pair of red tights and I’ve never seen another copy like it.  The funny thing is that it was discarded from the library where I work but it must have been ages ago.  A couple of years ago I brought home a first edition copy of New Bond Story by Norman Collins as well as a first edition of Flowers on the Grass by Monica Dickens for the same price.  Books such as these are housed separately from the paperbacks but the room resembles something more akin to a hallway at five metres long and barely wider than my shoulders and I’m not very big!  Bending is done very carefully and usually sideways!

The Way Things AreAnother place I loved to visit was called Nostalgia Books in Port Credit.  Nestled at the end of a long high street and a bit past the bridge over the harbour it was a nice destination when I had the day off from work.  The owner, David, was passionate about books (of course) but he also enjoyed people.  When he discovered my daughter had chosen to do a minor in English Literature he asked if I could keep him updated on her reading lists just for interest’s sake.  This shop was where I found my first green Virago, The Way Things Are by E M Delafield, and I beamed all the way home.  Last month my husband and I took a drive out to the shop but were saddened to find brown paper covering the windows and no sign of life.

For an anglophile living in the land of maple syrup and moose (I’ve only seen one that’s been stuffed but I’m going for effect) there can be no greater book hunting expedition than in England.  I could spend ages browsing along Charing Cross Road or the Southbank book market, admiring the faded spines and drinking in the aroma of aged chimney smoke you sometimes find emanating from the pages.  I can hardly believe it has been almost two years ago since I met up with my friends from Book Snob, Stuck in a Book and Mrs Miniver’s Daughter for a bit of second-hand book shopping while I was on holiday.  Mary was dreading a case of tug-of-war should we both spy a prize at the same time.  There was no need to worry though as they were more than helpful in handing over all sorts of titles they thought I would enjoy.  The charity shops in Canterbury where my daughter did her MA were oh so tempting but those dreaded luggage allowances are always at the back of my mind.

Look at all Those RosesRegardless of where my books have come from I never fail to get a tiny thrill from the signature of a previous owner along with a date.  My favourite inscription is in the front of a first American edition of Look at All Those Roses, a short story collection by Elizabeth Bowen published in 1941.  I have Rachel (Book Snob) to thank for this one.  It reads:

For Scott Merrill from John Butler in affection –

Elizabeth Bowen’s wisdom

May 1944

A story within a collection of stories but one which will have to remain a mystery.

Top Five Literary Tortoises

May 20, 2013

Big news this week in the world of Emilybooks.

Daphne

Meet Daphne!

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.

Daphne on the rug

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.

Esio Trot

Esio TrotAlfie from Esio Trot must come first.

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?!

Esio Trot

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!

Daphne and duct tape

The Tortoise and The HareI 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?

Brideshead Revisited

Brideshead RevisitedThe poor tortoise in Brideshead Revisited has been horribly abused. Julia come into the drawing room telling Lady Marchmain to look at the Christmas present that Rex has given her:

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.

Brideshead tortoise

Momo

momoThere is a wonderful tortoise called Cassiopeia in Momo by Michael Ende. I read this book when I was about ten and for years felt terrified of the sinister Men in Grey, who:

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.

 Michael Ende with tortoise

Apparently Michael Ende had a soft spot for tortoises. I don’t blame him!

Baby tortoise

Tortoises by DH LawrenceI shall end with D.H. Lawrence’s beautiful poem about a baby tortoise:

You know what it is to be born alone,

Baby tortoise!

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,

Tiny bright-eye,

Slow one.

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,

So indomitable.

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,

The non-life?

You are so hard to wake.

Are you able to wonder?

Or is it just your indomitable will and pride of the first life

Looking round

And slowly pitching itself against the inertia

Which had seemed invincible?

The vast inanimate,

And the fine brilliance of your so tiny eye,

Challenger.

Nay, tiny shell-bird.

What a huge vast inanimate it is, that you must row against,

What an incalculable inertia.

Challenger,

Little Ulysses, fore-runner,

No bigger than my thumb-nail,

Buon viaggio.

All animate creation on your shoulder,

Set forth, little Titan, under your battle-shield.

The ponderous, preponderate,

Inanimate universe;

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,

Small bird,

Over the edge of all things.

Traveller,

With your tail tucked a little on one side

Like a gentleman in a long-skirted coat.

All life carried on your shoulder,

Invincible fore-runner.

Isn’t it brilliant?!

Let us hope that little Daphne will inspire me to similar great heights of tortoise literature.

Daphne coming out

And yes, that book on to which she is climbing is none other than The Tortoise and the Hare by Elizabeth Jenkins.

Emilybooks of the year

December 19, 2012

Looking back on the year, I see that I’ve developed a strange habit of reading in threes. There have been three Elizabeths, three lives, three children’s books, three of all sorts of things. Strange indeed.

So here are my favourites of the books that I’ve read over the past year, clumped, conveniently, into threes.

The Walking Book Club at Port Eliot

3 Elizabeths

I began the year reading Elizabeth Bowen’s intensely atmospheric wartime novel The Heat of the Day which set me up for a year of Elizabeths. Start as you mean to go on, I suppose. Well I went on to read Bowen’s The House in Paris, an entrancing, bewitching novel, which made a whole afternoon disappear. Best of all, it was a year in which I was given a very special edition of Bowen’s Court – EM Forster’s copy no less.

I loved Elizabeth Taylor’s Angel, a novel which every aspiring writer must read not just because it describes so brilliantly different moments of writing – the strange feverish stuffiness of writing non-stop, and the anti-climax of finishing, for instance – but because it will make you laugh hopelessly at yourself, at the sheer vanity of being a writer. We also had a splendid Walking Book Club discussing Taylor’s poignant novel about getting old, Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont, for which we enjoyed the illustrious company of Clare Balding. You’ll be able to listen to it on Radio 4’s Ramblings in February… watch this space!

The third Elizabeth of the year was Elizabeth Jenkins. The Tortoise and the Hare had me in tears, and Harriet had me in a nightmare. Both are utterly compelling, hellish portrayals of marriage – the first is a heartbreaking portrayal of its death throes, and the second is about a situation so horrific, it’s hard to believe that it was based on a true murder case.

3 houses

My novel, as those of you who read last week’s post will know, is centred on a house and the stories that lie within it. As a result, I have grown quite addicted to books with houses at their centre. I’ve already mentioned Elizabeth Bowen – her Bowen’s Court really is a great portrait of a house.

Rebecca is one of my all time favourite house novels. From that memorable first line, ‘Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again,’ the house threatens to overwhelm the new Mrs de Winter. The most memorable moments of the novel are firmly rooted in the house – when she comes down the stairs for the ball, looking like the ghost of Rebecca, or when Mrs Danvers nearly makes her throw herself out of Rebecca’s old bedroom window. This was one of the books we discussed when I took the Walking Book Club to the splendid Port Eliot festival, not so far from Menabilly – the inspiration for du Maurier’s Manderley. I’ve read this novel so many times now, and each time find it utterly gripping, thoroughly brilliant. Perhaps I should allow myself one du Maurier a year.

But my house of the year has to go to the ‘convenient little house’ in Hampstead, which is the focus of Vita Sackville West’s All Passion Spent. Lady Slane’s husband, a great statesman, has just died when we meet her. She defies her foul children, who want to parcel her off between them, and retires to a pretty Hampstead house that she last saw thirty years ago. This perfect, slim novel, a fictional counterpart to Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, is beautifully written, and I especially enjoyed the way Sackville-West’s love of gardening – as attested to by the magnificent gardens at Sissinghurst – periodically surfaces, when she can’t resist arranging a few flowers here, or a ripened peach there.

3 lives

The best non-fiction I’ve read this year has been about the lives of people. The strongest presence has been the poet, Edward Thomas. I read Matthew Hollis’s biography of him, Now All Roads Lead To France – a fantastic book, which managed to turn his rather quiet life into a series of cliffhangers. There was also Robert Macfarlane’s majestic The Old Ways, in which this literary lover of landscapes wrote about journeying on remarkable old paths, haunted by Edward Thomas who was a great walker as well as a great writer. And there was Nick Dear’s powerful play at the Almeida. My favourite Edward Thomas moment of the year was walking with some friends around (the aptly named) Steep, where Thomas lived, and up Shoulder of Mutton hill. It was very special to feel we were walking in his footsteps. Towards the end, we sprawled across a leafy glade and read out some of his poems, accompanied only by birdsong, the wind in the trees, and our steady chomping of Percy Pigs.

I loved reading Penelope Fitzgerald’s letters – a wonderful thick collection, which was a steady and inspiring companion for many months. And now I am reading West with the Night by Beryl Markham, who became my new heroine by about page five. She tells of her childhood in what was then British East Africa, a childhood which included such instances as hunting warthogs with local tribesmen and being mauled by a lion. She grew up to breed and train racehorses, and then became a freelance pilot. This is an extraordinary memoir, bristling with the spirit of adventure, full of the romance of a lost way of life, and somehow Markham has combined a great lyricism with edge-of-your-seat thrilling tension.

3 new novels

Deborah Levy’s Swimming Home seemed to lodge in me like a shard of glass, painful, unforgettable and darkly beautiful. Susie Boyt’s The Small Hours was a peculiar and powerful novel. It is about a strange, larger-than-life woman who decides to open a nursery school. It soon transpires that her own childhood has been difficult, to say the least. I suppose it’s what you might expect from Freud’s great-granddaughter. Emily Perkins’ The Forrests follows a family over several decades. What really stood out about it was the quality of the writing, richly detailed, making every mundane moment sing like a poem.

3 children’s books

Like everyone else I read The Hunger Games, and I loved it. It was alarmingly addictive – I have friends who began reading it one evening and had to take the next day off work, as they had to stay up all night to finish it. Cynics dismiss it as a horrid teen novel about children killing each other, but I found it thick with ideas – about CCTV, celebrity culture, society and more.

I reread The Wind in the Willows, which was truly joyful, and even inspired a walk along the Thames, for which we strove to bring all the ingredients in Ratty’s notorious picnic:

coldtonguecoldhamcoldbeefpickledgherkinssaladfrenchrollscresssandwidges

pottedmeatgingerbeerlemonadesodawater

And I reread A Wizard of Earthsea, an exciting quest about the battle of good versus evil, and – interestingly – the importance of language.

3 of everything else

There were of course other brilliant Emilybooks of the year, which don’t fit into these clumps of threes so neatly – Dorothy Whipple, Patti Smith, and it was certainly a year of Ali Smith, whose new book Artful – not quite a novel, not quite a collection of essays, is something entirely new and mind-poppingly impressive. It was a year of many great ladies, and, lest I forget, a few great men, (like the aforementioned Edward Thomas, Lewis Grassic Gibbon and L.P. Hartley). It has been a year of feeling terrifically happy that there are so many wonderful books to read.

Thank you for accompanying me through a wonderful year of reading. Now I have only to wish you a happy and book-filled Christmas and New Year. Emilybooks will be back in January.

Hotel du Lac

August 20, 2012

I knew I was going to enjoy Hotel du Lac when I reached the third page, on which Anita Brookner described Edith’s hotel room as ‘the colour of over-cooked veal’. It sounds so perfectly disgusting – the insipid colour, the dryness, the foul tough chewy taste and also curiously old-fashioned, as veal is one of those things rarely eaten these days.

The book is peppered with moments like this, these little phrases which are spot on – imaginative, evocative and also drily funny. To my mind, Penelope Fitzgerald (see here) and Elizabeth Taylor (see here) are the real mistresses of them, but Anita Brookner is not far behind.

In Hotel du Lac, these pert phrases sparkle against what some might find to be rather a quiet, dull background of a Swiss hotel with its dotty residents who sit around not doing very much. But I liked the quietness of the novel, the feeling of the hotel’s slow crumbling decline, while clinging on to its delusions of grandeur – an attitude not unlike that shared by many of its ageing, fading residents.

The hotel is the setting for a short episode in the life of Edith Hope. A romantic novelist, Edith has been bundled off to the Hotel du Lac in the wake of a mysterious ‘event’ in order to escape the scandal and – it is hoped – reflect on her bad behaviour. Her story gradually unfolds as she observes the peculiar residents of the hotel, who have their own rather idiosyncratic tales to tell.

In many ways Hotel du Lac feels like an older novel. I suppose, as it was written in the eighties, it is reasonably old now. But it feels more like a novel of the thirties – which was probably the heyday of the Hotel du Lac. People still dress for dinner, ask people to join them for coffee, and enjoy other dated forms of behaviour – it is as though the hotel exists in something of a time warp. Some of my favourite moments are when this old-fashioned feel clashes with something terribly eighties, such as one of the guests dressing for dinner in:

pink harem pants, teamed, as they say in the fashion mags, with an off the shoulder blouse.

Not the elegant silk gown one was expecting!

Anita Brookner is revisiting this old-fashioned scenario of a grand Swiss hotel and re-examining it in a modern light. Not only in terms of fashion, but as a background to re-asses ideas about love and about women.

It becomes clear pretty early on that Edith has been having an affair with a married man. David and her have an affair that seems to consist of visits to private views at art galleries, lots of sex and then her cooking him tremendous fry ups in the middle of the night. Actually that sounds quite fun. But we are often reminded that David has a wife and children; Edith is the other woman. And yet, as Edith is the narrator, and is timid and a bit hopeless, the reader can’t help but sympathise with her. She is not the scheming ‘baddie’ one would automatically expect the other woman to be.

In thinking about the age-old issue of affairs, Anita Brookner calls up an older literary exploration of it, Elizabeth Jenkins’s 1954 novel The Tortoise and the Hare, which is one of my favourite books – terribly sad, too brilliant and I wrote about it here. Edith has a conversation with her agent about the tortoise and the hare, which she terms ‘the most potent myth of all’:

In my books it is the mouse-like unassuming girl who gets the hero, while the scornful temptress with whom he has had a stormy affair retreats baffled from the fray, never to return. The tortoise wins every time. This is a lie, of course … In real life, of course, it is the hare who wins. Every time. Look around you. And in any case it is my contention that Aesop was writing for the tortoise market … Hares don’t have time to read.

In The Tortoise and the Hare, Jenkins deploys Aesop’s fable as an extended metaphor for a failing marriage and an adulterous other woman. What is so clever about Elizabeth Jenkins’s book, as Carmen Calil points out in her Afterword, is that while you read it you are endlessly reassessing who you think is the tortoise and who the hare. From this conversation, it would seem that Edith thinks the slow unassuming wife is the tortoise, the swift scornful hare the adulteress. She bemoans the fact that in the novels she writes the tortoise always wins, when that isn’t true to life.

But hang on a minute, Edith is herself a character in a novel, and she is the adulteress. Does that mean that she is the swift scornful hare? Does that mean that, because she is encased within a novel, she will lose? Or, in terms of her ‘real life’, as opposed to the novels she writes, will she win?

Perhaps Anita Brookner is just as clever as Elizabeth Jenkins here, because Edith is as much a tortoise – timid, miserable, reading lots of books – as a husband-stealing hare. And the little we see of David’s wife does not make her seem particularly tortoise-like:

Highly coloured, drinking rather a lot, argumentative. Sexy, she thought painfully. But discontented, nevertheless.

The metaphor of the tortoise and the hare, so brilliantly employed by Elizabeth Jenkins, rather falls apart in this context, where the women in question are shown to possess qualities of both. That was the fifties, this is the eighties, says Anita Brookner, and things have changed.

I suppose what feels rather depressing about Hotel du Lac – aside from the grey light and veal-coloured rooms and somewhat lost, rejected-by-society cast of characters – is that Brookner gives such a negative portrayal of love affairs. Things haven’t changed for the better, in terms of relationships.

Edith has to choose whether to marry and live the life of a tortoise or to continue with her affair and live the life of the hare. Neither seems particularly appealing or fulfilling. Really what makes Edith happy is writing and sitting in her garden – man-free activities. Could Brookner be suggesting that the race to win a man simply isn’t worth running anymore? By exploding these roles of tortoise and hare, Brookner suggests that rather than trying to squeeze into such ill-fitting moulds, women should run in a different race altogether, a race in which men don’t feature.

This pulling apart of the tortoise and the hare myth is part of Brookner’s wider assessment of women. Here is Edith’s scathing description of women who are ‘ultra-feminine’:

the complacent consumers of men with their complicated but unwritten rules of what is due to them. Treats. Indulgences. Privileges. The right to make illogical fusses. The cult of themselves. Such women strike me as dishonourable. And terrifying.

Terrifying indeed!

Ladies, I suppose the lesson here is to tend to your garden, as Voltaire instructed, and live as a self-sufficient individual without needing to ‘consume’ men in such a hideous way. Rather than choosing between being a tortoise or a hare, Brookner suggests that a woman can be a different creature altogether.

Persephone, Elizabeth and Harriet

May 9, 2012

I love Persephone Books. I admit that they momentarily sank a little in my esteem when they were featured on Made in Chelsea, but I can’t get too high and mighty about that as I was the brainless fool guiltily watching Made in Chelsea and noticing.

To clear up any possible resulting confusion, Persephone Books is not in Chelsea. It is in Lambs Conduit Street, which is one of London’s best streets, full of other Bloomsburyish delights, such as Folk, The People’s Supermarket and (nearby) Ben Pentreath. Persephone Books sells, with a few exceptions, books written by women, usually ones that were written during the fertile-yet-overlooked years between the wars. Best of all, not only do they sell books, they publish them too. Their books are paperbacks, yet have sturdy jackets, which are plain grey, drawing attention to beautifully patterned endpapers, chronologically appropriate to the book. They are printed on good thick paper, with nice solid print. To date Persephone has published 98 books. (Incidentally, there is also a very beautiful collection of Persephone Classics which have lovely paintings on the covers. I wrote about Monica Dickens’ Mariana, one of these classics and also one my all time favourites, here.)

You can probably imagine my excitement when I discovered that Nicola Beauman, founder of Persephone Books, writer and feminist extraordinaire, had discovered EmilyBooks. It made my month. In her fortnightly letter to keen Persephonites she noted my mention of Persephone in a Spectator article. It just so happens that Persephone have just published Harriet by Elizabeth Jenkins, so when she found my blog and saw my piece on The Tortoise and the Hare, also by Elizbaeth Jenkins, she saw fit to link to it. Oh joy! When I wrote to thank Nicola for the mention, she very generously sent me a copy of the new Persephone book.

And what a book.

Harriet is terrifying. I was gripped by it in a truly horrific way, like the way people can’t help but turn to stare out of the window when they drive past an accident on the motorway. Here is the gist of it:

Harriet is a ‘natural’. (Yes, it’s an old-fashioned word but it sounds kinder and less clumsy than saying she’s not quite right in the head.) In spite of this, she has quite a happy life, having a substantial amount of money, a well-meaning mother and taking pleasure in pretty trinkets and fine clothes. Along comes Lewis Oman, a handsome auctioneer with not much money and very bad intentions. He carries on with young, pretty, terrifically vain Alice Hoppner, whose sister Elizabeth is married to Lewis’s brother Patrick.

Lewis decides to get Harriet’s money and to this end he woos her and persuades her to marry him. Harriet may be thirty-two, but she has never yet been romantically pursued and she falls at his feet. Her mother realises something is up but can do nothing to stop them. Harriet is too old to be under her legal protection, the circumstances are too suspiciously sudden for her to be able to get Harriet certified as a lunatic, and so powerful is Harriet’s love for Lewis that she pays no attention to her mother’s objections.

So Lewis marries Harriet and gains her fortune. It isn’t long before he’s manipulated the situation so that he has farmed her out to Patrick and Elizabeth for a pound a week, as they need the money. Lewis, meanwhile, sets up a very comfortable home nearby with Alice, who pretends to be his wife.

Harriet is gradually deprived of more and more. First her fine clothes, then her own place to wash, then food, then even the freedom to move. Eventually she is reduced to a filthy, lice-infested creature, regularly beaten, kept in a small dirty room with a boarded up window, starving to death.

Worst of all, this is the fleshing out of a true story, tightly based on court records of a notorious Victorian court case – the Penge Mystery.

Elizabeth Jenkins certainly had it in for marriage. You might remember how upsetting I found The Tortoise and the Hare. Well this makes the dying marriage in that look positively heavenly! I wonder what drew Jenkins to examine unhappy marriages to such an extent in her novels. If these fictional portrayals of married life are really how she imagined it to be, then it’s no wonder that she refrained from tying the matrimonial knot herself.

A little aside here to say that I read the majority of Harriet on Saturday night when I was feeling rather unwell. I had cancelled all my plans and had slept through most of the afternoon. The husband was out on a stag do. I awoke at elevenish, feeling ghastly and not sure what to do with myself. There was nothing much to eat, other than a dwindling supply of frozen hot cross buns from Easter, and I was feeling too shaky and fragile to go out and buy anything. So I ate a hot cross bun and felt sick and read Harriet on the sofa. I finished it at about two o’clock in the morning and was in a terrible state. There I was, confined to our flat, feeling dreadful, starving to death… not unlike Harriet herself!

When the husband arrived home a little later, reeling from the stag, he found my behaviour to be peculiar to say the least. ‘What is it, Ems?’ he asked. ‘Why are you so tearful and upset? What’s wrong?’

The dreadful thing was that because I’d reacted so miserably to The Tortoise and the Hare, sobbing uncontrollably in a way that he’d found completely puzzling, I felt I couldn’t admit to being in such a state thanks to another Elizabeth Jenkins novel. All I could say, quite feebly, was that I was all alone and wasn’t feeling well and he hadn’t left me any food. He was terribly unimpressed.

Yes, this is a very upsetting and shocking novel, but it is completely brilliant. It would be so easy to write it badly. Here’s a sensational court case, full of drama – greed, murder and evil. How easy it would be to overdo it! Jenkins takes an altogether different and masterful approach. Instead of revelling in the horror, she employs a magpie’s eye for finery.

The book is as much a fashion magazine as a chronicle of despair. When we first encounter Harriet, we learn not only of her ‘sallow countenance’ but of her ‘garnet earrings and a shield-like brooch of pinchbeck pinned to the front of her dress, which was a handsome blue silk’. Throughout the novel, everything is rendered in exquisite detail, be it the rose-red velvet looped on Harriet’s mother’s mantelpiece or the lilac crepe dress of Alice’s fantasies. Appearance is everything.

Perhaps paying so much attention to fabrics and surfaces is a kind of feminising of a horror story. Certainly a surprising amount of horror lies dormant in these luxuries. For instance, Harriet’s mother catches Alice wearing one of Harriet’s favourite brooches, which confirms her suspicions of something being wrong. One of the most chilling moments in the book is when Elizabeth sees Alice ironing:

Then she saw for the first time what Alice was doing. All around were spread pieces of a dress that had been unpicked and was being pressed before it was made up again; pieces of stiff silk, a beautiful, deep blue like a jay’s wing. Elizabeth looked away without saying anything.

The same comparison to a jay’s wing was used earlier in the book to describe one of Harriet’s dresses. Alice wanted the dress and now Alice has got it. What a metaphor! Alice is taking Harriet to pieces. She is taking her finery and refitting it to her own design. She is stepping into her shoes – or into her dress – as Lewis’s wife. It is a brilliantly revealing scene.

This keenly focused attention to appearance also calls up its opposite – disappearance. Harriet’s mother eventually realises something terrible is happening to her daughter and tries to find and rescue her. She looks and looks, but to no avail. Harriet has been made to disappear. Alice has ostensibly become Mrs Lewis Oman in her place. Harriet is confined to an upstairs room, seen by scarcely anyone. On Harriet’s mother’s suspicions, a policeman is stationed at the end of the road to keep an eye out for anything untoward, but Harriet doesn’t leave the house – she never appears – so he has nothing to report.

It is with tragic irony that when Harriet does actually disappear – when she dies – it is her physical appearance that gives the others away. In the words of the doctor at the subsequent trial:

The body was fearfully emaciated and filthily dirty all over, particularly the feet. The skin of the feet was quite horny, as if from walking without shoes for some time. There were lice all over the body. On the head I found real hair and false hair very much matted. We pulled the false hair off with forceps to get to the scalp.

It’s too terrible for words. Except, of course, against the foil of so many words throughout the novel describing beautiful tactile things, here Elizabeth Jenkins has found the perfect words to convey the terror and the horror of it.

The Tortoise and the Hare

February 27, 2012

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.