Love the old Virago covers as we all do and judge a book by its cover as I do ( and far too often) it serves me well to remember that actually and obviously it's the words that matter, and so I now look on all Virago books as the treasures that I have always known them to be.
The Tortoise and the Hare by Elizabeth Jenkins arrived sporting a very 'of the moment cover' but lorks, I'd never knowingly heard of Elizabeth Jenkins, not even in the old Virago Modern Classics edition.
But Elizabeth Jenkins has written twenty-three books, was a close friend of Elizabeth Bowen, knew Rosamond Lehmann, Rose Macauley and Rebecca West, won the Femina Vie Heureuse Prize for her novel Harriet in 1934 and lives in Hampstead, London.
A fascinating article written at the time of her hundredth birthday reveals this about a visit the young Elizabeth paid to the home of Virginia and Leonard Woolf,
"On several occasions she would walk from her furnished room in Doughty
Street to their flat in Tavistock Square to sit at the feet of the
great Mrs Woolf, breathless then at the privilege, but uncompromising
today in her condemnation.
She recalls: “She was cruel, appalling. Beautiful, yes – but odd. Leonard was an angel, but it was partly his fault that she was so odious. He spoilt her. I remember one occasion when a young artist dared to correct Virginia about the name of a plant. Leonard took him to one side and said, ‘Don’t contradict Virginia – she can’t take it.’”
The visits ended in tears. At the last tea-party Virginia mocked the young Elizabeth, mercilessly and with contempt.
She never went back, but cherishes the memory of Leonard Woolf, infinitely kind, taking her arm and escorting her downstairs, the gentle antidote to his wife’s cruelty."
Dashing to my shelf of Virginia's diaries, there I find two mentions of Elizabeth, one on the 16th March 1931. Betty Jenkins had indeed visited during the afternoon of March 13th after the Woolf's had partaken of lunch at the Ivy Restaurant with Julian Bell and another friend.
Poor Elizabeth, perhaps we could argue that Virginia had a bad bout of acid indigestion or trapped wind to explain her churlish behaviour ?
Perhaps the lunch-Elizabeth-dyspepsia associations lingered, here's another entry for June 12th 1935,
' I am so glad I am not lunching with Rebecca West to meet Miss E.Jenkins.'
The Tortoise and the Hare is ostensibly a book about a marriage and a family in the 1950s, but as Hilary Mantel artfully suggests in her introduction (and isn't any book worth buying for the Hilary introduction alone, and in this case the added bonus of a Carmen Callil Afterword)
'Apart from a war, what could be more interesting than a marriage...a long campaign, a grand game of strategy involving setbacks, bluff and regroupings - a campaign pursued, sometimes until the parties have forgotten the value of the territory they are are fighting over...'
Poor poor young, self-effacing, subservient Imogen Grisham. Constantly subjected to the critical scrutiny of her older barrister husband Evelyn and rarely seeming to scrub up well in his eyes despite her evident physical attributes,
'Unhappiness and lack of self-confidence would reduce her charms to the condition of some fragile garland, meant to float in the mid-air over a festive scene, blown down and lying rain-soaked on the pavement.'
Then there's Grisham junior, the ghastly Gavin, an Evelyn in the making, whose treatment of his mother ranks almost as harshly as his father's,
'Imogen felt that the emotional condition between them was like nothing so much as an overturned beehive.'
And then there's the wealthy neighbour.
Country woman, knows one end of a shotgun from the other, can take a squirrel out and yes, probably have it casseroled by teatime, tail used to make her own fishing flies, spinster, stout and stern, surely there can be no contest between Blanche Silcox and the slender and radiant Imogen for Evelyn's attentions?
'... her figure with its bloated waist, in contrast to which her small legs and her feet in pointed shoes, looked like the slender forelegs that unexpectedly support a bull..'
Hmm, well you'll have to read to find out but you know men like Evelyn and their cars, and Blanche does drive a purring Rolls Royce whilst he's only got a Bentley.
Books maketh the man and Elizabeth Jenkins scatters literary references throughout as a means of cleverly making astute character assessments.
The robust and domineering Evelyn can't quite grasp how Imogen dislikes reading Conrad, Melville or Disraeli's political novels whilst gentle family friend Paul, a doctor, utilises Imogen's knowledge of the 'densely populated novels' of Charlotte Yonge in his paper on literary evidences for the incidence of tuberculosis in the eighteenth and nineteenth century. Nobody does TB better than Charlotte Yonge apparently and the contrast between Evelyn and Paul couldn't be more obvious.
So which books might we expect to find on Blanche's shelves?
That's easy, a complete set of The Shooter's Magazine for 1884, The Head Hunters of Borneo and The Jack Russell in Health and Sickness.
Elizabeth Jenkins herself describes this novel as one that was autobiographical 'not in fact but in feeling' and in her afterword Carmen Callil suggests that actually initial assumptions about who exactly is the Tortoise of the title and who is the Hare become increasingly blurred. I spent ages trying to decide once I'd closed the book and found in the end the jury was out for me, I'd be interested to know what anyone else thinks, but a book not to miss.