Reviews

‘absorbing second mystery . . . stunning resolution.’ [Stage Fright]

- PUBLISHERS WEEKLY

The Tortoise and the Hare

imagesMore blog fun for me and Moira over at Clothesinbooks.com. This time we decided that I would pick a book for us both to read and that, without consulting, we would each blog about it on the same day and link our posts. Moira will chose next time.

My choice is Elizabeth Jenkins’ 1954 novel, THE TORTOISE AND THE HARE. I picked it because it is a novel I hugely admire and I long to know what Moira thinks of it. I must have first read it about thirty years ago and I have reread it many times since. The story is told mainly from the point of view of Imogen Gresham, who, when the novel opens, seems to live a charmed life with her high-powered barrister husband, Evelyn, and her son, Gavin, in a beautiful Regency house in Berkshire. We see her examining a piece of pottery in an antique shop, attracted its colour: her husband points out that it is chipped. ‘It would come apart in no time.’ And even in this first chapter, we begin to see what Imogen is scarcely aware of: the chip in her marriage as she fails to perceive the nature of growing friendship between Evelyn and their neighbour, Blance Silcox. Surely this stout, plain, dowdy spinster of fifty can pose no threat to Imogen, still in her thirties, elegant, lovely?

I think this novel is almost perfect, though rereading it a year or two ago, I felt that there was a flaw that I hadn’t noticed before in her treatment of a couple who arrive in the village, bringing with them all kind of progressive fads to do with ‘improving’ village life, while at the same time their own children are neglected. Jenkins’s viewpoint was instinctly conservative and these characters are so sharply satirized that I feel it slightly unbalances the novel. Still this was her masterpiece, so perceptive and subtle in its understanding of men and women, as gripping in its way as a thriller.

I do, by the way, sometimes despair of what publishers deem to be a suitable book-cover. The one that comes up first on Amazon makes the book look like a piece of chic-lit, which it emphatically is not. The one I’ve used here is from my old Virago paperback, which has stood up to repeated reading surprisingly well.

I’ve so much enjoyed Moira’s take on the novel. Read it here on Clothesinbooks.com

Singled Out

I’ve very much enjoyed Virginia Nicholson’s Singled Out: How Two Million Women Survived Without Men after the First World War. It is the kind of gossipy, anecdotal history that is very easy to read. singled_outNicholson has done an enormous amount of research. The pages throng with remarkable women who managed to find meaning in life without a husband or children: women like Gertrude Caton-Thompson who trained as an archaeologist in her thirties, travelled extensively on digs, and ended up teaching at Newnham College: Mary Grieve who was editor of Woman magazine for 30 years; many writers, including Elizabeth Jenkins and Elizabeth Goudge. Women lawyers, teachers, stockbrokers, and engineers all seized their chance. But if one thing comes over strongly, it is that while middle class and upper class women could often find worthwhile and financially rewarding employment, for working class women it was the tough life of a shop girl or factory worker. For them, marriage must surely have been preferable, even if as Nicholson points out, it was rarely a bed of roses.

For many women in all classes the absence of children was a sadness. Many played roles as aunts and godmothers, but few in those day dared have an illegitimate child to raise alone. It’s a pity that so few felt able to follow in the footsteps of Rosamund Essex, editor of the Church Times, who as a single woman adopted a little boy, a touching success story

Nicholson writes in the introduction that at thirty she was still unmarried and expected to remain so, but two years later found herself planning her wedding. For me it all came even later and I thought as I read this book about what it must have been like to have no choice about marriage or children because there just weren’t enough men to go round. I wonder too how many of the (mostly) single women teachers at my girls’ grammar school in the sixties had lost the men they might have married in WWII – or whether they simply preferred a career – or other women (not a thought that occurred to me in those days!)

 

Elizabeth Jenkins

Elizabeth Jenkins died a few days ago at the age of 104. She’s a writer I’ve long admired. She was a distinguished biographer – Jane Austen, Elizabeth I – and a fine novelist. There are two works that I go back to regularly. One is her 1954 novel, THE TORTOISE AND THE HARE. The story is told mainly from the point of view of Imogen Gresham, who when the novel opens seems to live a charmed life with her high-powered barrister husband, Evelyn, and her son, Gavin, in a beautiful Regency house in Berkshire. We see her examining a piece of pottery in an antique shop, attracted its colour: her husband points out that it is chipped. ‘It would come apart in no time.’ And even in this first chapter, we begin to see what Imogen is scarcely aware of: the chip in her marriage as she fails to perceive the nature of growing friendship between Evelyn and their neighbour, Blance Silcox. Surely this stout, plain, dowdy spinster of fifty can pose no threat to Imogen, still in her thirties, elegant, lovely? I think this novel is almost perfect, though rereading it a year or two ago, I felt that there was a flaw in her treatment of a couple who arrive in the village bringing with them all kind of progressive fads to do with ‘improving’ village life, while at the same time their own children are neglected. Jenkins’s viewpoint was instinctly conservative and these characters are so sharply satirized that it unbalances the novel. Still it is wonderfully readable and looking at it just now I was immediately sucked into it again.
The other book I love to re-read is YOUNG ENTHUSIASTS, first published in 1947, an unusual blend of fiction and memoir, which vividly evokes the atmosphere and the characters, both teachers and pupils, in a progressive school in the thirties. It manages to convey more than any book I know what teaching is like: exhausting, rewarding, unpredictable. It is full of perception and wisdom, and she writes like a dream. I wish now that I had written and told her how much pleasure her writing has given me.