Elizabeth Jenkins

I usually like books about unexpected relationships, about why apparently unlikely people are attracted to eachother. So as soon as I picked up this book and read the blurb, I immediately thought I would enjoy it and I wasn’t disappointed; in fact, I loved it! It is a novel of the 1950s about an unusual love affair that disrupts a very traditional marriage. Imogen is attractive, graceful, gentle, self-sacrificing, a kind of feminine ideal of the time, and thus seems to be the perfect wife for Evelyn, a successful and handsome barrister. However, she gradually notices, to her astonishment, that a mutual attraction is developing between her husband and their frumpy, brusque neighbour, Blanche. The Tortoise and the Hare is about this relationship and its effect on Imogen and Evelyn’s marriage, played out amongst a host of intriguing minor characters.

Evelyn has a demanding career in London, while Imogen waits for him at home in their Berkshire village, attempting rather unsuccessfully to cater to his every need. As they have help in the home from Miss Malpas, the housekeeper, Imogen in fact has very little to occupy her time and this idleness is heightened by her naturally impractical and dreamy temperament. Although she has a lot of leisure time, she does not seem to have much freedom. She feels herself to be the most powerless member of the household, being apparently subordinate to her husband, Miss Malpas and even her eleven-year-old son Gavin, who all seem to consider her rather incompetent and unintelligent, and treat her with varying degrees of contempt.

The title of the book shows immediately that this will be something of a fable, and although there’s not really an obvious ‘moral’, it does set up two diametrically opposed characters, Imogen and Blanche, and plays out the race between them. The title also suggests from the start the idea of competition and rivalry as an aspect of relationships and marriage. For example, Imogen remembers socialising with the friends of her youth, before she married Evelyn:

In those days they had practised among themselves and on everyone they knew a kind of sexual rating. When they spoke of a match they could decide immediately, to their own satisfaction at least, which of the parties had had the luck, which should consider themselves as only too fortunate and be prepared to conduct themselves accordingly. Money and social standing modified the sexual rating a little, and it was considered, too, that the woman in order to equal the man in this calculation must have a higher level of charm and desirableness than his, because there were too many women, and because often the man was going to become steadily more eligible long beyond the point at which the woman would begin to be less so.

One reason why The Tortoise and the Hare is so engrossing is that Blanche’s romantic ‘success’ turns upside down Imogen’s ideas about attractiveness. Attraction in this novel is mysterious and outside the control of society’s wisdom, ‘a chemical sexual affinity which can exist without any of the outward attractions or graces’. In addition, although Blanche doesn’t have any of the qualities that the ideal 1950s wife should have, Evelyn is attracted to her competence and more conventionally masculine qualities; she is very knowledgeable about the countryside, sits on many local committees, can drive, ride and fish, has money, and can create a comfortable and enjoyable life for him. He also shares his work and interests with her so that she becomes a genuine companion to him in a way that Imogen is not. The roles that Imogen and Evelyn play in their marriage seem to shut out the possibility of intimacy; the only time Imogen realises just what an exhausting effect Evelyn’s work has on him is when she spies on him one day as he leaves the court. Imogen has to find out about Evelyn’s success in a legal case from his office clerk, and everyone else seems to know before her. Despite Imogen’s adoring worship of Evelyn, there is little sympathy between them, as Evelyn seems to be irritated by the way Imogen’s tastes in literature and art, and her more imaginative, self-doubting way of thinking, differ from his own. In fact, he doesn’t appear to like anything that is traditionally feminine, and only really relaxes in masculine company. I found it interesting that Evelyn was so attracted to someone who was very similar to himself, and despite being portrayed as almost a masculine archetype, was not really looking for someone very feminine like Imogen.

I spent parts of the book feeling disbelief at the extent that Imogen allowed herself to be treated so badly by Evelyn and Blanche. Evelyn is generally dismissive of her opinions, is angry with her for expressing any negative emotions whatsoever, constantly praises Blanche (including her ability to form a better relationship with their son, Gavin, than Imogen herself has), and even has the audacity to blame Imogen for not ‘appreciating’ Blanche. Blanche is mostly a repellent and selfish character, exhibiting a horrible smugness after she has ‘won’ Evelyn from Imogen. She shares with Evelyn an assumption that the female is inferior, talking over other women when they attempt to argue with her, and referring disparagingly to ‘the ladies’ as if she is not a member of this group herself. Imogen takes the most inconsiderate treatment from her husband and Blanche with hardly any complaint, and is inclined to blame herself for everything, even in the most unlikely situations. This makes the book simultaneously fascinating and infuriating.

One of my favourite characters was Imogen’s closest female friend, Cecil, who resembles a Siamese cat in appearance and plays the stock market. Cecil is seen by many as coldly cautious and efficient, but we find out that her silence and self-control have developed as a response to her ‘lonely and somewhat arduous existence’. She has an acute perceptiveness about other people, is very loyal to Imogen, and (with her suitably androgynous name) seems somehow free from the ideas about gender that all the other characters possess. There are also many other interesting characters, such as Gavin’s best friend, Tim, a watchful and neglected eleven-year-old, and Zenobia, a very beautiful neighbour of Imogen and Evelyn’s, who lives in a world of permanent drama and imagines that no man can help falling in love with her.

An unexpected aspect of the novel for me was the attention paid to the setting, which was brought to life with only a few words. The novel acknowledges the beauty of the semi-suburban, semi-rural village where Evelyn and Imogen live, while suggesting an underlying intensity and sinister undercurrent to the natural world that is somehow connected with Blanche’s threatening presence. The London of the 1950s is also beautifully re-created, as a city full of history and poetry, especially when Imogen and Cecil climb the dome of St Paul’s Cathedral. However, I think the things I really liked most about this book were its characterisation and insights into social interactions. I think it would appeal to fans of Barbara Pym and Rosamund Lehmann, and, although set in England rather than America, reminded me in a few ways of a TV programme I really like, Mad Men.