The Tortoise and the Hare

This 1954 novel by Elizabeth Jenkins focuses on the disastrous marriage of Imogen and Evelyn Gresham. Imogen is beautiful and amiable, but, it appears, kind of useless to everyone in her household. She tries, but when she does, she ends up being an annoyance, especially to her son, Gavin. Evelyn, a prominent barrister, spends a lot of his time in London and is increasingly coming to depend on a neighbor, Blanche Silcox.

Blanche is in her 50s, much closer to Evelyn’s age than Imogen, and while not attractive, she is likable, and very much a doer. She drives the car, packs the picnic lunch, makes the arrangements for whatever needs to get done, and she’s game to go fishing and whatever else her friends are interested in. In a way, she’s just the kind of person who, as an overweight middle-aged single lady, I could relate to or at least aspire to be.

Yet this book worked on me in that I felt horrible for Imogen the entire time. For one thing, there’s every reason to believe that Imogen could do better, could be a doer herself. Her best friend, Cecil, sets a good example for being independent but also capable of relationships. And Imogen herself forms several close friendships with people who genuinely like her and are distressed at how she’s being swept aside. Perhaps her beauty is beguiling them, but I don’t think so. She genuinely doesn’t seem to understand what has caused everything to go so wrong. I think she’s just never had to be a doer in the way Blanche is.

Although the book treats Blanche as in interloper, I could see her perspective too. She’s in her 50s, has never been married, is not very attractive, and is enjoying what is likely to be a rare bit of male attention. I can imagine appreciating the friendship and then having it get out of hand. I think, on balance, she’s in the wrong. But Evelyn is more in the wrong. He’s the one who keeps relying on her, telling her his plans and problems. He could easily cool it, especially after his Imogen starts to express distress at his close friendship with Blanche.

I am still puzzling over the ending, which is sweet but strange. It turns on the fast that Imogen is not the only character who feels neglected and pushed aside. Gavin’s best friend, Tim, is similarly neglected by his family. And, at the end of the book, he provides just a little bit of hope that Imogen can find a path forward. It seems entirely unlikely, but I want to believe in it because I want to see neglected people find a place. And so I’m choosing to ignore the implausibility and enjoy the possibility.

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6 Responses to The Tortoise and the Hare

  1. realbooks4everstephanie says:

    It makes me sad when I read about neglected people. Glad that Imogen had some friends. She should learn how to do things because one day she will be Blanche.

  2. Cindy Fried says:

    Excellent review! Thank you for reminding me of this book which I loved when I read it years ago and, unlike a lot of the things I read, stayed with me. I gifted it to several friends at the time, and the other day I found myself telling someone about it and vowing to buy it for her too.

    Long winded way of saying it is one of my favourites – I keep meaning to read her other books (of which there aren’t many). The quality of the writing is the thing, and the twist on the tired old trope of man ignoring worthy and interesting wife when a gorgeous interloper comes along.

  3. Rohan Maitzen says:

    I liked but didn’t love this one: it sits nicely in the zone where there’s so much other mid-century women’s fiction, smart, understated, but not really doing a lot (I thought).

    • Teresa says:

      I was somewhat more lukewarm about this at first, but when I really started to think about the differences between the two women, the book felt more fresh and interesting to me.

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