A literary tortoise

UNDERRATED The case for Elizabeth Jenkins While Taylor and Jenkins both found new readers, Jenkins remains a secret

Rosamund Lehmann and Elizabeth Taylor were both rediscovered when Virago championed their works. These lady novelists, though far from radical, attached importance to women and their lives, lending themselves to a feminist re-reading. Virago rein troduced Elizabeth Jenkins, too, but while Taylor and Lehmann have both found new readers, Jenkins remains a well-kept secret.

Now 89, Miss Jenkins published her first novel after graduating from Cambridge in the 1920s. Twenty-three works have followed, including biographies of Elizabeth the Great and Lady Caroline Lamb, as well as the haunting novel Harriet, now out of print.

In the 1980s Virago republished The Tortoise and the Hare. This 40-year-old novel is flawless. Jenkins doesn't shock and never advocates social change. Her world is peopled by upper-middle-class professionals with housekeepers. Gardens are sweeping and immaculate; children board at school. There are picnics by rivers, friends who lunch and trips to London to wander dreamily around galleries. Anyone faintly "progressive" - an architect with an open-plan house, a poetess who appears in Vogue - is gently mocked.

What marks Jenkins out is her perception and insight into character. In The Tortoise and the Hare there is very little action, and not even a traditional climax, yet the emotional journey travelled by the central character is extremely moving.

The lovely, romantic Imogen Gresham is in her thirties, married to the much older Evelyn. Dynamic, handsome, overbearing, Evelyn is a successful barrister who likes the good things in life. Imogen, who idealises her husband, seems motivated only by her desire to please him.

The book maps Imogen's incredulous and slow realisation that she no longer does. She has, in fact, lost Evelyn to her neighbour, Blanche Silcox. More surprising still, her rival is a dumpy 50-year-old spinster, who shoots and fishes, and lacks any taste in hats. She is Imogen's exact opposite and we start off, like our heroine, by feeling rather patronising towards her.

What a mistake. Seizing her last chance at passion, Blanche pursues Evelyn relentlessly, proving that the tortoise can always surprise the hare.

Readers may find Imogen maddeningly passive: she "just suffers", as her 11-year-old son comments with contempt. But Jenkins points out the unseen momentum in life which propels our acts - like leaves drifting downstream - by a seemingly "invisible force". Imogen can't swim against the current.

Of course, Imogen is partly culpable. With her head full of white geraniums and Wordsworth sonnets, she has never taken responsibility for herself. She fails to see the true state of her marriage or to understand what men desire in women.

While sympathetic towards her, Jenkins is strikingly even-handed. The author doesn't blame Evelyn. He needs the passion offered by Blanche (she has orgasms, Imogen doesn't) and prefers her grown-up, stimulating companionship to Imogen's fragile charm.

Imogen is abandoned by Evelyn but not by Jenkins, who gives the sad ending an unexpected twist. The Tortoise and the Hare also closes with the impractical Imogen acknowledging: "I must improve . . . There is a very great deal to be done." It's as if thi s positive note opens the door to the feminist fiction which has followed, where women faced with failing marriages and feelings of worthlessness learn to fight back, grasp the future and make something of their lives.

Marianne Brace

Arts and Entertainment
'The Archers' has an audience of about five million
radioA growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried
Arts and Entertainment
Ready to open the Baftas, rockers Kasabian are also ‘great film fans’
musicExclusive: Rockers promise an explosive opening to the evening
Arts and Entertainment
Henry VIII played by Damien Lewis
tvReview: Scheming queens-in-waiting, tangled lines of succession and men of lowly birth rising to power – sound familiar?
Arts and Entertainment
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hell, yeah: members of the 369th Infantry arrive back in New York
booksWorld War Z author Max Brooks honours WW1's Harlem Hellfighters in new graphic novel
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Beer as folk: Vincent Franklin and Cyril Nri (centre) in ‘Cucumber’
tvReview: This slice of gay life in Manchester has universal appeal
Arts and Entertainment
‘A Day at the Races’ still stands up well today
film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tvAnd its producers have already announced a second season...
Arts and Entertainment
Kraftwerk performing at the Neue Nationalgalerie (New National Gallery) museum in Berlin earlier this month
musicWhy a bunch of academics consider German electropoppers Kraftwerk worthy of their own symposium
Arts and Entertainment
Icelandic singer Bjork has been forced to release her album early after an online leak

music
Arts and Entertainment
Colin Firth as Harry Hart in Kingsman: The Secret Service

film
Arts and Entertainment
Brian Blessed as King Lear in the Guildford Shakespeare Company's performance of the play

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
In the picture: Anthony LaPaglia and Martin Freeman in 'The Eichmann Show'

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Kirkbride and Bill Roache as Deirdre and Ken Barlow in Coronation Street

tvThe actress has died aged 60
Arts and Entertainment
Marianne Jean-Baptiste defends Joe Miller in Broadchurch series two

tv
Arts and Entertainment
The frill of it all: Hattie Morahan in 'The Changeling'

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny may reunite for The X Files

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Clarkson, left, and Richard Hammond upset the locals in South America
TV
News
A young woman punched a police officer after attending a gig by US rapper Snoop Dogg
people
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third
books

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game are both nominated at the Bafta Film Awards
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

    Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
    Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
    Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

    Comedians share stories of depression

    The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
    Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

    Has The Archers lost the plot?

    A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
    English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

    14 office buildings added to protected lists

    Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee
    World War Z author Max Brooks honours WW1's Harlem Hellfighters in new graphic novel

    Max Brooks honours Harlem Hellfighters

    The author talks about race, legacy and his Will Smith film option to Tim Walker
    Why the league system no longer measures up

    League system no longer measures up

    Jon Coles, former head of standards at the Department of Education, used to be in charge of school performance rankings. He explains how he would reform the system
    Valentine's Day cards: 5 best online card shops

    Don't leave it to the petrol station: The best online card shops for Valentine's Day

    Can't find a card you like on the high street? Try one of these sites for individual, personalised options, whatever your taste
    Diego Costa: Devil in blue who upsets defences is a reminder of what Liverpool have lost

    Devil in blue Costa is a reminder of what Liverpool have lost

    The Reds are desperately missing Luis Suarez, says Ian Herbert
    Ashley Giles: 'I'll watch England – but not as a fan'

    Ashley Giles: 'I'll watch England – but not as a fan'

    Former one-day coach says he will ‘observe’ their World Cup games – but ‘won’t be jumping up and down’
    Greece elections: In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza

    Greece elections

    In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza, says Patrick Cockburn
    Holocaust Memorial Day: Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears

    Holocaust Memorial Day

    Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears over Europe
    Fortitude and the Arctic attraction: Our fascination with the last great wilderness

    Magnetic north

    The Arctic has always exerted a pull, from Greek myth to new thriller Fortitude. Gerard Gilbert considers what's behind our fascination with the last great wilderness