Invisible Ink: No 120, Elizabeth Jenkins


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The Independent Culture

To modern readers, many 1930s writers might as well be using Shakespearian English, such is the grace and complexity of their language. Is this why Elizabeth Jenkins has disappeared from bookshops?

Jenkins was born in 1905, a Cambridge graduate who moved to Bloomsbury to pursue a writing career. Initially accepted into Virginia Woolf's circle, she soon found herself shunned by its notoriously fickle members, and never forgave Woolf. Jenkins said: “She was cruel, appalling. Leonard [Woolf] was an angel, but it was partly his fault that she was so odious. 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'.” But writing well is the best revenge; Jenkins wrote consistently for 75 years from her first three-book contract from Victor Gollancz. She came to be greatly admired.

She moved to an elegant crenellated house in Hampstead (which she confessed made her appear wealthy instead of hard-up) and became an English teacher but she continued to establish her reputation as a biographer, producing volumes on Jane Austen, Lady Caroline Lamb and a pioneering work on Elizabeth I.

However, a fascination with a certain kind of suburban cruelty drew her to darker reaches, and her best novels reflect peculiarly English crimes. Harriet (1934) was based on the true account of a “natural” – a Victorian term for someone of subnormal intelligence – who was systematically neglected to death in 1877 by venal relatives leeching her inheritance. Edmund Burke said that in order for evil to flourish, all that is required is for good men to do nothing, and so it proves. Harriet has finally resurfaced in a handsome new edition from Persephone Books. Dr Gully's Story (1972) was Jenkins' personal favourite, and concerned the doctor implicated in the Florence Bravo poisoning of the 1870s. In retrospect, it's surprising that the author didn't tackle the case of Dr Crippen and Belle Elmore.

In wartime, Jenkins helped the victims of air-raids and Jewish refugees, and emerged to produce another major work, The Tortoise and the Hare, the story of an attractive wife whose gentility and willingness to believe, results in the loss of her husband to a manipulative, boorish Other Woman. Cleverly, the awful Blanche is the plainest member of the triangle, but her determination trumps selflessness. Jenkins was finally made an OBE and lived to 104.