Two Pairs of Novels (Part 2)

Commuting days until retirement: 202

The Tortoise and the HareI’m not sure exactly what originally put me on to the first one of this pair; but I do remember reading someone’s opinion that this was the ‘perfect novel’. Looking around, there are encomiums everywhere. Carmen Callil, the Virago publisher, republished the book in 1983 (it originally appeared in 1954), calling it ‘one of my favourite classics’. Jilly Cooper considers it ‘my best book of almost all time’. The author, Elizabeth Jenkins, died only recently, in 2010, at the age of 104. Her Guardian obituary mentions the book as ‘one of the outstanding novels of the postwar period’. The publisher has given it an introduction by none other than Hilary Mantel – a writer whose abilities I respect, having read and enjoyed the first two books in her Thomas Cromwell trilogy. She writes: ‘I have admired this exquisitely written novel for many years…’

So why, having read it, did I feel distinctly underwhelmed? Its title is The Tortoise and the Hare, and it tells the story of a somewhat troubled marriage. The husband is an eminent barrister, and the wife is – well, the wife of an eminent barrister. (We are talking about the early fifties here, after all.) And indeed, she seems like what we might nowadays call a trophy wife – the attractive and desirable spoils of her husband’s success. The novel is narrated in omniscient mode, but centred around the point of view of Imogen, the wife. She watches with concern her husband’s burgeoning friendship with Blanche Silcox, a worthy spinster of their village: no scarlet woman, but a capable and organising, but also middle-aged and tweedy one – the tortoise who threatens to snatch the prize from the hare. At the opening of the novel Imogen is with her husband in a bric-a-brac shop, tempted by a delicately decorated china mug. However he only sees where it has been damaged; he has the buying power and she feels unable to challenge him, even though she knows he would give in to her wishes if she were to insist.

So we see the ground rules established. Imogen’s inability to step outside the limits of the role forced upon her by the conventions of the time is in one way an exemplar of what is interesting about the book – as Mantel puts it, ‘its focus on a fascinating and lost social milieu’. But this also seems to me to be part of its weakness. The customs of the time overwhelm the characters to such an extent that they seem to lose any idiosyncrasy or inner volition; we are left with a sense of inert waxworks being trundled about on a stage, fixed expressions on their faces, and their limbs in stiffly adopted poses. True, there are one or two minor characters who break through the unruffled surface of stifling convention: an avant garde architect and his pretentious wife; her sister Zenobia, the ‘famous beauty’. Then there are some who seem to stretch convention almost too far, the like the cerebrally challenged snob of a mother who sends her room daughters to a school where they have ‘a particularly nice class of girl’. “I’m not crazy about examinations. They won’t have to earn their living, but they will have to keep their end up in society.”  But the characterisation seems to me hardly any better here; they are all caricatures – another collection of waxworks, this time with crudely drawn masks fastened over their faces.

The other novel of my pair seemed to invite comparison because it is by another woman novelist writing at the same time, and for the trivial reason that she is also called Elizabeth. She wrote a dozen or so novels between 1945 and her death in 1975. Her reputation has probably suffered because it has been partly blotted out by that of the Hollywood film star of the same name, Elizabeth Taylor. In a comment on the back cover of another of her books, yet another Elizabeth-named novelist, Elizabeth Jane Howard, writes: ‘How deeply I envy any reader coming to her for the first time!’

Well I am one of these lucky readers; and I also noticed that a fellow WordPress blogger recently praised her in Vulpes Libris. And indeed, I in looking this post up I also found an earlier one on this same author. This latter entry is about The Soul of Kindness, the novel I first read and was going to use for the comparison. However it struck me that it was published in 1964 – only ten years after Jenkins’ The Tortoise and the Hare, but a decade in which there was enormous social change. The Taylor novel struck me as outclassing the Jenkins one in all sorts of ways, and but I felt I should try to make a fairer comparison, and so selected one which was almost contemporaneous – The Sleeping Beauty, published in 1953.

The Sleeping BeautyStraight away we find a cast of characters which have all the idiosyncrasies, mixed motives and secrets that you’d expect in authentic, three-dimensional people. There’s the odd household consisting of two sisters – one damaged in a car accident, and one widowed, who fretfully runs the household, which includes a guest-house – and her daughter who has learning difficulties, as they wouldn’t have been called then. Alongside them is another widow, whose MP husband has recently drowned in a boating accident which their traumatised son survived, and the friend with whom she distracts herself in various random enthusiasms, including covert betting on horses. Into this circle is introduced Vinny, the slightly mysterious single man (some of whose mysteries are revealed later) and his insufferable headstrong mother. (“At least you know where you are with her, ” comments one character. “But you don’t want to be there, ” retorts another.)

So here we are, with real people in a real world. Jenkins’ characters seemed to me to be entirely defined by the conventions and the medium in which they move. They can only exist within it, like those floating, translucent sea creatures, which, taken out of water, collapse into nothing. Taylor’s characters, on the other hand, have a fish-like solidity; if taken out of the milieu in which they live they might gasp and flap, but would still be recognisably themselves. They are for all time, and indeed, once you are involved in the action of the novel and the interactions of the characters, the period background becomes just that – background. Only occasionally does a detail give you a sudden reminder of the time you’re in: someone is standing on a railway platform and is startled out of their thoughts by the clatter of a descending signal.

Taylor has a particular gift for sharp description and telling details. For example, a here’s our first sight of that guest-house with the odd menage:

At the top of the cliff, but mostly hidden in trees, he could see a gabled Victorian house of tremendous ugliness, ivy over its dark walls and one upstairs window glinting evilly in the sunset.

This is intensely visual, and and wonderfully suggestive at the same time. Compare a typical descriptive passage from Jenkins, as two characters go for a walk together:

The trees were of unusual height. Against the pale blue sky their myriad leaves, now grey-green, now silver, shivered and whispered. Beneath, the river slid on, dark and clear, till it rounded over the weir in a glassy, greenish curve, then splintered into flakes, tresses, sheaves of foam that poured, thundering, to gush into the stream below.

This is all very well; evocative and elegantly written, pleasant to read, but oh, so conventional; and it doesn’t really get us anywhere. There’s nothing to lift the scene out of the ordinary and give it a purpose, or jolt us with a little shock and portend what is to come. We learn of nothing more than the pleasant surroundings in which the book’s characters live. Taylor’s descriptions, by contrast, are spare with well chosen detail, apt complements to what is happening in the novel.

On the basis of what I have read, I don’t think I’m being unfair to Jenkins. It’s true she had a Cambridge education at a time when that was still unconventional for women, and a life full of literary connections, knowing Virginia Woolf and Edith Sitwell. She wrote biographies as well as fiction. According to the Guardian piece I mentioned earlier, The Tortoise and the Hare is based on her own experience, with herself as the spurned lover – although she never married. But from what I have seen, novel writing was not her forte, while Elizabeth Taylor seems to me to have been a much greater talent. I look forward to reading more of her.

2 thoughts on “Two Pairs of Novels (Part 2)

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