“Are you sure you know what men fall in love with?” (4.5 stars)
Source- personal copy
This edition published in 2011 by Virago Press. First published in 1954.
Hardback edition- 262 pages
I positively covet books that have beautiful covers and these Virago designer classics are just stunning. I have quite a little collection of them going now and this cover, designed by the late Australian artist Florence Broadhurst, is one of my favourites. It reminds me of some embossed wallpaper that my grandparents used to have in their living room, actually- completely adorable. They all look so sweet lined up in my bookshelves.
Enough cover gushing. You want to hear about the book itself, right?
Though written decades ago, the themes of this book- marriage and relationships- are concepts that never date in fiction. That said, I would hope that some of the attitudes within the book have changed- and for the better. This book rewrites that old fable of the tortoise and the hare, though subtly reworks it in the context of marriage and relationships in this instance- whereby two women are competing for the affections of one man. Does slow and steady always win the race? Who is actually the tortoise and who is the hare within the context of this novel?
First published in the mid-1950’s, The Tortoise and the Hare chronicles the story of Evelyn Gresham, a distinguished middle-aged barrister, and his younger wife Imogen. They, along with their (bratty) young son Gavin, reside in an affluent house in Berkshire, with Imogen practically doting on her husband’s every whim. Despite this, it seems that elegant, pretty Imogen just isn’t enough for her husband, who has a particular fondness for their fifty-something neighbour, Blanche Silcox, a plain, tweed-wearing woman who shoots, fishes and rides and seems to be the polar opposite of Imogen in every possible way…
I have to say that I really adored this book. It was so beautifully written with some vivid imagery and wonderful prose that I felt myself re-reading in the hope that I would totally absorb it. It offered a perceptive look at relationships and is a novel that I’m genuinely glad I picked up.
This story has some truly memorable characters- both the main protagonists and the secondary characters are very well written, with some stealing the show more so than others. I fell a little bit in love with Tim Leeper, the neighbour’s son who literally stole my heart with his sweet demeanour and the fact that all he wanted was someone to care about him as his own parents seem to forget he is there on most occasions. He is a complete contrast to his best friend Gavin, Imogen’s own son who has picked up the irritating habit of copying his father by deriding his mother and the differences between Gavin and Tim could not be more obvious. Tim is happy to slip into the background, whilst Gavin, like Evelyn, is a much more forceful personality.
Though my sympathies lay with Imogen from the outset of this novel, she didn’t particularly do herself any favours with her neediness and repetitive seeking of her requirements as both a wife and mother. Constantly submissive, she was married for her ‘trophy’ like qualities and never once stood up to either her husband or son, always putting their material needs before her own happiness. The way Evelyn continually belittled her actually made me wince and that she was also unable to connect with her own child made me feel a bit sad. She isn’t particularly independent or assertive and when she has the chance to be so and get angry, she literally falls at the first hurdle and lets Evelyn walk all over her once more. That said, I can agree with her reasoning that she presumably had no reason to feel threatened by Blanche, judging purely by appearances and attitudes so never saw what was truly happening until it was too late. Also, decades ago, it was much more the norm for women to turn a blind eye to affairs, not to mention the bad behaviour of their husbands than is perhaps the case now, so perhaps I cannot judge her for her behaviour too strongly.
Evelyn… well, what to say about him? What a complete PRIZE of a man!! He is pompous, condescending and seems certain that the world revolves around him. Though he married Imogen for presumably her looks and adoration of him and undoubtedly holds a great deal of affection towards her, their marriage is literally dead. In Blanche Silcox he meets a kindred spirit, a woman who will not put up with his nonsense and seems to be more his equal.
Blanche herself is formidable, manipulative and rich. Evelyn is drawn to her firstly as a friend, owing to their shared interests, yet it is not long before the nature of the relationship changes entirely. I found my opinions on Blanche changed as the plot progressed too; initially I felt sorry for her as she was described as a bit plain, not to mention single and more interested in ‘manly’ pastimes. Imogen too, seemed to feel a bit sorry for Blanche, so it is fascinating how quickly the older woman was drawn into their lives and how the two women’s situations were switched and Imogen slowly became the woman who felt threatened and Blanche was perceived to become more attractive as she fell in love.
I found this to be a frighteningly accurate look at marriage and relationships. The way that Imogen refused to face up to what was actually happening and the painfully humiliating way in which others around them recognised Evelyn’s infidelity felt sadly all too believable. Her determination to initially turn the other cheek felt very realistic too. Any reader could sympathise with her predicament and wonder whether they as well would face the situation head on, or keep quiet and hope for the best.
The end of the story was rather open, which for once I liked. I’m left wondering if Blanche ever truly got her happy ending- slow and steady may have won the race this time around, though if Evelyn can cheat within one relationship, he will undoubtedly do it in others. As for Imogen, I would like to think that she too, eventually got her happy ending. After letting Evelyn go, readers are left in no doubt to her generosity of spirit and the pure fact that she is probably better off without him!
I will certainly read more books from Elizabeth Jenkins in future and would recommend this to anyone looking for a solid, character-driven story. This absorbing relationship drama is just perfect for curling up with as the winter nights draw in.