One of the great fables about late bloomers is the tortoise and the hare. We are taught as children its simple moral that the race is not to the swift. However, what we are not told is that applying the fable isn’t straightforward. The real race is against ourselves, not other people.
Elizabeth Jenkins’ 1954 novel The Tortoise and the Hare is about exactly that. It is Ecclesiastes applied to an upper middle class marriage and adultery. What makes the novel especially interesting, is that there’s some debate about which character is the tortoise and which the hare.
Imogen seems to be the tortoise because she plods through her miserable life, always surrounded by racing hares, until suddenly, at the end, she realises she has won. In this interpretation, Blanche is the hare who has run off with her man but should expect to be disappointed. This interpretation seems clear cut, but I think it is at odds with the moral of the book.
Let’s start with what is obvious. Blanche drives a fast smart car; Imogen is mostly immobile. Blanche has practically taken possession of Evelyn before Imogen has any idea about what’s happening. Blanche owns stocks and shares, has a flat in London, and gets involved in committees and voluntary boards. Imogen has very few active interests and usually doesn’t really do, or say, anything. Blanche is chasing Evelyn; Imogen only realises he’s leaving at the last possible moment.
Most importantly, Imogen is slow to understand what is happening, and described by her best friend as infinitely unassuming and patient. But that is a trick. Elizabeth Jenkins is careful to provide a balanced picture. We are expected to take sides, but also to empathise with everyone in the novel. Contradictory information is constantly available.
Blanche is dumpy, physically and mentally, whereas Imogen is sleek and smart. Blanche is old; Imogen young. Blanche is more and more lively throughout the book, but still pretty flat. Imogen is, on the inside and known only to us, astonishingly vibrant, often livid. In the end, Blanche stays where she is and Imogen leaves. She is the one who takes the most initiative when it all comes out.
What is so obvious you could forget to take account of it, is that Imogen is subdued. She’s practically a prisoner. She is not a slow, plodding tortoise, but a sleeping hare. She is charming, and pretty, and slender, like a hare, but she is also kept in a doze by her oppressive life. There are plenty of scenes where we see her tired, or sleeping, or struggling to sleep and then droopy all morning. Blanche only gets more lively as the book goes on.
At the end, Blanche crosses the apparent finishing line and lives with Evelyn, but Imogen wakes up. She starts her life. The real lesson is that women who look like tortoises might actually be hares, subdued into slumber by their boring husbands and regimented lives.
We are perhaps not meant to make such final judgements about who is the tortoise and who the hare, the way the dynamic constantly shifts is part of the point. But the when you get down to the basic plot it seems clear that Imogen was expected to be a flourishing young woman, gets overpowered by her life and left in a half-awake, half-asleep state, and then once she escapes is able to start genuinely flourishing again.
The race is not to the swift, it is to people like Imogen who are lucky enough to realise that it’s not really a race after all.
There’s so much more I could say about this wonderful book. I read the first page before supper one evening and abandoned all professional and family obligations until I finished it. The humour is witty and sharp. I gasped and laughed and my eyes boggled at some of the awful things she gets her characters to do. The detailed observations are excellent and the prose is better than many other novels of that time you might pick up, like Graham Greene. Something about it reminded me of A Handful of Dust, and Evelyn is not dissimilar to Evelyn Waugh, or some of his characters.
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