Saturday, 15 October 2011

The Tortoise and the Hare

The Tortoise and the Hare by Elizabeth…

I posted back in July about this year's set of gorgeous Virago Modern Classics - lovely hardbacks, bound in lovely printed fabrics. I read Molly Keane's 'Good Behaviour' during September, and have just finished Elizabeth Jenkins' 'The Tortoise and the Hare'.

The Tortoise and the Hare is a brilliant book. It's sharp and incisive about relationships and about the different expectations that men and women have of themselves and each other. And its full of plot, details, character, time and location - I'm sure it's a book I'll come back to again soon. 

The various characters each illustrate different approaches to their relationships - Imogen is a wealthy, attractive but aging woman who has based her confidence, pride and self-image on being attractive to men, her husband Evelyn is a successful and attractive barrister, older than his wife and with a complex set of expectations about her role. Blanche is the neighbour whose developing relationship with Evelyn disturbs and destroys the marriage - although to be fair, I find myself wondering about how good a partnership it could ever have been given Evelyn's patronising, disrespectful and often distant behaviour which limited Imogen's scope to think and act in her own right.

The book's architecture creates echos - Gavin (son of Imogen and Evelyn) follows his father's lead as the next generation treat some women with disdain while forming strong bonds with their peers; Imogen's relationship with a doctor friend (Paul Nugent) is based on their natural sympathies and excludes Paul's wife, paralleling the impact of Blanche's friendship with Evelyn; Zenobia is an extreme example of a beautiful and self-centred woman who expects to be adored for her looks.

Hilary Mantel's introduction explains her appreciation of the "close attention to the negotiations between men and women, and women and women" and recognises that although our way of life has changed enormously since the 1950s, many women will see aspects of themselves in both Blanche and Imogen. Carmen Callil's postscript argues the case for seeing Imogen as the tortoise - who will end up happy. For me, on my first reading, I saw Blanche as the tortoise with her slow but inevitably growing influence and relationship with Evelyn - but I'm hopeful that future readings might let me feel more optimistic for Imogen's future life.

I'd heartily recommend it as a good read. 

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