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I quite agree - I thought it was exquisite too, and completely different from what I had expected. I found myself conflicted over the characters and the situation was really more complex than it originally appeared. As much as I sympathised with Imogen, I did also want to smack her out of her passivity.

The cover does leave much to be desired, doesn't it? While the images are very nice, they don't really bear any resemblance to the content whatsoever!

My review is here:

adele geras

I second both of the comments above. I can't remember when I've been so impressed with a writer I've not read before. The characters are with me still and I read this book weeks ago. The treatment of children in it is amazing. The relationships are all both difficult and truly understandable; the descriptions of landscapes, furniture, dresses etc don't overwhelm the emotions and the plot but give it a kind of roundness and completeness that you don't often see. Exquisite is the right word, but there's also toughness of a sort there, underneath...I just adored it and it made me feel sad that more of this writer's work isn't out there for us all to enjoy. Marvellous, marvellous book. With a totally unsuitable cover which not only is wrong for the book, as you say, Cornflower, but which also in its own right would not attract ANYONE, I don't think. This will mean: fewer copies are bought. This in turn will mean the money men will say: oh no one liked that book so we won't revive her others ....and on and on. Sad, as I say. But delighted to get to this book via the Group and will spread the word as widely as I can.

Susie Vereler

Thank you for suggesting this unusual novel, Cornflower.
I gather that the young Elizabeth Jenkins was in love with a married senior doctor whose wife then died. Instead of marrying her, his young mistress, he eventually chose another woman, a neighbour. Presumably EJ cast herself as the beauty and this book may be part of her attempt to understand why a man should prefer the likes of beastly Blanche, who is dumpy, fifty and plain, but who likes chappish sports and has lots of money. I disliked both Evelyn (all too recognisable alpha-male) and Blanche, and had a bit of a problem working out Blanche’s character because she didn’t mind lies, had horrible furniture (a great crime in Imogen’s eyes) and dogmatic narrow opinions, and yet she was described as charming in a gruff sort of way. Imogen was pathetic, inert and tiresome, but eventually I felt sorry for her when she collapsed in despair. Though Carmen Callil doubts if there are many Imogens left hanging on to their husband’s every word and wish, I still see them around today, at least in the older generation. As for Gavin, I wasn’t convinced that an 11-year-old would treat his mother in this way. It’s normally a charming age and little boys love their mothers regardless.
So yes, a beautifully written book but slow-moving with long, long paragraphs of description. EJ keeps the reader at a distance from the characters as perhaps was normal at the time. I enjoyed it as a period piece despite the feeling I wanted to slap almost everybody except Cecil and Mrs Malpas.

Dark Puss

Well I wasn't nearly as impressed with this as you were Cornflower! "Stiletto-sharp" - I'd have taken a stiletto to some of the long drawn out descritptive text, particularly in the first half of the book. The pace was glacially slow and I had to work quite hard to make progress. About midway the book improved and overall I am quite glad to have read it, but unlike Adele Geras I won't be petitioning for other works by this author to be revived. So why didn't this work for me? I think the book fails to convince me about the reasons for the marriage of Imogen and Evelyn. I can invent reasons, perhaps financial security, perhaps great sex, perhaps "true love"; I really have no idea and given the catastrophic nature of their relationship which is evident from the beginning a little more scene setting would have improved the story immensely. I think that the book is very well written in a technical sense, and I agree that it is a quite interesting description of the "wife as ornament" fate that sadly has not yet vanished from our society. I did find myself railing at the 50 = elderly concept (I wonder why ...) and like Susie V. I was not so convinced about Gavin or indeed about the ease with which Tim's parents let him move in.

Of course one hates Evelyn and Imogen seems to be suffering and insufferable in equal measure but I had a sneaking admiration for Blanche's single minded determination to achieve her goal.

I don't mind the cover and certainly it wouldn't put me off from picking up the book.

An interesting choice, less flawed technicaly than the Iris Murdoch we read recently but much less memorable too.

Susie Vereker

Pity I can't spell my own name. Too much hare-like behaviour this morning.
Thanks for letting me know, Dark Puss.

Mr Cornflower

From a technical aspect I did admire the quiet remorseless way in which the gradual collapse of the marriage is described and traced to believable character flaws in all three protagonists. Jenkins also does a good job of inverting a couple of cliches (middle aged man abandons pretty but rather insubstantial young woman for sensible, dumpy Hausfrau; theoretically feminist role model Blanche - highly capable, independent woman who knows what she wants and sets out to get it - has repellent retrograde political views). However while I'd give it more than DP's two stars I'd put it at borderline three/four; probably because I found the heroine was a bit too passive to be really sympathetic.


If the book has a weakness - for me, at any rate - it's that Imogen loses some of our sympathy because she is portrayed as being so weak. If she'd shown a bit of gumption it would have been an even stronger work. Mr. C. suggests she might have cut up Evelyn's gown or put itching powder in his wig, but any sign of not taking everything lying down would have been welcome!


I felt I was almost stepping down a gear when reading The Tortoise and the Hare. I was transported back to a time of elegant and less hurried living. This was portrayed by Elizabeth Jenkin's writing. I thought her portrayal of the minor characters almost better than the main characters eg at the very beginning of the book the reaction to the shopkeeper when Evelyn did'nt buy the cup. I did enjoy reading the book but wasn't absorbed by it. I(like one of the previous writers) kept changing sympathies. I also found the freedom that Tim was allowed a bit unbelievable. I wondered why the author gave the characters the names she did? Cecil, Evelyn, Zenobia.
I was glad the afterword had been written making me think that this is the kind of book where I imagine a sequel in my head.


I haven't joined in a discussion here before but was 'hooked' by the Cornflower 'bait' and bought the book. Actually, I rather like the illustration by Alice Tait who, despite being a rather young artist, has really caught something of the fifties to me.
I found this quite an infuriating read for modern minds but I couldn't put it down until I found out what happens in the end. And in the end Jenkins leaves you to make up your own mind about who will be happiest. I found the characters were either weak or repulsive and their class depicted as very distasteful. I felt that everything had a slightly exaggerated feel but nevertherless it seemed a raw and unnerving look at the relationships between men and women, beauty and servitude and adults and children. I found her descriptive prose about the countryside wonderful. However, unlike a lot of thinking about her writing, I was not convinced by her view of marriage as someone who never married herself and I wasn't surprised that Blanche should appear the stronger as the unmarried woman, neither was I surprised by the slightly unbelievable writing about children as she had never been a parent herself.
So I would say that I thoroughly enjoyed the book mainly because I wanted to kill almost all the characters, particularly Evelyn. And I will be more than happy to try another Cornflower read.


I haven't quite finished this book but I am enjoying it very much. I don't find the children unconvincing, I've met some as cruel and selfish as Gavin (for whom, at times, I feel sorry) and some as neglected by their parents as Tim. His freedom is unusual by today's standards, perhaps, but less so in the 50s. And I don't find myself loathing all the adults unconditionally, either - yes, Evelyn is infuriating and smug, but believable, and poor Imogen has been brought up to be so utterly incapable of behaving otherwise.
I like Jenkin's writing very much - don't find her pace too slow - and I do recommend her memoir A View From Downshire Hill to anyone who has enjoyed this novel.

Dark Puss

The novel was OK (but paled beside both of the other novels I read simultaneously) but as I live about 15 minutes walk from Downshire Hill I am certainly likely to be interested in her memoir. While I agree with your weblog comment on Goldfinger's deprecation of Georgian architecture I do love his building in Willow Road. Thank you for this information about Jenkins - I still diagree with you about the pace of the novel however!

Elizabeth Guster

Well, I have ambivalent feelings about this book - I did quite enjoy reading it, particularly some of the descriptive writing. But I think I enjoyed it most because the characters were so dreadful that it held me engaged longer than I had expected. What a terrible man Evelyn was; his son was already a replica of his father in his scorn for his mother; and the episode of pushing another boy off the roof and the way it was ultimately accepted was to me rather shocking. And I became more and more annoyed at Imogen. Yes, Evelyn had done a pretty good job on her, but she was just so hopeless and weak. Last, how could a young boy like Tim just move in with Imogen, it seemed to me that he was permanently settled with her!
Finally, I was wondering as I read who was the tortoise and who the hare and ended up thinking that the roles had been reversed;Imogen may have been the hare, but soon became the tortoise, and the opposite applies to Blanche; she moved in pretty quickly! A good book for a discussion.


As Elizabeth notes above, this truly has been a great book for discussion. Personally, I was fully immersed in the book and had a large compulsion to read it to the final conclusion and determinedly avoided reading the Forward or the Afterward until I had finished. You see, I wasn't even sure that Imogen was reading all the signs correctly - mainly as I couldn't quite believe a man would so openly have an affair with a another woman - a near neighbour no less. Consider me very naive in this area! Ultimately, I feel that one's opinion of and/or level of sympathy for Imogen will have a big impact on one's "feelings" for the novel. While I believed Imogen to be very passive I felt the reasons as to why were emminently believable for someone of her class and the times. I have written a full post on this book at my blog:

Thanks Cornflower for recommending such a great book.

Dark Puss

Samantha, I felt that the behaviour of Evelyn in having a more or less open affair on his own doorstep extremely plausible!

While I think that for some, perhaps many, readers your point about one's sympathy (or lack of it) for Imogen impacting significantly on the overall appreciation of the novel it wasn't the reason I felt so lukewarm about it. Thank you for the link to your extensive post on your own weblog.


The nature of the affair is interesting: it's not just that Evelyn is unfaithful it is how and with whom. Had he opted for a fairly discreet dalliance in town, some sort of 'cinq a sept' arrangement with a flighty piece, this would have been much easier for Imogen to ignore or bear. Taking up with an "unattractive" woman on the doorstep, a woman who then provides much more than a physical diversion, is hugely undermining for Imogen.
As to pace, I really did find it just right.


Am still puzzled as to the identities of the tortoise and the hare. I thought I knew as I read, but kept changing my mind and now, weeks later, still haven't decided.
Interestingly, I found a very old copy, a first edition, with the same strange cover. Alas, no foreword or afterwords.
Many lovely descriptive passages offset by the unlikable characters. Enjoyed this, and will seek out more of her books.

Dark Puss

I think you are quite right Cornflower. Indeed it surely isn't the sexual aspect of the affair that hurts, it is the domesticity and organisational skill that Blanche provides which realy usurps Imogen's remaining influence over Evelyn.


My favorite character of the whole lot may be Tim. Like Blanche, he figures out what he needs and how to get it. He's just inherently kind.


Although I did not feel much sympathy for any of the central characters, I found the book compelling and read through it quickly. For me, the strength of the book lay in the well-drawn secondary characters, such as Tim, Cecil and Paul. It was interesting that although Imogen and Evelyn were not particularly attractive, they had friends who were strong and steady.

To me, the Tortoise was Cecil, who hadn't married, but who seemed at long last well on her way to a relationship with someone who valued her for who she was. And the hare was Imogen, who married the handsome, commanding Evelyn, only to discover that his character was not quite what she had thought.


Loretta, that's really interesting, your tortoise and hare answer. I had only been considering Blanche and Imogen.
Now I'm thinking Tim also has tortoise qualities.

Desperate Reader

I found this book deeply disturbing. Like some others I wasn't convinced by Gavin, His coldness would have been more understandable in a slightly older child, but given how close their lives would have been during the war his hostility is never really explained, and I thought the Leeper family including Zenobia where both unlikely and badly drawn, especially when the central triangle of Blanch, Imogen and Evelyn was so convincing.

I had rather expected to be annoyed by Imogen but actually found her behaviour understandble, I wouldn't even describe her as particularly passive. As the situation unfolds I don't see how else she could act. Confrontation would drive her husband further away, giving him better excuses for his behaviour. I was slightly uncertain as to how I was meant to react to Blanche, but think on the whole that she had few redeeming features. Her attitude in trying to annex Cecil puts her well beyond the pail.

Evelyn was mostly beleivable as a man so used to getting his own way that he was capable of justifying the most outragous behaviour to himself. The way Blanche bolsters his impression of himself makes it clear why he falls in love with her, but I'm not sure that anyone could really have behaved so badly. What man in his right mind would suggest to his wife that she could have sent his mistree to their sons school?

I found it a flawed book, but the altogether conceivable undermining of a marriage and a woman's self esteem was so well done that I think it will stick with me for a long long time. A brilliant choice for discussion.

Barbara MacLeod

I was not familiar with this author and read the book to the end.

I confess that the writer interests more than the story. She certainly has a sharp eye when it comes to human behaviour! I nodded in agreement in the following scene at the very end of the book: Hunter pointed out that if Evelyn "should want any sort of a romantic friendship, the second Mrs. Gresham's views on the sacredness of marriage will be quite -.... awe-inspiring. On the sacredness of being married to her, that is."

When E.J. was 100 journalist Ruth Gorb talked to her. [Ref: ] E.J. stated "Doctors of the first rank... are always attractive. She is quiet for a moment then says she had some successes with men, was always going from one disastrous attachment to another, but it was a doctor who was the love of her life and it was their relationship that inspired her to write her novel, The Tortoise and the Hare.
“He was a surgeon and gynaecologist, Sir Eardley Holland. He was very distinguished, handsome, charismatic. I worked during the war in the Ministry of Information with one of his daughters, Chloe, and she engineered a meeting with him.
“He took rather a shine to me. He wasn’t faithful to his wife. I wondered why she didn’t value him more; so many women, including me, would happily have changed places with her. I offered him my heart on a plate. Yes, he made me unhappy, but it was worth it. My feeling for him lasted after his death. It is still going on now.”

adele geras

I think that all the comments are fascinating but I disagree with those who say Imogen is passive. Have you not met women who are like rabbits caught in the headlights when it comes to being bullied/ overridden by their spouses? I have. And horrible children like Gavin who imitates his father, that's all. Catches, as children do, the way his mother is being treated by his dad...and so on. I believed in every single one of them and didn't find it slow at all!

Susie Vereker

Yes, yes, I do believe in Imogen and her submissive behaviour, but I still have doubts about Gavin. Anyway, why is he off boarding school at 11 - normally he would have gone at 8.
It's interesting the book has had such an effect on us all.
There seems to be some discrepancy in the afterword about the timing of this book. If it appeared in 1954, then it may have been written or at least published when EJ was about 50, several years after her affair with the doctor. So maybe EJ is Blanche after all -'elderly' hidden hotstuff. And if Blanche was secretly sensual and openly rich, I wondered why she hadn't found a chap before.

Sorry, this isn't very elevated lit crit. I do think the author writes beautifully despite my reservations.

Dark Puss

I think openly sensual and secretly rich might be a more successful combination!

Delyn Williams

I've come to this discussion very late. I, somehow,lost my way!
However, I've enjoyed reading the comments which, to some extent, have made me think of things a little differently, which is why I enjoy exchanging views.
I enjoyed the book very much. EJ was a new author to me.Whilst believing in the relationship between Imogen and Evelyn, however unpleasant he was was a husband, I couldn't believe in the relationship that developed between Evelyn and Blanche.
Gavin, and his relationship with his mother, also troubled me a lot.
Despite these misgivings, I enjoyed the book a lot and couldn't wait to see how things would turn out.The descriptions were lovely and the characters , if not always likeable, were well drawn.Somehow, they have stayed with me and, unusually, I've remembered the book even if it's been weeks since I read it!

Aussie Girl

I read the book independently of Cornflower and discovered your site only today. I have enjoyed reading all the comments. I was enchanted by the writing and loved the depiction of 1950s middle class England but was troubled by one incident which has not been discussed previously. Perhaps I am over reacting but I was shocked by the "love-making" between Imogen and Hunter. A few chaste kisses but nevertheless an infidelity, and taking place with what sounds like regularity, prior to any real knowledge of Evelyn's own affair. Or am I being completely naive? Was this commonplace in 1950s marriages, particularly ones as loveless as Imogen and Evelyn's marriage?

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