It’s been insanely hot here in lovely Belgium. Some people enjoy hot weather and wear beads and turn beautifully brown; it brings out the worst in me. My brain stops functioning, I become foul-tempered and prickly heat breaks out along my fingers and elbows and knees. I know I should be writing about Book III of Little, Big, but at the moment I can find nothing interesting to focus upon. This is no criticism of the novel, but rather of myself, I’m feeling rather dried out generally at the moment and spend as much time as possible lying near electric fans (no nubile young slave boys for me, sadly) and grumbling.
This has carried over into my reading. I can’t really face anything new, so I’ve been rereading a great deal. The last novel I reread was Elizabeth Jenkins’ The Tortoise and the Hare, first published in 1954, which charts the disintegration of a marriage as observed by the woman. Imogen is wife to Evelyn, a brilliant, successful and hard-working barrister, and mother to Gavin, and entirely absorbed in these two rôles. She’s romantic in temperament, responsive to beauty, pretty, pleasant and attentive to her husband’s comfort. However, while this was what Evelyn sought when he first married her, success has changed him, and she has remained the same. It seems that they had more in common when they lived in London; the countryside exacerbates their differences.
She could not have said exactly when she had become aware of how often their neighbour Blanche Silcox’s name occurred in Evelyn’s conversation as that of a woman immensely knowledgeable on rural topics, whose opinions on the ethics of tied cottages, drainage and poultry-keeping for profit called for respectful agreement. To all such topics Imogen herself could only listen in silence. Evelyn was deeply moved by natural beauty [...] but he looked at the scene not only as a devotee but as an economist. He scolded Imogen for any admiration of natural beauty which disregarded usefulness and sense, for admiring dead trees that raised their arms spectre-like against dark woods, or poppies and cornflowers among wheat [...]
‘You talk like a townee!’ he would exclaim. ‘There’s no room for sentimentality in the country; it’s too big, too important, it’s the basis of life itself; that’s what you’ll never realize. I love it – I love it as much as you do, but I respect it much more than you. I don’t think of the countryside as a picture-book. I recognize it as something vital to our very existence.’
‘I do see that. I do really,’ she said earnestly. ‘But that squirrel seemed to ripple along. It was outlined in silver light.’
Evelyn’s dissatisfaction with his wife, who doesn’t participate in village life or the WVS, is increased in comparison with their neighbour Blanche. Blanche is the scion of a wealthy family but while she is practical, shrewd and an excellent businesswoman, she has been prevented from working in the family firm because she is a woman. Now fifty and unmarried, she has hitherto directed all her considerable energies into rural affairs; these energies she channels towards obtaining Evelyn.
Later in the scene I have quoted above, Evelyn and Imogen hear Blanche shooting something in the woods. Evelyn tells Imogen he hopes that it’s squirrels, the sort of brutal remark he makes to her more and more as the novel progresses. (This one perhaps takes the biscuit: when he finally acknowledges – albeit not in words, he is a lawyer after all! – that he is sleeping with Blanche, he complains to his wife, ‘You have never appreciated her. I think you never did her justice from the beginning.’) The shooting in the woods warns us that Blanche is engaged in a metaphorical war; she intends to ‘win’ Evelyn. Imogen, however, fatally discounts Blanche as a real threat because she is middle-aged and plain. Men are only attracted to young, beautiful women – aren’t they?
My Virago edition has a wonderful introduction by Helen McNeil, written in 1981. McNeil, citing Elaine Showalter’s categorisation of fiction written by women into feminine, feminist and female, calls this a mainly feminine novel. Feminine novels, Showalter wrote in A Literature of their Own, are the first ‘phase’ of women’s fiction: ‘[a] prolonged phase of imitation of the prevailing modes of the dominant tradition, and internalization of its standards of art and its views on social roles.’ The feminist novel, on the other hand, ‘is a phase of protest against these standards and values, and advocacy of minority rights and values, including a demand for autonomy.’ Now the impression I receive of Elizabeth Jenkins from this novel and from her non-fiction is that she was conservative in outlook, but I believe that even if she herself might be classed as a feminine writer, this book has somehow crept out from under her fingers, shaken itself and become something more feminist.
Stylistically the novel is realist, thus being imitative of the ‘prevailing mode’, but it is almost entirely from Imogen’s perspective. It is also structured so that the only other characters are those which reflect back an element of Imogen’s situation or a distortion of it. So there is Paul, enduring a loveless marriage to much younger, pretty woman – a variation on Evelyn’s and Imogen’s partnership. There is Mrs Pender, idle and self-absorbed, a possible future Imogen. And there is Tim Leeper; if Gavin is a young Evelyn then Tim is a young Imogen. In terms of plot and pace, there is no fat on the novel either and the momentum never slackens.
McNeil calls Imogen ‘submissive’ and it’s true that for most of the novel she appeases Evelyn, blames herself for the breakdown in their relationship and does absolutely nothing for the wider community. She doesn’t challenge anything at all. But it’s fairly clear that it hasn’t always been like this. Imogen used to ‘pity’ those who feared Evelyn’s anger; it’s only since she has lost his love that she has become craven. She is weak in that she cannot fight. However, ultimately she does deny Evelyn what he really wants – which is to have his cake and eat it, of course – rejects Paul’s counsel to ‘endure’, and chooses a path which will be uncomfortable for herself but also more honest.
Even if the central character is not feminist, that does not preclude a novel from being so. The unfairness and waste of Blanche’s exclusion from the family firm is made abundantly clear. Imogen’s dear friend Cecil, also unmarried, is similarly capable and clever. Lacking a fortune, she is forced to work but her talents are not put to their full use and she is generally condescended to. Married middle-class women fare little better: they are quite clearly useless, on the whole. Mrs Pender, Blanche’s sister, spends much of her time going on ‘rests’ although her children are all at boarding school and her house is run by servants. The vilified Mrs Leeper neglects her own house and children for ‘ballet work’ and other artistic endeavours. (Here Elizabeth Jenkins’s views on the duties of a wife are very clear! And she writes disgustedly that the Leepers have no nursery and children’s toys are scattered all over the sitting-room, good GOD what would she think of the gallimaufry household?)
Poor Imogen faces a dreary future at the end of the novel, well aware that her upbringing and background have left her unfit for any sort of paid employment. She has failed as a wife and failed as a mother, the only two roles available to her. Yet in separating herself from Evelyn, there has been a shift in her, she is having to become stronger. The novel finishes with her saying, ‘I must improve [...] There is a very great deal to be done’, and she’s not just talking about housework. The end of the novel is the beginning of something else, an opening out. The Tortoise and the Hare is not overtly feminist but in its scrupulous delineation of the constraints of middle-class women’s lives and of marriage (there are no happy marriages in this novel), its implication that there must be some other possibility, it is still subtly feminist. What do you think?
(Photograph of Elizabeth Jenkins in the 1920s from the Persephone Books website)