I dithered a bit about writing on this because I know it’s a book that’s been widely discussed recently. On the other hand I’ve found myself thinking about it a lot since I finished it, not least because I felt it had some of the same disturbing qualities as Elizabeth Von Arnim’s ‘Vera’ which remains one of the most disquieting novels I have ever read. ‘The Tortoise and the Hare’ has been on my shelf for years in a semi read state, but the combined forces of Cornflower and Book Snob made finally made me pay it proper attention.
I found the breadth of opinion on this book taking me by surprise. It shouldn’t have. I must have acquired it in my early twenties, but it makes much more sense to me now. In brief this is an examination of the breakdown of a marriage explored from the point of view of an increasingly wronged wife. Imogen Gresham is fifteen years younger than her husband Evelyn. It’s explained that she was initially attracted to his personality, good looks, and passion for herself; he has demanded sympathy, usefulness and complete devotion.
After 12 years of marriage to a successful and above all forceful man, especially one so much older it’s hardly surprising that Imogen’s sense of self has become so wrapped up in pleasing her husband. It’s easy to read her behaviour as passive, but I don’t feel that it’s a fair assessment, or what Jenkins meant us to see. Evelyn Gresham is almost monstrous, entirely selfish and self absorbed in the importance of himself and his career. Having presumably chosen his bride for her ornamental and pliant qualities it seems hardly fair that he should later object to her lack of force, but this would be excusable if it wasn’t for the way he consistently undermines her.
Early on there is a reference which suggests married relations are not as satisfying for Imogen as they could be, something that Evelyn clearly resents far more then she. Later it becomes one of the most mortifying aspects of his defection – what could be more devastating to a wife’s self esteem then the realisation that her rival’s response is more flattering then her own.
Blanche Silcox at first seems such an unlikely rival, middle aged, physically unattractive, dogmatic in her opinions, solid in every way. It confuses me a little that she is constantly referred to as kind, thoughtful certainly, but as her consideration is mostly directed towards getting what she wants, kindness seems an odd description for it. Her attractions are based on her wealth, self assurance, and a lack of femininity; she is a jolly good sort. Imogen doesn’t blame her for annexing Evelyn, so neither will I; however questionable her behaviour it pales into insignificance compared to his. The insistence that wife and mistress should exist on terms of friendship, the amount of access Blanche is given to Imogen’s son and household affairs is outrageous, and yet so blatantly done it is hard for her to protest.
This is where the similarity with ‘Vera’ is most apparent. Evelyn refuses to acknowledge any fault in his actions, as the weaker personality Imogen is forced to conclude the fault lies with her, but because it doesn’t she can’t possibly fix the problem. I think towards the end there are hints that Blanche and Evelyn’s relationship will prove disappointing to both parties. Imogen’s almost unconscious revenge is to leave them with joint responsibility for sorting out her future; Evelyn has already started to impose his will on Blanche, who will clearly turn out to be his match. I think it unlikely they will be happy.