Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Elizabeth Jenkins

Elizabeth Jenkins died a few days ago at the age of 104. She's a writer I've long admired. She was a distinguished biographer - Jane Austen, Elizabeth I - and a fine novelist. There are two works that I go back to regularly. One is her 1954 novel, THE TORTOISE AND THE HARE. The story is told mainly from the point of view of Imogen Gresham, who when the novel opens seems to live a charmed life with her high-powered barrister husband, Evelyn, and her son, Gavin, in a beautiful Regency house in Berkshire. We see her examining a piece of pottery in an antique shop, attracted its colour: her husband points out that it is chipped. 'It would come apart in no time.' And even in this first chapter, we begin to see what Imogen is scarcely aware of: the chip in her marriage as she fails to perceive the nature of growing friendship between Evelyn and their neighbour, Blance Silcox. Surely this stout, plain, dowdy spinster of fifty can pose no threat to Imogen, still in her thirties, elegant, lovely? I think this novel is almost perfect, though rereading it a year or two ago, I felt that there was a flaw in her treatment of a couple who arrive in the village bringing with them all kind of progressive fads to do with 'improving' village life, while at the same time their own children are neglected. Jenkins's viewpoint was instinctly conservative and these characters are so sharply satirized that it unbalances the novel. Still it is wonderfully readable and looking at it just now I was immediately sucked into it again.
The other book I love to re-read is YOUNG ENTHUSIASTS, first published in 1947, an unusual blend of fiction and memoir, which vividly evokes the atmosphere and the characters, both teachers and pupils, in a progressive school in the thirties. It manages to convey more than any book I know what teaching is like: exhausting, rewarding, unpredictable. It is full of perception and wisdom, and she writes like a dream. I wish now that I had written and told her how much pleasure her writing has given me.

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