I spent a long time wondering which of two books I should read first. This memoir, or The Tortoise and The Hare, Elizabeth Jenkins’ only novel in print.
Meet the lady and then see what she wrote? Or enjoy the novel and then find out what went on behind the scenes?
In the end I went for the memoir first.
And I use the word memoir advisedly. This is not a full account of a life, but the memories that stayed with Elizabeth Jenkins (she wrote this book in her nineties) and that she chose to share. Nothing likely to upset others too much, and nothing about her romantic life. Yes, a gap, but because what there is is so good you don’t miss it. After all, would you tell a stranger the intimate details of your life?!
But Elizabeth Jenkins writes warmly about her family. She never married, but found stability in life through her two brothers and their families, to whom she was devoted, and the house on Downshire Hill that her father bought for her.
She was at educated at Cambridge, where she crossed paths with Edith Sitwell. Yes, this is a book that will take you into a different age and introduce you to some remarkable people!
None more remarkable than Leonard and Virginia Woolf. Elizabeth met them through her college’s principal, and from there a fascinating tale unfolds, as Virginia first picks her up and then drops her.
Many other notable writers of the twentieth century cross this book’s pages, and it is lovely to catch glimpses of Elizabeth Bowen, Rose Macaulay, Vera Brittain, and many others.
And there is much about her own books – both fiction and non fiction.
I hadn’t realised that many of her novels were based on criminal cases of the day. She recounts many of those stories, and they make interesting reading. And she writes of the Tortoise and the Hare being dismissed as a book about nothing important – and of her response that the collapse of a marriage was indeed important.
It was untypical of Elizabeth Jenkins’ work in that it was inspired by events in her own life. And maybe that is why The Tortoise and The Hare remains in print while her other fiction has faded from view?
And there’s more:
Intriguing details of the research that lay behind her books about Elizabeth I.
Great insight into the founding and development of the Jane Austen Society – Elizabeth Jenkins was a founder member.
And there tales of life beyond writing too – a little of her teaching career, before she achieved success with her writing and began to move in literary circles, and much of her work in the civil service during WW2.
It all adds up to an engaging memoir. The prose is both lovely and very readable, and its author is wry, witty and charmingly self aware.
I am so glad that I did decide to read the memoir first – and I hope to find out very soon if it gives me a better understanding of The Tortoise and The Hare.