The act of reading ... begins on a flat surface, counter or page, and then gets stirred and chopped and blended until what we make, in the end, is a dish, or story, all our own.
— Adam Gopnik
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September 8, 2010

Elizabeth Jenkins, 1905-2010

I've been reading the obituaries in UK newspapers of Elizabeth Jenkins, the novelist, biographer and founder of the Jane Austen Society. She was a new author to me this year. Two of her books, the novel The Tortoise and the Hare and her 1949 biography of Jane Austen, were among the best I've read this year.

It was so interesting to learn a little more about her. From Nicola Beauman (of Persephone Books)'s obituary in The Guardian:

The daughter of John Heald Jenkins, the headmaster of a boys' preparatory school in Hitchin, Hertfordshire, and his wife Theodora, Elizabeth read English and history at Newnham College, Cambridge. She then came to London and lived in a room in Doughty Street in Bloomsbury. She published her first novel when she was 23, going on to write two dozen books over the next 75 years. For 10 years she earned her living as a senior English teacher at King Alfred's school, Hampstead, and for six years she was in the wartime civil service, including two in that author's haven the Ministry of Information. Writing became her full-time career in 1945.

From the late 30s onwards, she lived in a pink-washed Regency house in Downshire Hill, Hampstead (The View from Downshire Hill was the title of her 2004 autobiography). There she eschewed modern comforts amid surroundings little different from those in Keats House across the road. As property prices started to rise to crazy levels during the 80s, Elizabeth, like many others, passed her days in a house worth a fortune without the means to run it. Yet she was uncomplaining and in many ways preferred the Victorian kitchen and one-bar electric fires.
There was a wonderful quote about this in The Telegraph:  “The only drawback,” she recounted, “was that people assumed I was comfortably off, instead of being very hard up.” 

On another note, I was a little sad to learn that The Tortoise and the Hare was at least partly autobiographical:

And there were a dozen novels, in particular The Tortoise and the Hare. This book, one of the outstanding novels of the postwar period, is about a gentle, submissive, gullible woman whose arrogant, worldly husband leaves her for someone strong and manipulative, but otherwise perfectly unprepossessing. This was the only one of Elizabeth's works that was in the least autobiographical: the wounded wife was Elizabeth herself (although in reality she never married), the husband (whose Christian name was Evelyn in the novel) was the well-known gynaecologist Sir Eardley Holland, and the dreadful Blanche was a devastating portrait of the "other woman", a member of a well-known brewing family, that had to be toned down before publication. (From The Guardian)
I remember thinking that the novel took some of its power from being written from the point of view of a deeply observant observer, instead of from a character's, and some of that strength has to have come from the author telling her own story.

“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. He made me unhappy, but it was worth it. My feeling for him lasted after his death. It is still going on now.”
From The Guardian:  'Her particular talent in fiction was to depict the victimisation of sympathetic, if frail, protagonists by people around them who are unremarkable except for their cruelty.' Is she Blanche or Imogen? As a novelist, she was probably both.

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1 comment:

Coffee and a Book Chick said...

How very sad -- I've got The Tortoise and the Hare on my wish list, so can't wait to pick it up, but am awfully sad to hear this.

Thank you for visiting!

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