Bring back Elizabeth Jenkins
A few weeks ago I picked up The Tortoise and the Hare by Elizabeth Jenkins. Before the end of the first page, I happily abandoned all my professional and familial responsibilities and holed myself away until I had finished the book. It’s a corker, a stunner, a hats-off-please, why-haven’t-I-heard-of-this-before, classic. If you haven’t read it, put this blog to one side and fire up the kindle. Turn off your phone and tell your spouse, children, pets, and flatmates to fend for themselves for a few hours. It’s the sort of book that makes people’s eyes go wide when you mention it. Enjoy.
Once I finished it, I immediately went looking for more. All I found in print was Harriet. (Approach with caution. Harriet is a dark book. I’m not sure I can bring myself to re-read it.) So I have been receiving parcels from abebooks and the London Library, chewing my way through as much of Jenkins’ twenty-four books as I can.
It’s a fantastic haul. She was the first person to write biographies of Lady Caroline Lamb and Jane Austen. The book about Austen is exceptional: Jenkins’ lively sense of visual aesthetics brings Austen’s world to life. Her biography of Queen Elizabeth was highly praised by A.L. Rowse. (Jenkins was a long time correspondent of Rowse, one of the few he didn’t seem to dislike.) Her memoir is a charming book that starts in Edwardian England and ends in Blair’s Britain. For sure, some of the novels are uneven, but how in the blue heck has such a good writer been so overlooked.
Read Honey and this sense of surprise turns to wild disbelief trimmed with enthusiastic anger. Honey is every bit as good as The Tortoise and the Hare. It’s the sort of book that would get a walloper of an episode on Backlisted, or invite a gushing essay in Slightly Foxed, or have the Persephone/Virago book bloggers hammering out laudatory reviews. Published in 1968, it is every bit as good as mid-season Kingsley Amis, every bit as gripping as Revolutionary Road, every bit as well-written and put together as a Muriel Spark novel.
And yet, no-one is blogging or gushing about this book because it is out of print. (Prices start at £25 on Bookfinder.)
One possible reason this book gets overlooked is that it is old fashioned. 1968 may not have been the best time to publish a book about upper-middle-class people and a plot that involves an inheritance. I can see why the undiscerning might do to Jenkins what they did to Barbara Pym, and put her out to pasture in a field marked ‘Austen/Trollope etc.’ She’s not exactly Virginia Woolf. But this is cuckoo.
Honey is a story about a Marilyn Monroe type woman who wants to sleep with her step-son just because she can: she’s so used to being adored that she can’t stand the fact it won’t work on him. You can see that it’s not exactly a stuffy old novel about rich people. Now it’s blog policy here at The Common Reader not to provide plot summaries or spoilers, if for no other reason than that it’s boring. So I won’t say anymore.
Suffice it to say that this modern re-telling of the Phaedra myth wings along with plenty of pace and exploits the natural tension in that situation to the full. There’s also a debt to Sense & Sensibility, not least in the way Jenkins writes the father and stepmother characters, and in the hilarious descriptions of a middle-aged woman who enjoys ‘a good talk about her innards.’
Honey is up there for me with the best of Waugh and Amis and Pym &co.: high comedy, English social realism, irony as sharp as a pyracantha thorn, and a plot that makes you gasp. There are people in this book who ought to feel ashamed of themselves, who simply don’t. I recommend reading it with chocolates, or whatever snack you prefer to have close by when enjoying some scandal.
Now I know this might be asking a lot — although really, when was the last time I asked anything of you? — but we need to get this book back out there. Poor old Elizabeth Jenkins was one of the most impressive writers of her generation and she’s been left aside.
Go out and find this book. Hassle librarians. Haggle with the good burghers of ebay. Beg, borrow, and steal copies from godmothers you really ought to have been in touch with more often in the last few years. Take the day off work and sit in the British Library to read it after lockdown. Heck, pay the £25. Think of some of the shamelessly crap novels you frequently endure for £8.99. This is a bargain. If none of this works for you, get a copy of Dr Gully, another one of her novels that’s seriously overdue to be re-printed. (And you can get a copy for a fiver.)
Do this because you’ll get the joy of discovering a great book. But also because we need to spread the word. Elizabeth Jenkins is overlooked and underrated. It’s a disgrace that there is so much trash on the shelves of modern fiction sections while people like her are ignored. She wrote the sort of clever, funny books that people actually want to read. The sort of books you can pass on to people, or talk about with strangers on the bus. It’s time to bring her back.
My review of Revolutionary Road: ‘Take one part Scott Fitzgerald, add a measure of Cheever, a twist of Walter Mitty and a dash of the movies, et voila you have a novel about suburban misery that keeps you up reading into the night.’
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